Marital relationships provide a valuable landscape for examining the nature of interpersonal relationships and communication. A marriage represents the most intimate and one of the most significant relationships that people form. It encapsulates a full range of interpersonal communication processes, including relationship initiation, self-disclosure, interpersonal conflict, relational maintenance, and relational termination and its responsibilities extend beyond those of other relationships to include parenting, managing money, and household maintenance. Nonetheless, studying married couples provides a valuable insight into the workings of all interpersonal relationships. And a study of long-term marriages allows us to examine how interpersonal processes change over time. For these reasons, this chapter takes an in-depth look at social decentering and relationship-specific social decentering (RSSD) within marriage. In this chapter, I review previous theory and research as I build a model of the role of social decentering and RSSD in marriage. Studies on romantic relationships often draw on samples that include those who are dating, cohabitating, or married, so the findings don’t always reflect effects that are unique to marriage. My discussion of relationships in Chapter 3 includes the findings from many of those studies, so they are minimally discussed in this chapter.
Theory and research on marriage have often worked on the proposition that understanding one’s spouse, empathy, and empathic communication contribute to marital satisfaction. But the research has produced mixed support for that proposition and generally tends not to support it. The failure to find a definite linear relationship between empathic communication and marital satisfaction demonstrates the complexity of marital relationships (Sillars, Pike, Jones, & Murphy, 1984), and the failure is particularly disappointing to communication scholars who argue the importance of communication in human interactions. But this failure does not indicate that empathy and communication are unimportant tools for managing relationships. That is, these skills might be used to effectively manage interactions rather than necessarily to create satisfaction. If anything, such skills might enhance the ability to successfully dissolve a relationship rather than maintain it. Underlying spouses’ decisions to apply these skills are a myriad of factors, such as commitment, self-esteem, the presence of children, sexual satisfaction, sex and gender roles, equity, religious convictions, and interdependency. Any of these factors might mitigate the impact of social decentering and communication on marital satisfaction.
Studies associating marital satisfaction with empathy conducted in the 1950s and 1960s produced contradictory results; some of which can be attributed to the impact of assuming similarity in predicting a spouse’s response (Cronbach, 1955, 1960). Later studies using various measures have had little more success in finding such a relationship. Elliott (1982) measured marital empathy as the average of couples’ responses to 40 scenarios in terms of such qualities as reciprocal role-playing and role-playing to conform to spouses’ desires. She too found no significant relationship between marital empathy and satisfaction as measured with the Locke and Wallace’s Marital Adjustment Test and Bienvenu’s Marital Communication Inventory. In a study of 44 married couples, Wastell (1991) found no significant correlation between empathy, as measured with items from Barrett–Lennard’s Relationship Inventory, and marital happiness, as measured by Spanier’s Dyadic Adjustment Scale (DAS). And Wachs and Cordova (2007), who studied 33 married couples, found no significant correlation between marital satisfaction as measured with Spanier’s DAS and empathy as measured with the perspective-taking and emotional concern subscales of Davis’s (1983) Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI).
A study on marital satisfaction by Rowan, Compton, and Rust (1995) combined the perspective-taking and emotional-concern subscales of Davis’s IRI as a measure of “total empathy.” They found no significant relationships between these scales and marital satisfaction for wives. But the perspective-taking scale did show a significant correlation (r = 0.49, p < 0.05) with marital satisfaction for husbands. One interpretation of these results is that emotional empathy (via the Davis measure) is not a factor for either spouse’s marital satisfaction, but that husbands’ marital satisfaction is related to their ability to cognitively take their wives’ perspectives. But rather than being causal, the relationship might be spurious because the qualities that the perspective-taking scale assessed by (e.g., “belief there are two sides to every question” and “before criticizing somebody, I try to imagine how I would feel”) relate to qualities that reflect satisfaction in a relationship (being less dogmatic and less critical).
Franzoi, Davis, and Young (1985) had students in an introductory psychology course complete several questionnaires, including the Davis’s perspective-taking subscale and a modified version of Locke’s Marital Adjustment Test. While not exclusively focused on married couples (23% were married or engaged), this study again failed to find direct significant correlation between the two measures. The researchers subsequently performed a regression analysis that controlled variables such as length of the relationship, self-disclosure, and self-consciousness. They found that male and female perspective-taking significantly contributed to a prediction of male satisfaction, but only female perspective-taking contributed to predictions of female satisfaction. These results indicate a sex-based difference in effects where men are affected by women’s perspective-taking, but women are not affected by men’s perspective-taking. This difference might be a result of factors such as sex role expectations, variations across romantic relationships, or measurement issues.
While not specifically about empathy or perspective-taking, Pollmann and Finkenauer’s (2009) study on the impact of knowledge and understanding on marital adjustment has direct implications of the processes of being other orientated. In their study of 199 newlywed couples, they found that (a) spouses’ reported understanding of their partners related to their own marital adjustment, (b) feeling understood by one’s partner related to marital adjustment, (c) partners’ reported level of understanding of their spouses related to spouses’ adjustment only in shorter-term relationships, and (d) specific knowledge of one’s partner did not relate to adjustment. The researchers offered several explanations as to why such knowledge did not affect adjustment but failed to recognize what might be the most obvious: Increased knowledge is not inherently positive or beneficial. Information can be either positively or negatively valenced, so some information will invariably produce negative reactions. For example, in their study, couples completed a questionnaire on their own and their partner’s “Big-5” personality traits; among those traits was neuroticism. Over the course of a marriage, increasing knowledge of a partner’s neuroticism could understandably affect marital adjustment.
