Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Findings

coronary-arteries

(Photo: CLIPAREA l Custom media/Shutterstock)

For Couples, Mutual Ambivalence Increases Cardiovascular Risk

• February 06, 2014 • 4:00 AM

(Photo: CLIPAREA l Custom media/Shutterstock)

New research finds plaque build-up in the coronary arteries of older couples who expressed mixed feelings about one another.

Toxic relationships have long been linked to poorer health. But newly published research suggests that, to increase your chances of developing cardiovascular problems, you and your spouse don’t have to despise one another.

Mutual ambivalence will do the trick.

That’s the disturbing finding of a team of University of Utah researchers led by health psychologist Bert Uchino. Figuring that totally negative relationships are rare (at home, if not at the workplace), they decided to look at whether having mixed feelings about one’s partner presents a health risk.

“Simply being in the same room as the spouse viewed as ambivalent may heighten physiological arousal, which may be detrimental in the long term.”

Their results, published in the journal Psychological Science, suggest the answer is yes—if your partner has similarly conflicted feelings about you.

Uchino and his colleagues looked at 136 older couples (people in their 60s who had been married more than 30 years). All underwent scans to measure coronary artery calcification—the amount of plaque build-up in those vital blood vessels. This measurement is “a robust predictor of cardiovascular risk,” the researchers note.

In addition, all participants completed the Social Relationships Index, in which they rated “how helpful, and how upsetting, they perceived their spouse to be during times when they needed support, such as advice, understanding, or a favor.”

They rated their spouse’s supportiveness in various circumstances using a six-point scale, from “not at all” to “extremely.” The 30 percent of spouses who received an average score of two points or higher on support and only one point on “upsettingness” were classified as positive; the rest were rated ambivalent.

After crunching the numbers, the researchers found the largest amount of calcification “when both partners in the relationship viewed each other as ambivalent.”

“Even when we statistically controlled for traditional behavioral risk factors,” they write, “coronary artery calcification scores were highest if both individuals within a marriage viewed each other as relatively high in both helpfulness and upsettingness” during times when they turned to the other for support.

While it’s hard to draw any definitive conclusions as to the reasons for this correlation, criticism exchanged by ambivalent couples could easily exacerbate already-stressful situations, effectively negating the positive effect of any supportive statements.

Another possibility: People who suspect their spouse won’t be of much help don’t even bother to turn to them in times of trouble, thereby depriving themselves of an important source of emotional support.

“Simply being in the same room as the spouse viewed as ambivalent may heighten physiological arousal, which may be detrimental in the long term,” the researchers write.

The results need to be replicated, and the researchers caution that the participants represented a specific population (largely white, middle- to upper-middle class, heterosexual). But they are a reminder that our emotional lives impact our physical health, and there are few things more valuable than a mutually supportive marriage.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 30 • 6:00 AM

The Medium Is the Message, 50 Years Later

Five decades on, what can Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media tell us about today?


September 30 • 4:00 AM

Grad School’s Mental Health Problem

Navigating the emotional stress of doctoral programs in a down market.


September 29 • 1:21 PM

Conference Call: Free Will Conference


September 29 • 12:00 PM

How Copyright Law Protects Art From Criticism

A case for allowing the copyright on Gone With the Wind to expire.


September 29 • 10:00 AM

Should We Be Told Who Funds Political Attack Ads?

On the value of campaign finance disclosure.


September 29 • 8:00 AM

Searching for a Man Named Penis

A quest to track down a real Penis proves difficult.


September 29 • 6:00 AM

Why Do So Many People Watch HGTV?

The same reason so many people watch NCIS or Law and Order: It’s all a procedural.


September 29 • 4:00 AM

The Link Between Depression and Terrorism

A new study from the United Kingdom finds a connection between depression and radicalization.


September 26 • 4:00 PM

Fast Track to a Spill?

Oil pipeline projects across America are speeding forward without environmental review.


September 26 • 2:00 PM

Why Liberals Love the Disease Theory of Addiction, by a Liberal Who Hates It

The disease model is convenient to liberals because it spares them having to say negative things about poor communities. But this conception of addiction harms the very people we wish to help.


September 26 • 1:21 PM

Race, Trust, and Split-Second Judgments


September 26 • 9:47 AM

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what’s new and different more attractive.


September 26 • 8:00 AM

A Letter Becomes a Book Becomes a Play

Sarah Ruhl’s Dear Elizabeth: A Play in Letters From Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and Back Again takes 900 pages of correspondence between the two poets and turns them into an on-stage performance.


September 26 • 7:00 AM

Sonic Hedgehog, DICER, and the Problem With Naming Genes

Wait, why is there a Pokemon gene?


September 26 • 6:00 AM

Sounds Like the Blues

At a music-licensing firm, any situation can become nostalgic, romantic, or adventurous, given the right background sounds.


September 26 • 5:00 AM

The Dark Side of Empathy

New research finds the much-lauded feeling of identification with another person’s emotions can lead to unwarranted aggressive behavior.



September 25 • 4:00 PM

Forging a New Path: Working to Build the Perfect Wildlife Corridor

When it comes to designing wildlife corridors, our most brilliant analytical minds are still no match for Mother Nature. But we’re getting there.


September 25 • 2:00 PM

Fashion as a Inescapable Institution

Like it or not, fashion is an institution because we can no longer feasibly make our own clothes.


September 25 • 12:00 PM

The Fake Birth Mothers Who Bilk Couples Out of Their Cash by Promising Future Babies

Another group that’s especially vulnerable to scams and fraud is that made up of those who are desperate to adopt a child.


September 25 • 10:03 AM

The Way We QuickType


September 25 • 10:00 AM

There’s a Name for Why You Feel Obligated to Upgrade All of Your Furniture to Match

And it’s called the Diderot effect.


September 25 • 9:19 AM

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.


September 25 • 9:05 AM

Sponsors: Coming to a Sports Jersey Near You

And really, it’s not that big of a deal.


September 25 • 8:00 AM

The Most Pointless Ferry in Maryland

Most of the some 200 ferries that operate in the United States serve a specific, essential purpose—but not the one that runs across the Tred Avon River.


Follow us


Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what's new and different more attractive.

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.

How a Second Language Trains Your Brain for Math

Second languages strengthen the brain's executive control circuits, with benefits beyond words.

Would You Rather Go Blind or Lose Your Mind?

Americans consistently fear blindness, but how they compare it to other ailments varies across racial lines.

On the Hunt for Fake Facebook Likes

A new study finds ways to uncover Facebook Like farms.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.