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Psychologist’s research probes heart matters

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Posted February 13, 2017

Since the 1980s, Harry Reis, who holds the title of Dean’s Professor in the Department of Psychology, has been investigating relationships as one of the foremost researchers in the field of relationship science. He has plenty of insight when it comes to matters of the heart—both figuratively and literally.

Marriage is good for the heart

A bad relationship can cause heartache—but a good one can literally help your heart keep ticking.

A 2011 study by Reis and Kathleen King, a professor emerita at the School of Nursing, showed that happily married people who underwent coronary bypass surgery were more than three times as likely to be alive 15 years later as unmarried counterparts.

The effect of marital satisfaction is “every bit as important to survival after bypass surgery as more traditional risk factors like tobacco use, obesity, and high blood pressure,” says Reis. The research was published in the journal Health Psychology.

“A good marriage gets under your skin whether you are male or female,” he says.

But the marriage advantage plays out differently for men and women. For men, marriage in general is linked to higher survival rates—and the more satisfying the marriage, the higher the rate of survival.

But for women, the quality of the relationship is even more important. While unhappy marriages don’t add to longevity for the women who’ve had bypass surgery, happy ones increase women’s survival rate almost fourfold, the study found.

“Wives need to feel satisfied in their relationships to reap a health dividend,” says Reis. “But the payoff for marital bliss is even greater for women than for men.”

What’s behind the benefit? The study adjusted for age, sex, education, depressed mood, tobacco use, and other factors known to affect survival rates for cardiovascular disease.

Supportive spouses most likely help by encouraging healthy behavior, like increased exercise or smoking cessation, which are critical to long-term survival of heart disease. And a nurturing marriage also provides people with motivation to care for themselves and stay around to prolong a happy partnership, the researchers say.

Understanding and appreciation rekindle desire

When a relationship has passed a few anniversaries and the spark seems to be flickering, responsiveness could be a pivotal factor in renewing desire, says Reis.

A study he published with Gurit Birnbaum, a psychology professor at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya in Israel, in a 2016 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that responsiveness in even mundane interactions may reignite sexual desire.

The research began as an inquiry into what psychologists call the “intimacy-desire paradox”: while people strive for intimacy in their relationships, such familiarity doesn’t seem to foster desire.

“Adjusting to married life is a challenge, and many newlyweds don’t do it particularly well,” says Reis. “Here you’ve been dating, and that’s all exciting—but now you’ve got dirty socks to contend with.” As the years tick by, those piles of dirty socks don’t exactly add to the mystery.

Previous studies hadn’t established whether emotional intimacy promotes or undermines sexual desire. Now Reis and Birnbaum’s research suggests that, at least in certain circumstances, there may not be a paradox at all.

What they found is that intimacy itself doesn’t fuel or hamper desire—instead, it’s what the intimacy signals that matters.

Responsive couples are willing to invest in their relationships, and show a deep understanding of a partner. Responsiveness is actually a kind of intimacy—and likely it encourages desire because it conveys the impression that a partner is worth pursuing.

And they found that women’s perceptions of themselves and others was even more strongly affected by responsiveness than men’s—an effect that translated into higher levels of desire for the responsive partner.

Source: University of Rochester

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