In another study of newlyweds, Sillars, Roberts, Leonard, and Dun (2000) videotaped couples as they discussed an unresolved disagreement. Participants individually watched a replay of the interaction, and every 20 seconds, they were prompted to state what they were feeling and thinking. The researchers coded and assessed these responses in order to capture the participants’ thoughts and feelings while engaged in conflict. Although this process provided many insights into how these men and women viewed their conflict discussions, the researchers “found few examples of complex perspective-taking during interaction” (p. 496). A problem underlying social-decentering’s use during interactions is that it takes time and thus is less likely to be reflected in adaptive behaviors. This problem is reflected in Sillars et al.’s (2000) observations about engaging in marital conflict:
Participation in live interaction does not afford the opportunity for searching reflection because of the involving nature of communication and the need to integrate multiple items of information, reconcile conflicting goals, and respond in real time (Waldron & Cegala, 1992). In addition, the often stressful and disorderly nature of marital conflict may further limit the capacity and inclination for complex thought. (p. 496)
Sillars et al.’s finding is in keeping with Fiske’s (1993) description of individuals as cognitive misers who limit how much they allow themselves to process in a given interaction as it occurs (Chapter 1). In addition, individuals’ tendency to rely on scripts is likely to limit their social decentering. Furthermore, on-going discussions of unresolved conflicts are subject to becoming so patterned (e.g., falling into routines such as demand – withdraw) that neither partner attempts to take the other’s perspective. But when the issue is important to both partners and the need to act on the issue is more immediate, they should be more motivated to socially decenter.
The need to socially decenter explains the findings of a study of first-time parents with 3- to 12-months-old babies (Rosen, Mooney, & Muise, 2016). Using a measure of dyadic empathy based on Davis’s IRI developed by Pėloquin and Lafontaine (2010), the researchers found a small but significant correlation between mothers’ and fathers’ dyadic empathy scores (r = 0.18, p < 0.01). But even though the fathers’ dyadic empathy strongly correlated with the mothers’ report of marital adjustment (r = 0.75, p < 0.001), the mothers’ empathy did not significantly correlate with the fathers’ adjustment (r = 0.09). This result suggests mothers feel comforted and supported when fathers display understanding and adaptive behaviors, but that fathers might have less need to feel such understanding (i.e., social decentering) from their partners. Rosen et al. also found that both self and partner dyadic empathy positively correlated with sexual satisfaction of the self and partner, which suggests that understanding a partner improves individuals’ ability to appropriately adapt to their partners and thus more successfully meet their partners’ and their own sexual needs.
Rosen et al.’s study suggests that partners are influenced by each other’s level of empathy, although that was not the case in Wastell’s (1991) study where spouses rated their perceptions of partners’ empathy on an adapted version of Barrett– Lennard’s Relationship Inventory that included items such as “He/she usually senses or realizes what I’m feeling.” Wastell found that perception of a partner’s empathy did not significantly relate to reported marital happiness. Perhaps, weak perceptual skills limited partners’ ability to accurately perceive empathic behaviors, or partners might associate different behaviors with empathy. If identifying partners’ empathic behaviors is difficult, then identifying partners’ thoughts at any given moment is likely to prove even more difficult as several studies examining empathic accuracy in married couples have shown.
Another study that illustrates the challenges of assessing perceived empathy and perspective-taking was conducted by Kellas, Willer, and Trees (2013). They sought to identify behaviors displayed by husbands and wives that communicated perspective-taking. Couples were videotaped while sharing a story related to a stressful experience in their relationship. The partners independently reviewed the video of the storytelling and every minute rated their partners’ communicated perspective-taking and listed what behaviors influenced their assessment. Rather than relating to good listening, supportive responses, or synchronized interaction, the level of communicated perspective-taking related primarily to what they didn’t do. Husbands saw wives as communicating less perspective-taking the more their wives displayed negative tone, disagreement, or interfered in their storytelling (constrained). For wives, husbands level of inattentiveness, irrelevant contributions, constraining their storytelling, or disagreement related to lower ratings of the husbands’ perspective-taking. Unfortunately, the operationalization of perceived perspective-taking involved rating the degree to which partners felt understood/ misunderstood, ignored/ acknowledged, and disconfirmed/confirmed their perspectives. Inherent in these three ratings are some of the behaviors that were explicitly identified; for example, disagreement was observed and disconfirmed rated. While the spouses might have perceived the behaviors they reported, they might not truly reflect that their partners had engaged in perspective-taking.
