How you support your spouse (or don’t) can not only affect the quality of your marriage but can have long-term effects on both your and your spouse’s heart health — your physical heart, that is.
“Marriage is the most important relationship we'll ever have in our life,” says Wendy Birmingham, associate chair and professor of psychology at BYU. “So, we need to do what we can to make this the best relationship possible.”
Birmingham studies health psychology and in her most recent research about marriage and health, she discovered an important correlation between the health of marriage relationships and cardiovascular risk factors. The study is in the process of being published.
In her study, Birmingham surveyed over 90 couples to determine the quality of their relationship with their spouse. The relationships were measured as either supportive (highly positive), or ambivalent (a mix of both high positivity and high negativity concurrently).
With the use of ambulatory blood pressure monitors, Birmingham’s team took blood pressure readings every 30 minutes across an individual’s day and continued into the night while the individuals were asleep. A healthy cardiovascular profile includes a 10-15% blood pressure drop during sleep. This nocturnal dipping is a better predictor of cardiovascular disease risk than either day or night time readings alone.
Birmingham found that couples who reported being in ambivalent relationships had less of a nocturnal dip in blood pressure compared to those in more supportive relationships and therefore were at a higher risk for cardiovascular disease. Those in ambivalent relationships also had a higher baseline blood pressure on average.
Speaking of couples with ambivalent marriages, Birmingham says, “You’re always sitting in this heightened state of reactivity because you aren’t sure what type of support or lack of support you’ll get. Contrary to highly negative relationships, you don’t always know what’s coming.”
To improve heart health by being a more supportive spouse, Birmingham shares three tips.
1. Offer regular and intentional support.
Birmingham shares that couples should regularly be offering support to their spouse, especially when their spouse is having a rough day. There are four types of social support that we can offer: informational, emotional, belonging, and tangible support. When a spouse is having a lousy day, Birmingham suggests offering support by being an attentive listener, giving hugs, taking care of the kids, cooking dinner, or letting them take a relaxing break.
2. Pay attention to your daily interactions.
Being aware of our daily behavior and interactions is crucial in recognizing how to improve. Birmingham encourages couples to focus on being actively kinder and less critical. “If you find yourself in a relationship that you see as ambivalent,” says Birmingham, “Change your own behavior. As you change your own behavior, hopefully, that can help your spouse to change their own. But it's about seeing it and then being able to take some kind of action to change it.”
3. Share happy, proud, and exciting moments with each other.
One of the joys of marriage is being able to share the big and small moments together. In times when your spouse is happy, proud, or excited, Birmingham encourages individuals to share those moments. “Allow your spouse to feel the happiness and excitement that they should be allowed to feel without criticism.”
Birmingham believes that our responsibility is always for our own behavior because we have our own agency, as does our spouse. But as we use that agency to try to become a more supportive spouse, we’ll see improvement in many different areas — including in our own emotional and physical hearts and in our spouse’s heart as well.
Interested in being a research assistant? Learn more about Birmingham's Health and Behavior Lab.
Wendy Birmingham is the associate chair of the BYU Psychology Department and has taught at BYU for nine years. Prior to attending BYU, she completed her postdoctoral degree in cancer control from Huntsman Cancer Institute (2013), and a PhD in social psychology and health psychology from the University of Utah (2011). Her program of research is guided by previous research indicating that the quality and quantity of one’s social relationships are linked to lower morbidity and mortality, as well as protection against the adverse effect of stress. Her research focuses on two pathways linking the relationship between quality and quantity to health outcomes: physiological pathways and behavioral pathways. She and her husband are the parents of four children and have seven grandchildren. In her free time, she enjoys quilting and reading.