Intimate Relationships, Individual Adjustment, and Coronary Heart Disease: Implications of Overlapping Associations in Psychosocial Risk

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Being married or involved in a similar intimate relationship is associated with reduced risk of coronary heart disease (CHD). However, the quality of these relationships matters, as strain and disruption are associated with increased risk. These effects are typically studied separately from well-established psychosocial factors for CHD that are aspects of personality and emotional adjustment, even though discord and disruption in intimate relationships are related to these same individual characteristics. Thus, research to date tends to parse correlated risks, often taking a piecemeal approach by focusing on intimate relationships without considering aspects of personality and emotional adjustment that contribute to risk and protection, or focusing on individual-level risks while largely ignoring closely related health-relevant relationships. As an alternative, this article describes an integrative approach, first reviewing associations of the quality of intimate relationships with personality characteristics and aspects of emotional adjustment that confer CHD risk, and then discussing conceptual models of these associations and the biobehavioral mechanisms linking them with CHD. Current approaches to couple interventions are then discussed, including those that have a combined focus on intimate relationship difficulties and emotional adjustment. An integrative agenda for future research emphasizes aggregated risks, combining concepts and methods in current relationship science with those in biobehavioral research on CHD, and including parallel disparities in relationship functioning, emotional adjustment, and CHD risk. Such efforts could ultimately inform empirically based assessments and interventions for interrelated aspects of individuals and their intimate relationships that influence the development and course of CHD.

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