As discussed in Chapter 1, empathic accuracy focuses on the ability to make accurate inferences about what another person is thinking at any given moment during a specific interaction. When such inferences are made based on intimate knowledge that spouses are expected to have about their partners, they are similar to those made from RSSD. Research on empathic accuracy and relevant conceptual development has primarily rested on videotaping an interaction between partners. This interaction is often stimulated by the researcher toward a particular goal, such as managing an ongoing conflict or issue. The interaction is replayed to the partners individually, and they indicate their thoughts and feelings either at designated points (e.g., every two minutes) or as they freely recall them. The tape is replayed for the other partner, and at each of the identified points on the tape, that partner is asked to predict what the other partner was thinking and/or feeling. The predictions are compared to the partner’s self-report, and the resulting agreements are used as a measure of accuracy. Thomas, Fletcher, and Lange (1997) incorporated such a measure to assess empathic accuracy and found that the ability to predict the other’s immediate responses was unrelated to relational satisfaction.
While empathic accuracy might be expected to continue to improve as couples spend more time together and thus learn how to read each other’s behaviors and minds more effectively, research results have found otherwise. In a longitudinal study of newlyweds’ display of empathic accuracy during videotaped conflicts, empathic accuracy was found to relate to accommodation, commitment, and dyadic adjustment when assessed after the first year of marriage. But no such relationships were found after the second year (Bissonnette, Rusbult, & Kilpatrick, 2002). The researchers provided two possible explanations. First, the warm-up process prior to the videotaping might have activated different skills and motives from year one to year two. This explanation suggests some inherent problems in the assessment procedure for empathic accuracy. Second, couples might become more automatic in their responses as time passes, thus reducing their motivation to engage in empathic accuracy. Since this study depended on a directed effort to engage in empathic accuracy within a laboratory-induced conflict interaction, it leaves open the question of how couples behave in their spontaneous day-to-day interactions. Do they daily engage in empathic accuracy of their own volition? Perhaps the findings after the second year of marriage reflect a more realistic sampling of couples’ everyday interactions. In addition, what happens after more than 2 years?
Kilpatrick, Bissonette, and Rusbult (2002) later hypothesized that empathic accuracy declines over time in marriage, arguing that the newness in the early years requires more monitoring of the partner’s thoughts and feelings and that over time recognizable patterns and habits develop so that such monitoring is less needed. Their argument emphasizes the degree to which empathic accuracy is tied to perceptual sensitivity rather than accumulated knowledge and understanding. It also reinforces the prospect that the motivation to decenter is likely to decline over time, regardless of the level of knowledge and understanding spouses have.
Thomas et al. (1997) also found less empathic accuracy in couples who had been married longer, suggesting that “as marriages develop over many years, couples become less motivated in resolving disputes, their relationship theories become ossified, and they are more likely to assume that they know what their partners are thinking” (p. 847). They proposed a U-shaped pattern of empathic accuracy across the length of marriage:
It seems likely that, in fact, there is a curvilinear association between relationship length and empathic accuracy, with empathic accuracy increasing during the process of acquaintanceship, peaking during the early years of marriage, and then declining during the mature stage of the marital life cycle. (pp. 847–848)
They also found no correlation for empathic accuracy with either relational satisfaction or verbal positivity.
Another study of empathic accuracy had partners’ (56% of the sample were married) identify positive and negative emotions after discussing two emotional incidents (Cohen, Schulz, Weiss, & Waldinger, 2012). They found that the men’s relationship satisfaction was significantly related to their ability to accurately identify their partner’s positive emotions but not to their partner’s satisfaction. Women’s empathic accuracy of positive emotions, however, was not significantly related to either partner’s satisfaction. Both men’s and women’s empathic accuracy in reading negative emotions significantly related to their partner’s satisfaction. While women’s empathic accuracy of negative emotions related to their own satisfaction, the same was not true for men. And while both women’s and men’s perceptions of their partners’ efforts to understand them significantly related to their relationship satisfaction, the correlation was higher among women. Women’s perception of their partners’ effort to understand them was more important to their relational satisfaction than their partners’ empathic accuracy in reading negative emotions. This finding implies that the impact of social decentering and RSSD on spouses’ marital satisfaction might depend on their ability to perceive the efforts of their partners to understand and adapt. Thus, social decentering and RSSD are unlikely to strongly correlate with marital satisfaction because effective decentering can occur without any significant display of observable adaptive behaviors.
How empathy and perspective-taking have been operationalized is one factor that can create confusing, inconsistent, and weak results in studies of married couples. As discussed in Chapter 2, a number of scales have been developed to measure empathy and perspective-taking, but their application to the study of married couples has been limited. Davis’s (1983) IRI is probably the most widely used measure of empathy because it is intended to measure both cognitive and affective responses. But the four subscales – perspective-taking, fantasy, empathic concern, and personal distress – represent a fairly narrow conceptualization of empathy. Perspective-taking represents adopting the others’ cognitive point of view, fantasy deals with imagining the feelings of fictional characters, empathic concern represents sympathy (focusing on one’s own emotional reaction of another person’s situation) rather than empathy, and personal distress represents feelings of anxiety or tension that reduce self-esteem and interpersonal functioning.
