A new study carried out by researchers from the University of Illinois looked at how partners in a relationship react to close proximity with each other. The scientists found that when older couples in particular are close to each other, a complex series of interactions occur to synchronize their heartbeats.
Study lead author Dr. Brian Ogolsky is an expert in the U of I Department of Human Development and Family Studies.
“Relationship researchers typically ask people how they’re doing and assume they can recall properly and give meaningful answers,” said Dr. Ogolsky.
“But as couples age and have been together for a long time, they laugh when we ask them how satisfied or how committed they are. When they have been married for 30 or 40 years, they feel that indicates commitment in itself,”
In an effort to collect more objective data on the nature of relationships, Dr. Ogolsky and colleagues used Fitbits to monitor heart rates as well as proximity monitors. Sensors were installed in the couples’ houses to monitor proximity and heart rate in real time.
“We were looking for more objective ways to measure relationship dynamics, and we know that being around other people has psychological benefits. So, physical proximity seemed like a strong candidate,” explained Dr. Ogolsky.
“We’re not focusing on cause and effect, but on co-regulation, which happens when heart rates move in a synchronous pattern. That is, when the partners are close, their heart rate patterns indicate an interaction that is collectively meaningful in some way.”
The study was carried out with ten participating heterosexual couples aged 64 to 88 who had been together from 14 to 65 years. The researchers called the participants every morning to remind them to wear their Fitbits and tracking device and again at night for a survey on their well-being and relationship.
The scientists found that sometimes the wife’s heartbeat would lead the synchronization and sometimes the husbands would, in an intricate dance of relationship physiology dynamics. Interestingly, the dynamics in each couple changed on a regular basis, making predictions about a couple impossible beyond predictions for a particular day.
The study is published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.