The Athlete's Way

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Supportive Spouses Can Reduce the Risk of Heart Disease

Ambivalence in a relationship may increase risk of cardiovascular disease.

A new study from the University of Utah found a correlation between heart disease risk and the level of social support each spouse feels in a marriage. The study revealed that when both partners consistently support one another that it can improve cardiovascular health and reduce the risk of either partner developing heart disease, regardless of gender.

Surprisingly, the researchers discovered that when both partners perceive the support they get from their partner as ambivalent—or fluctuating from sometimes being ‘helpful’ and sometimes ‘upsetting'—that each partner’s levels of coronary-artery calcification (CAC) tended to be elevated.

The findings of this study titled, "Spousal Relationship Quality and Cardiovascular Risk: Dyadic Perceptions of Relationship Ambivalence Are Associated With Coronary-Artery Calcification" were published February 6, 2014 in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

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Heart Disease Is the Leading Cause of Death in the U.S.

In previous studies, cardiologists and mental health professionals have established a clear link between depression, stress, and heart disease. Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of the death domestically and around the globe. Heart disease accounts for one in every four deaths in the United States every year.

“There is a large body of epidemiological research suggesting that our relationships are predictors of mortality rates, especially from cardiovascular disease,” explains Bert Uchino, psychological scientist of the University of Utah. “But most prior work has ignored the fact that many relationships are characterized by both positive and negative aspects—in other words, ambivalence.”

Uchino and his colleagues—Timothy Smith and Cynthia Berg—were interested in exploring how the nuances of ambivalence in relationships might predict cardiovascular health.

For this study they asked 136 older couples to fill out questionnaires measuring their overall marriage quality, as well as their perceived level of support from their spouse. Specifically, they indicated how helpful or how upsetting their spouse was during times when they needed support, advice, or a favor.

Using a CT scanner to check for overall calcification in the participants’ coronary arteries, the researchers found that CAC levels were highest when both partners in the relationship viewed the other as ambivalent. When only one partner felt this way, the risk was significantly less. The effect was independent of gender and statistically comparable between both husbands and wives.

70% of Spouses View Partners’ Support as “Ambivalent”

If you are married, how would you rate your marriage quality and perceived support you get from your spouse? The researchers found that only about 30% of individuals viewed their partner as consistently offering positive support. The other 70% viewed their partner as ambivalent and inconsistent—fluctuating between being helpful sometimes and upsetting sometimes.

Given that the participants were married for an average of 36 years, the researchers expected that overall marital satisfaction would have a significant impact on this cardiovascular risk factor. But, this is not what they discovered... In a surprising twist, the researchers found that being consistently supportive had the most positive impact on cardiovascular health, independent of how spouses rated overall marital quality.

It’s not exactly clear why this is the case, but the researchers hypothesize that when both partners perceive the other as a source of ambivalence, it changes their behavior toward one another across the board.

Conclusion: Ambivalence In a Relationship Increases Risk for Heart Disease

Everyone wants to feel the security of a wholehearted connection and consistent support from your partner. If you are in a marriage—or with a partner—who doesn’t give you the support you deserve, this study offers scientific proof that might serve as a catalyst to be proactive about taking steps to improve your relationship, or to move on.

Bert Uchino concludes, “The findings suggest that couples who have more ambivalent views of each other actively interact or process relationship information in ways that increase their stress or undermine the supportive potential in the relationship. This, in turn, may influence their cardiovascular disease risk.”

Uchino and colleagues can’t be completely certain that mutual ambivalence causes higher levels of CAC, since the study didn’t follow participants over time. However, the results do provide the initial evidence necessary for longitudinal studies on relationship support and cardiovascular health.

In the future, the researchers plan to investigate the actual biological, social, and behavioral pathways linking relationship ambivalence and cardiovascular health risk. This study reaffirms the importance of fortifying your social support network and reducing ambivalence with intimate partners as a fundamental component for psychological and physical well-being throughout your lifespan.

If you’d like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts:

Follow me on Twitter @ckbergland for updates on The Athlete's Way blog posts.

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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