NEW YORK (Reuters Health)
— Ambivalent hearts may be
at higher risk for heart disease, according to a new study of
married couples with mixed feelings for one another.
"The most intriguing finding was that within a
couple, only if both of them felt ambivalent towards their partner
did you see this elevated (heart disease) risk," said Bert Uchino, a
psychologist at the University of Utah and lead author of the study.
The health of both spouses "is interdependent — it isn't what one
says or does; it's what both do within the relationship that
matters" when it comes to heart health, Uchino told Reuters Health.
Past research has looked at the health effects of either positive or
negative feelings within couples, Uchino and his colleagues write in
the journal Psychological Science, but the reality of most
relationships is more often mixed.
To see what effect those feelings might have on the heart itself
over time, the scientists recruited 136 long-married couples. Their
average age was 63 and average marriage length was 36 years.
The participants answered questionnaires to gauge their feelings
about their spouse. Each person had to rate, for example, how
helpful or upsetting their spouse was during times when they needed
support, advice or a favor. And the researchers translated the
answers into "positivity" and "negativity" scores.
Based on those categories, 30 percent of individuals were primarily
viewed by their spouses as "positive" and 70 percent were primarily
viewed with an even mix of positive and negative feelings, which the
researchers termed ambivalent.
The scientists also measured participants' heart disease risk by
using imaging to estimate the extent of the buildup of calcium in
the walls of the arteries of the heart.
Cholesterol and blood sugar levels were also measured and lifestyle
factors like exercise and smoking were taken into account to further
evaluate heart risk.
The study team found that among couples where both spouses felt
ambivalent toward the other, there was significantly more calcium
buildup in the arteries. And only in those couples was the increased
heart risk detected.
The other lifestyle and health measures did not explain the
differences seen in the arteries, the researchers point out. So, for
example, although one partner's health habits — such as exercising
regularly — can influence the other for good or ill, these factors
did not account for the difference in heart disease risk seen in the
Feeling both positively and negatively toward a spouse may affect
heart disease risk in large part as a result of the level of support
that spouses offer based on relationship quality, the researchers
And the effects likely hold true in any close relationship — not
just among married people or romantic partners.
"In a close relationship, such as a marriage, you spend lots of
time with that person, interacting with them and making assumptions
about them," Uchino said.
In an ambivalent relationship, he said, "you are less likely to
approach that person to get support. And if your partner feels
ambivalent towards you, they are less likely to ask for help."
It's not just receiving assistance that's good for mental health:
Offering others emotional support has also been shown to offer
psychological benefits. But when one tries to support a spouse one
isn't even sure one likes, the gesture may not be as beneficial for
In an ambivalent relationship, "couples don't benefit from support
because they don't seek it as often, and when they do, they get poor
support, which exacerbates the stress of whatever they are going
through," said Uchino.