Arguing about taking out the garbage, washing the dishes, or putting down the toilet seat could seem like pity fights for couples, but they can play a significant role when it comes to your heart health. According to a recent study published in the journal Psychological Science, couples who perceive each other as ambivalent — both sometimes helpful and sometimes upsetting — may be at risk for heart disease, particularly high coronary artery calcification (CAC) levels.

Two people who may come from different backgrounds, childhoods, values, beliefs, experiences, and genders are bound to have a difference of opinion. Therefore, arguments, or different viewpoints, in a relationship or marriage on an occasional basis is expected. However, it is when these conflicts become more frequent and a partner feels like he or she must work harder to be understood, that the situation becomes distressing.

These feelings of anger and or stress can lead to a series of health problems such as high blood pressure, or hypertension. Individuals with higher stress hormones may trigger the tightening of the small arteries — arterioles, which regulate the blood flow through the body — and cause the heart to work harder to pump blood through the small space, says the Texas Heart Institute. This causes the pressure inside the vessels to grow.

This is why when people choose partners, they look for someone who will nurture and nourish them through thick and thin, hence forming a healthy relationship. When partners have different opinions or viewpoints, this can be expressed in a kind and supportive manner. However, “if it is presented in a critical, judgmental or putdown way, it is counter-productive and over time may cause cracks in the foundation of the marriage as well as potential health problems,” wrote Dr. Fran Walfish, Beverly Hills psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent, in an email to Medical Daily.

While there is a substantial of scientific research that has linked the quality of spousal relationships to physical-health outcomes, there is limited data on the complexity of relationships and how they predict heart health. A team of researchers at the University of Utah recruited a sample of 136 older couples — with an average age of 63, married for an average of 36 years — for the study. They to examine whether positive support or ambivalence predicted measures of CAC in these married couples.

Typically, the presence of calcium in coronary arteries is indicative of atherosclerotic plaque. It is the result of calcium deposition in the coronary arteries that can lead to the development of coronary artery disease. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, calcium deposits harden the blood vessels, which become narrower overtime, and therefore, limit the amount of blood going to the heart. Severe calcification can deprive the heart of oxygen and can possibly lead to a life-threatening event.

To assess the participants CAC levels, the researchers used a CT scanner to check for the overall calcification in coronary arteries. The couples also filled out questionnaires measuring their overall marriage quality, as well as their perceived support from their spouse. Specifically, the participants were asked to indicate how helpful or how upset their spouse was during times when they needed support, advice, or a favor.

The findings revealed 30 percent of the participants viewed their partners as delivering positive support, while 70 percent viewed their partner as ambivalent. When both partners perceived the support they get from one another as sometimes helpful and sometimes upsetting, each partner’s CAC levels were particularly high. When only one partner felt this way, the risk was significantly less.

“The findings suggest that couples who have more ambivalent views of each other actively interact or process relationship information in ways that increase their stress or undermine the supportive potential in the relationship,” said Bert Uchino, psychological scientist of the University of Utah, in the press release. “This, in turn, may influence their cardiovascular disease risk.”

Initially, the researchers presumed overall marital satisfaction would have a significant impact on CAC, but this wasn’t the case. They hypothesize when both partners see each other as a source of ambivalence, it changes their behavior toward one another. On the other hand, Walfish believes, this can be due to the fact that people are interdependent beings since birth. “When a trusted beloved partner is ambivalent (sometimes helpful and sometimes upsetting) it evokes not only a feeling of aloneness in the person but also combativeness. The upset individual must then self-advocate for emotional comfort and nourishment that should be automatic,” she told Medical Daily. This can be a highly stressful experience for the partner being verbally attacked.

The researchers cannot be certain that mutual ambivalence causes higher CAC levels since the study didn’t follow participants over time, but they believe there is a link nonetheless. These results do provide evidence necessary to warrant further studies on relationship support and heart health. Providing social support for a partner can create feelings of "you and me against the world" and be a anti-medicine approach to ensuring good health.

Source: Berg CA, Smith TW, Uchino BN. Spousal Relationship Quality and Cardiovascular Risk: Dyadic Perceptions of Relationship Ambivalence Are Associated With Coronary-Artery Calcification. Psychological Science. 2014.