In contrast, social decentering incorporates a broad definition of empathy that includes any similar emotional response shared by both the empathizer and target, such as joy, interest, fear, anticipation, shame, or anger, not just distress or anxiety. In analyzing studies on marriage and other-orientation, we must examine what is actually measured. Studies often use or adapt only the IRI subscales of perspective-taking and empathic concern to measure perspective-taking or empathy and sometimes combine the results of those two scales as a measure of empathy. When studies fail to find significant results after employing Davis’s IRI subscales to measure empathy, they often search for an alternative theoretical explanation rather than questioning the measure’s validity. For example, Bakker and Demerouti (2009) found evidence of the crossover process in which spouses’ feelings of engagement in their job related to their partners’ own feeling of job engagement. They hypothesized that empathy and perspective-taking moderated this crossover process. But emotional empathy measured with the empathic concern subscale of the IRI did not moderate crossover of engagement, and “only perspective-taking moderated the crossover of work engagement effect, and showed that work engagement was most likely to cross over when men were characterized by the spontaneous tendency to adopt the psychological perspective of their partner” (p. 230). They speculated that perhaps empathic concern was limited to a crossover effect associated with strain rather than positive experiences. They make this claim, despite pointing out that empathic concern should relate to warmth, compassion, and concern for others – all qualities that should be associated with positive experiences as well. Unfortunately, their reliance on IRI might mean they didn’t really measure the emotional empathy skills of the spouses or their impact on engagement crossover.
The failure to find a relationship between marital satisfaction and empathy as measured by two of Davis’s subscales led Rowan, Compton, and Rust (1995) to speculate that since women are higher on the empathy scores than men are, perhaps increases in women’s empathy have no impact beyond a certain threshold. But that seems unlikely because all women do not have the same capabilities in managing their interactions. Again, the failure to find an expected finding led researchers to reconsider their conceptual model rather than considering the validity of the empathy measure.
Long’s (1990) Self and Other Dyadic Perspective Scales have been employed in studies of romantic relationships with samples that include both married and unmarried participants. But the unique impact of marriage on the dynamics of perspective-taking is often not included in the analyses. Among studies on perspective-taking and empathy are those that examine how these skills are affected by counseling sessions, classes, or training geared toward becoming more other-centered. Typically, these studies seek to demonstrate improvement in a number of skills including empathy. For example, one 4-week treatment program for expectant parents focusing on mindfulness combined three of Davis’s IRI subscales as a measure of general empathy and used Long’s two scales on perspective-taking as measures of self and partner empathy (Gambrel & Piercy, 2015). For women, all three measures had small but significant increases, while no changes were found in men’s general empathy, self-empathy, or partner-empathy. Inherent in that study was the recurrent problem of how empathy and perspective-taking are defined and measured. For example, both the authors and Long (1990) consider perspective-taking as a dimension of empathy without clearly identifying perspective-taking’s role. When people have emotional reactions to their thoughts about others, is that empathy or perspective-taking? Is that considered the same process as thinking about another person’s feelings? Is there a difference in thinking about another person’s feelings and another person’s thoughts and is one perspective-taking and the other empathy?
Péloquin and Lafontaine (2010) addressed some of the weaknesses in Davis’s IRI by modifying the perspective-taking and empathic concern subscales to more clearly distinguish between cognitive and affective responses. The result is their Interpersonal Reactivity Index for Couples, which changes the focus of the IRI from a global measure to a measure that is relationship specific (referred to as dyadic empathy). Their effort parallels that represented in the more global measure of social decentering and the partner measure of RSSD. Péloquin and Lafontaine continue Davis’s emphasis on empathy as concern rather than a shared emotional reaction, using items such as “I often have tender, concerned feelings for my partner when he/ she is less fortunate than me.” Other items seem quite tangential to the notion of emotional empathy (e.g., “In my relationship with my partner, I would describe myself as a pretty soft-hearted person”). So far only a few studies have incorporated this variation in Davis’s scales.
In what ways might the skill of taking into consideration a spouse’s feelings, attitudes, thoughts, and general dispositions affect marriage? The impact of empathy and perspective-taking on marriage has been examined in a few studies and produced some confusing, contradictory, and inconclusive results. As discussed in the first two chapters, social decentering theory is offered as a more theoretically cohesive and encompassing theory of other-orientation than can be found associated with theories of empathy, perspective-taking, role-taking, or theory of mind. While these other approaches provide the foundation for some of expectations regarding social decentering and marriage, the ensuing discussion and research study aim to go beyond that foundation.
By far the most common dependent variable examined in studies of empathy and perspective-taking in marriage is marital or relational satisfaction or adjustment. In general, researchers argue and hypothesize that being empathic or engaging in perspective-taking has a positive effect on marital satisfaction. On the basis of that proposition, social decentering and RSSD also should be expected to positively affect martial satisfaction. The study reported in Chapter 6 examined the impact that one spouse’s social decentering and RSSD had on the other spouse’s level of marital satisfaction. In addition, the relationship between a spouse’s social decentering and RSSD was examined in terms of how it related to his or her own level of marital satisfaction.
