Matters Of The Variable Heart: Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia Response To Marital Interaction And Associations With Marital Quality

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Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology




Maintenance of relationship quality requires self-regulation of emotion and social behavior, and women often display greater effort in this regard than do men. Furthermore, such efforts can deplete the limited capacity for self-regulation. In recent models of self-regulation, resting level of respiratory sinus arrhythmia, quantified as high-frequency heart rate variability (HF-HRV), is an indicator of self-regulatory capacity, whereas transient increases in HF-HRV reflect self-regulatory effort. To test these hypotheses in marriage, 114 young couples completed measures of marital quality and a positive, neutral, or negative initial marital task, preceded and followed by resting baseline assessments of HF-HRV. Couples then discussed a current marital disagreement. Resting HF-HRV was correlated with marital quality, suggesting that capacity for self-regulation is associated with adaptive functioning in close relationships. For women but not men, the negative initial task produced a decrease in resting HF-HRV. This effect was mediated by the husbands' negative affect response to the task and their ratings of wives as controlling and directive. When the subsequent disagreement discussion followed the negative initial task, women displayed increased HF-HRV during the discussion but a decrease when it followed the neutral or positive task. The valence of the initial task had no effect on men's HF-HRV during disagreement. Negative marital interactions can reduce women's resting HF-HRV, with potentially adverse health consequences. Women's reduced health benefit from marriage might reflect the depleting effects on self-regulatory capacity of their greater efforts to manage relationship quality.