NOV 19, 2021 9:00 AM PST

Could Your Heart Rate Indicate the Health of Your Relationship?

WRITTEN BY: Annie Lennon

When old couples are close to each other, their heart rates synchronize in complex patterns of interaction. The corresponding study was published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships by researchers led by the University of Illinois. 

Self-reported answers for questions such as ‘how is your relationship going’ are limited in what they can tell- especially for couples who have been together for significant periods. That in mind, researchers wanted to find an objective measure for relationship satisfaction. 

In a novel study, the researchers investigated whether coregulation of couples’ heart rates when together- that is, if their heart rates move in a synchronous pattern- could provide meaningful information on the quality of their relationships. 

For their experiment, they included 10 hetrosexual married couples aged 64 to 88 how had been with their partners for 14 to 65 years. Couples wore a Fitbit for two weeks as well as a small proximity-sensing device, allowing researchers to track their heart rates and their proximity to each other when at home. 

The researchers also called each participant in the morning to remind them to attach their Fitbit and tracking device, and in the evening to ask about their health and wellbeing alongside their relationship dynamics that day. 

The researchers found that partners tended to trigger different heart rates in each other- sometimes, the wife started this trigger, and sometimes the husband. They said, however, that, although they could track heart rate differences, no clear patterns emerged. 

“We found each day is a unique context that changes depending on circumstances,” said Brian Ogolsky, lead author of the study, “Couple interactions, their attitudes, behaviors, whether they’re close to each other or far away, change all the time. Even across 14 days, couples are not consistent enough in these kinds of objective patterns to allow us to make any couple-level conclusions. We can make only make day-level predictions.”

“If we really want to understand the unique patterns of interaction that happen within couples, we need to start focusing our attention on micro processes; the small interaction patterns that accumulate over a day. Those tell us about the nature of how couples’ interactions play out from moment to moment,” he added. 

 

Sources: Neuroscience NewsJournal of Social and Personal Relationships

About the Author
  • Annie Lennon is a writer whose work also appears in Medical News Today, Psych Central, Psychology Today, and other outlets. When she's not writing, she is COO of Xeurix, an HR startup that assesses jobfit from gamified workplace simulations.
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