Generally, studies on the impact of other-orientation assume that other-centered behaviors are the cause and that satisfaction is the effect. Given the number of factors that affect people’s efforts to engage in other-centered behaviors, the level of satisfaction could be the cause and social-decentering and RSSD could be the effects. Peoples’ happiness in marriage leads them to be more open and to be concerned with understanding their spouses, thus increasing the motivation and ability to decenter, while unhappiness not only restricts information flow but also impairs the ability to decenter. Even with information in hand, dissatisfaction could result in the use of decentering to provoke negative outcomes. Burleson and Denton (1997) discussed the importance of taking into consideration the intent and motives of the spouses when looking at the role communication played in distressed and nondistressed marriages. In interpreting some of their results, they posited that husbands in nondistressed marriages produced messages intended to have a positive effect, thus increasing how much they were liked by their wives, while in distressed marriages, husbands used those same skills to produce messages with the intention of hurting or upsetting their wives. Accordingly, the level of spouses’ satisfaction will likely impact whether they use social decentering and RSSD to produce positive or negative messages.
Another issue that underlies the relationship between satisfaction and social decentering is whether both partners need to be strong in social decentering and RSSD to create happiness for both? While that seems intuitively true, perhaps only one spouse needs to effectively understand his or her partner and to adapt to and/ or accommodate his or her partner. If so, do gender roles dictate who should accommodate to whom? Do gender roles affect the impact of a husband’s or wife’s social decentering in different ways? For example, having a high socially decentering husband and low decentering wife might be considered a reverse in gender roles and perhaps create dissatisfaction in both partners.
The theoretic framework of social decentering suggests a nonlinear relationship with marital satisfaction, in contrast to the assumption of previous scholarship on empathy and perspective-taking. Just because one spouse keenly understands the other, it doesn’t mean that understanding inherently leads to greater satisfaction. Knowing why a spouse has acted cold and indifferent doesn’t mean the perceiver has to be happy about it. We often understand people we don’t like; indeed the more information that is acquired about a person, the greater the likelihood we’ll find something to dislike, which might even lead to termination of the relationship. Understanding others is neither intrinsically positive nor negative. What understanding should do is improve people’s ability to achieve their own interpersonal goals whether that is sustaining a marriage or terminating it.
Acitelli, Kenny, and Weiner (2001) studied the impact of stereotypes on couples’ similarity in marital ideals and their ability to identify each other’s ideals. Their study used a sample of unmarried couples living together over 6 months (average 3.3 years) and couples who had been married less than 25 years (average 11.3). They found that while couples ratings of marital ideals were not different, their perception of each other’s ideals was falling along traditional gender lines. Interestingly, they appear to apply a set of partner ideals drawn from the use of generalized-other social decentering, rather than applying RSSD to identify ideals specifically held by their partners. Such an application could be because of the ease by which pre- existing socially defined ideals can be accessed in comparison to the effort needed to identify partner-specific ideals. Acitelli et al. also found that understanding a partner’s ideals when adjusted for stereotyping was unrelated to satisfaction. Acitelli et al. concluded that “understanding of a partner’s values does not lead to enhanced relationship satisfaction” (p. 180). Since the results are correlational, the results would more accurately be described as meaning that either understanding doesn’t lead to satisfaction or satisfaction doesn’t lead to understanding. In terms of social decentering and RSSD, the implication is that a person could be strong or weak in decentering yet still have satisfying relationships. But satisfaction might have an impact on spouses’ decentering – dissatisfaction might reduce efforts to socially decenter and understand partners. The results also mean that strength in social decentering and RSSD does not insure relational satisfaction. Spouses with strong understanding of their partners often remain in unsatisfactory relationships for a myriad of reasons. Remaining in relationships under such conditions creates a dysfunctional relationship where there is little satisfaction, but in which a person remains (often because of commitment or concern for children).
Theoretically RSSD develops as relationships become more and more intimate. But the majority of information spouses learn about each other occurs relatively early in the relationship and marriage. Thus, some upper level threshold probably exists at that point information acquisition is noticeably reduced. But just because relationships endure over time, it does not mean that partners continue to be open to or actively seek additional information about each other, nor motivated to utilize partner knowledge and continue efforts to adapt. A significant amount of research demonstrates that marital satisfaction follows a U-shaped curvilinear relationship with the length of the relationship (Kelley, 2012). This pattern of change in satisfaction change has been linked to corresponding changes in other marital factors such as a couple’s parental roles (Kelly, 2012); thus, a similar pattern might be expected for RSSD. A reduction in satisfaction might mean less focus and concern on the partner and thus a decline in the application of RSSD with a resurgence in the later stages of the relationship. The reverse also might be true, such that a decline in RSSD negatively impacts marital satisfaction.
The discussion and analysis of social decentering’s relationship to age applies to RSSD as well. If, as research suggests, people decline in their empathy and increase in egocentricism, then RSSD can be expected to decline with age, in spite of the availability of additional knowledge and understanding of one’s partner. Spouses might also get to a point in time where some responses to each other are more routine and habitual than strategic and deliberative (Dainton & Aylor, 2002). Couples might be actively engaged in RSSD as the marriage begins producing successful patterns of adaptation and interaction, but over time those adaptations become scripted or routine, reducing the need and/ or motivation to engage in further decentering.
Edgar Long’s studies on perspective-taking incorporate measures that parallel those developed for social decentering and RSSD. He measures both general perspective-taking (akin to social decentering but without the emotional component) and dyadic perspective-taking that is perception of a person’s spouse (akin to RSSD again without the emotional component). In Long (1994) and Long and Andrews’ (1990) examinations of perspective-taking’s impact on marriage, three measures of perspective-taking were employed. General perspective-taking was assessed with the perspective-taking subscale of Davis’ IRI. The second measure, the Self Dyadic Perspective-Taking Scale, was previously developed by Long to assess respondents’ specific understanding of their spouses. The third measure, the Other Dyadic Perspective-Taking Scale, also by Long, was intended to measure respondents’ perception of the other spouse’s dyadic perspective-taking. Unfortunately, the scales are not independent nor are they solely parallel forms of recontextualized items. All the seven items composing Davis’ general scale are reworded and included on the Other Dyadic scale, and five are incorporated in the Self Dyadic scale. All 13 of the Self Dyadic scale items are rephrased and included in the Other Dyadic scale with another seven new items added. Thus, the scales represent some assessment of the same conceptualization of perspective-taking, but with some difference in operationalization. These factors confound and undermine the reliability and interpretability of the results. The following table lists the results of regression analyses for each scale as a percent of variance for marital adjustment scores (Spanier’s DAS; Long & Andrews, 1990) and for the propensity for divorce as well as the bivariate correlation coefficients (Long, 1994).
ns, not significant
Although statistically significant, only 2–8% of the variance in marital adjustment was related to either the respondent’s or spouse’s general or dyadic perspective-taking. The impact of perspective-taking on marital adjustment is small but that might reflect the problems of measurement discussed earlier. While a stronger relationship was found between adjustment and a respondent’s perception of a spouse’s perspective-taking, especially for women, the effect might be more a product of a perceptual halo effect than perspective-taking. More satisfied spouses might attribute more of the positive behaviors listed in the instrument to their partners then were actually occurring.
Long (1993) also analyzed the data from the above study by dividing respondents into two categories based on their marital adjustment scores: high (n = 259) and low (N = 43). For the wives, no significant difference was found in the general perspective-taking of those in high or low adjustment marriages, but those in the high adjustment marriages had significantly higher dyadic perspective-taking scores than those in the low adjustment marriages. Husbands in high adjustment marriages had significantly higher scores on both general and dyadic perspective-taking measures than those in the low adjustment marriages. Long contended the results indicated that husbands and wives had stronger understanding of their spouses in the higher adjusted groups. A similar pattern of results was found in the spouses’ perceptions of their partners’ dyadic perspective-taking with both husbands and wives in the high adjustment groups reporting higher other dyadic perspective-taking scores for their spouses than those in the low adjustment group. Ratings given by husbands and wives in the high adjustment group of their spouses’ perspective-taking were fairly similar (52.3 and 50.6, respectively), while in the low adjustment group, husbands rated their spouses higher than the wives did (34.21 and 24.41, respectively).
Long (1993) hypothesized that similarity between the spouses’ general perspective-taking would positively relate to adjustment as would similarity in dyadic perspective-taking. No significant correlations were found for general perspective-taking for either wives or husbands. For similarity in dyadic perspective-taking and adjustment, no significant correlation was found for wives and a significant but weak negative correlation (r = −0.19) was found for husbands. Husbands reacted negatively to having wives who understood them to the same degree they understood their wives. Given gender role expectations where women are stronger in empathy, perhaps having wives with the same level of dyadic perspective- taking is disappointing to the husbands. Aside from possible problems with methodology, the failure to find a relationship between the spouses’ similar perspective- taking abilities and marital adjustment suggests that perhaps perspective-taking is a complementary skill (a strong perspective-taking partner compensates for a weak perspective-taking partner) or that understanding is not automatically connected with accommodating one’s partner. Long’s research demonstrates the complex nature of the relationships between social decentering, RSSD, marital satisfaction, and the sex of the spouse.
Another study that also sought to examine partner-specific perspective-taking was conducted by Arriaga and Rusbult (1998). In their 3-year longitudinal study of 53 married couples, they adapted Davis’ perspective-taking scale to assess respondents’ specific perspective-taking of their spouse (similar to the RSSD measure). Results of their examination of adaptive behaviors led them to conclude that taking on a spouse’s perspective has “substantial adaptive value,” specifically:
When a partner enacts a potentially destructive behavior, individuals with greater self-reported tendencies toward partner perspective-taking indicate that they are substantially less likely to react destructively and more likely to react constructively. There was insufficient change over time to determine whether partner perspective-taking predicts change in inclinations to accommodate. (p. 934)
The participants in the study were recruited from a list of applicants for married licenses with the average length of marriage of 8 months; thus, the conclusions made by Arriaga and Rusbult might not be applicable to more long-term couples. Given that previous research shows marital satisfaction decreasing over the course of a marriage or following a U pattern of decreasing and then increasing after many years, a drop in adaptation after the newlywed period could be reasonably expected.
As with dyadic perspective-taking, a substantial part of RSSD depends upon how well people understand their partners. Gurung, Sarason, and Sarason (2001) referred to the ability to form a clear conception of a partner as significant-other-concept clarity. Drawing from Campbell, Trapnell, Heine, Katz, Lavallee, and Lehman’s (1996) study of clarity as it applied to self-concept, Gurung et al. defined significant-other-concept clarity as the level of confidence and degree of consistence and overall stability in peoples’ conception of their partners. They examined significant- other-concept clarity among 78 college undergraduate couples that included married, living together, and engaged couples. Respondents’ levels of significant-other-concept clarity related to their own relationship satisfaction but not to that of their partners. In other words, the more confident you are that you have a clear conception of your partner, the more satisfied you feel about the relationship. This finding again reflects the impact of how an individual’s certainty and perceived understanding of their partner affects his or her own feelings about the relationship but not the partner’s. An inability to understand one’s partner can be readily seen as undermining relationship satisfaction but probably just in those situations where a person is actively attempting to achieve such understanding. Finding that clarity did not positively affect the partner’s satisfaction suggests other factors are undermining the impact. Perhaps couples fail to utilize significant- other-concept clarity when they interact and respond to each other, or perhaps the sense of clarity is a false perception, which then produces ill-adapted behaviors that fail to increase a partner’s relational satisfaction. The results of this study suggest those people who feel more clarity about their RSSD will feel more relational satisfaction, but their partners won’t. Partners might fail to recognize the others’ level of RSSD or the RSSD might be inaccurate.
The confusing and contradictory findings in the research examining the relationship between other-orientation processes and marital outcomes is probably due to the complex relationship between social decentering (empathy and perspective-taking) and marital relationships. Socially decentering and RSSD can be used by spouses to adapt to their partners and potentially enhance their partners’ marital satisfaction, but a positive relationship between decentering and satisfaction is not as inviolate as is often assumed. Decentering can be employed to manipulate partners and develop self-serving strategies, potentially reducing partner satisfaction.
Given the intimate nature of marital relationships, spouses develop an expectation that their partner’s should understand them or a belief that they do understand them. People expect their partner to develop and apply RSSD. Expecting that one spouse understands the other impacts the subsequent attitudes and behaviors of the spouse holding the expectation. In functional marriages, when spouses think their partners understand their positions, feelings, thoughts, etc., spouses should be stimulated to respond with positive and comforting communication to their partners. In a study of 77 couples who had been married for less than 3 years, Sanford (2005) found such positive communication behavior during couples’ discussions of recent conflicts among those couples who held expectations for being understood by their partner and had expectations for less negative communication. Sanford concluded that “Given the ultimate importance of being understood by one’s partner, couples may be particularly attentive to indicators regarding the extent to which such understanding is likely” (p. 263). Extrapolating that conclusion to social decentering – decreases in decentering and subsequent decreases in positive communication are likely to decrease marital satisfaction. But what leads to decreases in social decentering and RSSD over the course of marriage?
As discussed in Chapter 1, individuals must be motivated to engage in social decentering and a variety of factors can reduce or remove such motivation in marriage. People with strong social decentering skills might consciously choose not to use them in understanding their partners or if they do decenter, choose not to act on it or adapt to it. This is one possible explanation for the failure to find strong support for a linear relationship between understanding/ empathy and marital satisfaction or other positive marital communication behaviors. The decision not to decenter might be based on a variety of extenuating variables such as dissatisfaction, a loss of commitment, interest in pursuing other relationships, inequity, loss of interest, neutral or negative feelings, or establishment of routine interactions. But deciding to engage in social decentering doesn’t insure positive outcomes for the partner – social decentering can be used to produce negative outcomes – to hurt or punish a partner. To find a positive relationship between social decentering and partner’s relational satisfaction requires motivation to socially decenter and motivation to use it in positive ways.
Possessing strong general social decentering skills and strong RSSD skills means having a greater understanding of one’s spouse. People with strong decentering should be adept at predicting their spouses’ responses to various situations, events, and communication strategies. This ability to predict does not automatically imbue them with the ability to manipulate their partners for self-gain. For example, person (A) might understand that his or her partner (B) is uncomfortable being touched because of childhood abuse, but this does not increase A’s ability to adapt to this condition in order meet his or her own needs for affection. Possessing such skill might actually exacerbate the situation because such sensitivity might necessitate (A) having to subordinate his or her needs to those of the spouse. Another person (X) who lacks such sensitivity might continue to get his or her needs met at the expense of the partner (Y). As a result, A and Y might be quite dissatisfied, while B is satisfied in the relationship because of the partner’s adaptation, and X is satisfied by the partner’s accommodation. The ability of people to understand their partners and elicit positive responses (positive marital adjustment) from their partners was demonstrated in two studies of married couples (Long, 1990; Long & Andrews, 1990). On the other hand, Sillars et al. (1984) found a negative correlation between individuals’ level of understanding the salience of ten marital conflict topics to their partners and their own reported marital satisfaction. In evaluating the couples’ conflict discussions, they observed that “more understanding spouses were responsive to their partner, but this did them little good” (p. 345). Furthermore, they observed that the more understanding spouses moderated their positive communication responses to their partners in anticipation of negative reactions from their partners, though that still failed to elicit positive responses. Their results suggest that being strongly understanding might not be as related to positive behaviors and therefore not as readily observable as generally predicted. The results also indicate that one partner might fail to observe the other partner’s adaptive behaviors.
Given the results of studies that examine the change in empathy and perspective-taking over the course of marriage, social decentering and RSSD are similarly expected to decline over time. For example, newlyweds seem more cognizant of their spouses’ attitudes and feelings than do longer married couples (Bissonette, Rusbult, & Kilpatrick, 1997). In the first 9 months of marriage, the amount of understanding reported by one spouse related to the adjustment of the other spouse, but this effect did not endure (Pollmann & Finkenauer, 2010). Pollmann and Finkenauer (2010) suggest that the uncertainty that exists in the early stages of marriage lead to increased effort to gain information about each other and that as time passes couples feel more confident about their understanding of each other while actual knowledge remains unchanged. Motivation to engage in cognitive work and perspective-taking decreases the longer a couple is married, perhaps because they feel they know what each other is thinking or the relationship becomes stagnant (Thomas et al., 1997).
Besides declining over time, motivation to socially decenter is likely to decline as dissatisfaction and marital distress increase as suggested in Long’s (1993) study of low versus high adjusted couples particularly in terms of his dyadic perspective-taking measure (akin to RSSD). Burleson and Denton (1997) found that perceptual and predictive accuracy were associated with liking in nondistressed couples but were not related to liking in distressed couples. If people are dissatisfied or indifferent toward their partners in their marriages, they are unlikely to exert the effort needed to understand and adapt to their partner through decentering, particularly RSSD, unless they are motivated to either improve the relationship or terminate it. They might also choose to exert the effort to relationally specific decenter if they are motivated to undermine their spouses’ goals or disconfirm and demean their spouses.
Unfortunately, research tends to focus on the impact of empathy/perspective-taking on marital satisfaction and not vice versa. In addition, much of the research depends upon correlations that don’t assess cause and effect. Correlations can be interpreted to mean the level of marital satisfaction might be the cause of a given level of empathy/perspective-taking. This is particularly likely in the instance of RSSD where people’s decentering is directly connected to a specific relationship. Conducting experimental studies where satisfaction with one’s spouse is manipulated to determine the impact on empathy has obvious practical and ethical obstacles.
To what degree are married couples similar or different in their general ability to take into account other people’s dispositions (socially decenter)? As discussed earlier, people might form symmetrical relationships where they are attracted to those who have the same level of skill such as both being low in social decentering or both being high. On the other hand, the relationship could be complementary, where the skill possessed by one partner proves compatible with the lack of skill in the other partner.
One secondary finding from my study on social decentering and persuasion in interpersonal relationships, discussed in Chapter 3, was that social decentering scores were more similar among casual friends and friends than in the more intimate relationships (Redmond, 2002). Partners in the most intimate relationships (best friends, lovers, spouses) had significantly greater differences in their social decentering than partners in less intimate relationships. These results indicate that for casual friend and friend relationships participants experienced symmetrical social decentering relationships, while for the most intimate relationships participants experienced complementary social decentering relationships. Given that the study had few married participants and included nonromantic relationships, the degree to which similar symmetrical and complementary relationships might be expected across the life span of marriages is uncertain.
To my knowledge, no studies have been conducted that examine the impact of similarity and differences in empathy or perspective-taking levels across the life span of marriage. Many studies have examined similarity in empathy and perspective-taking in newlyweds and in the early years of marriage, but less attention has been given to similarities, differences, and changes over the life-span of marriage. Studies of longer married couples tend to focus on how empathy impacts some aspect of their relationship, such as comforting in times of illness or managing conflict. Despite the lack of studies on empathy/perspective-taking compatibility, complementarity and symmetry of other qualities and skills in longer-term married couples have been studied.
Shiota and Levenson (2007) examined how the similarity of the Big Five personality traits related to marital satisfaction among 40 year olds and 60 year olds over a 12-year period. Initial similarity was unrelated to satisfaction, but the more similarity at the beginning of the study, the more likely a negative decline in satisfaction over the next 12 years particularly for the 40 year olds. Shiota and Levenson observed that while similarity among young couples might help with intimacy, attachment, and equity, changes in life tasks might favor couples who have more complementary personalities (e.g., a partner who is laisse faire paired with a partner who is detail oriented). Another study on the impact of similarity on the Big Five personality among Swiss couples with an average length of relationship of 24.21 years also failed to find a significant impact; this time on life satisfaction (Furler, Gomez, & Grob, 2013).
Burleson and Denton (1992) examined the relationship of married couples’ similarity in social information processing, perceptual accuracy, and communication effectiveness with marital satisfaction and liking. In their sample of 60 couples (a mean length of marriage of 6.8 years), they found similarly low-skilled couples were not significantly different than similarly high-skilled couples in satisfaction and liking. Similarity appeared to be more important than having the skills that were expected to enhance relationships and satisfaction. Further confusing the situation was the finding that “the husband’s communication skills appeared to be less important predictors of his wife’s marital satisfaction than her skills were of his satisfaction” (p. 987). Burleson and Denton speculated that individuals are most comfortable interacting with someone who has similar communication skill levels and that “achieving accurate and sensitive understandings through verbal communication” (p. 283) might not be that important to low-skilled individuals. The sex of who has those skills also appears to affect satisfaction. We might expect then little difference in the level of satisfaction in couples’ where both partners are high in social decentering and/or RSSD and in couples where both partners are low. We might also expect that the wives level of decentering skills is more influential than the husband’s.
In the premarriage and early marriage phase of relationships, similarity in social decentering levels is likely to create attraction and produce a symmetrical relationship, but similarity is likely to become less significant over time. