Emotional Behavior During Conflict and Marital Satisfaction: A Laboratory-Based Study of Married Couples

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Negative emotional behaviors, such as criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling, that spouses may show during conflict are key predictors of marital dissatisfaction. Existing research has focused on middle-class couples, but little is known about how these negative emotional behaviors predict marital satisfaction among couples from socioeconomically diverse backgrounds. The present laboratory-based study sought to address this gap in the literature. Thirty-seven married couples (74 spouses) from socioeconomically diverse backgrounds (age: M = 41.98, SD = 10.42; household income: M = $50,001-$75,000, range: Less than $20,000 to Greater than $150,000; 44% African American) engaged in an unrehearsed 10-minute conversation about an area of disagreement in their marriage while they were being videotaped. Negative emotional behaviors (i.e., criticism; stonewalling; contempt; defensiveness) during the last 30 seconds of the conflict conversation were objectively coded on a second-by-second basis by trained raters using the Specific Affect Coding System based on a gestalt of facial expressions, body language, voice, and content (average interrater reliability: .75). Marital satisfaction was measured using a well-established questionnaire (15 items; alpha = .83). Correlation analyses showed that criticism (but not defensiveness) behavior was associated with lower marital satisfaction. Stonewalling and contempt behavior occurred very rarely during the 30-second coding period and thus were not included in the present analyses. Findings provide initial evidence that, across SES levels, objectively coded “thin slices” of criticism behavior during 30 seconds of a conflict conversation can be used to understand how happy spouses are with their marriage overall. Directions for future research are discussed.

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  • 06/13/2018
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