News Release

Negative relationships linked to worse physical and mental health in postpartum women

Peer-Reviewed Publication

Rice University

HOUSTON - (June 3, 2021) - Postpartum women in bad romantic relationships are not only more likely to suffer symptoms of depression, they are also at greater long-term risk of illness or death, according to new research from Rice University, Ohio State University and the University of California, Irvine.

"Longitudinal changes in HRV across pregnancy and postpartum: Effect of negative partner relationship qualities" will appear in the July 2021 edition of Psychoneuroendocrinology. The researchers examined how relationships and partner behavior are linked to depression and heart rate variability (HRV) in women between the third trimester of pregnancy and one year postpartum.

"The quality of relationship with one's spouse considerably affects one's mental health as well as biological health and physiology," said Lisa Christian, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral health at Ohio State University and a co-author of the study. "We were interested in learning more about the effects of relationship quality on health during the postpartum period, due to substantial changes occurring physically, mentally and in social and interpersonal lives at this time."

The researchers used the Positive and Negative Quality in Marriage Scale to measure negative relationship qualities and the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale to evaluate mental health. The researchers also monitored HRV during regular check-ins with the study participants throughout the first year postpartum.

During pregnancy, HRV naturally drops. The researchers found that postpartum women who had poor relationships with their spouses or partners were more likely to report symptoms of depression. These were linked to HRV that was more likely to remain low following pregnancy.

This matters because HRV has a significant link to long-term health and wellness, said Ryan Linn Brown, a Rice psychology graduate student and Biobehavioral Mechanisms Explaining Disparities (BMED) lab researcher. She is the study's lead author.

"High HRV is good. It means your body is well-equipped to deal with and recover from stressors," she said. "Low HRV means your body isn't as capable of managing stress, and previous research has demonstrated that poorly managed stress can put you at greater risk of a host of health problems."

Brown said the research demonstrates a clear link between the quality of spousal relationships during pregnancy and postpartum depression and HRV, which ultimately can impact long-term wellness and mortality of new mothers.

The researchers hope the study findings will aid the development of mental health interventions that will help postpartum women live healthier lives.


Chris Fagundes, an associate professor of psychology at Rice and director of the BMED lab and Julian Thayer of the University of California, Irvine were co-authors of the study.

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Located on a 300-acre forested campus in Houston, Rice University is consistently ranked among the nation's top 20 universities by U.S. News & World Report. Rice has highly respected schools of Architecture, Business, Continuing Studies, Engineering, Humanities, Music, Natural Sciences and Social Sciences and is home to the Baker Institute for Public Policy. With 3,978 undergraduates and 3,192 graduate students, Rice's undergraduate student-to-faculty ratio is just under 6-to-1. Its residential college system builds close-knit communities and lifelong friendships, just one reason why Rice is ranked No. 1 for lots of race/class interaction and No. 1 for quality of life by the Princeton Review. Rice is also rated as a best value among private universities by Kiplinger's Personal Finance.

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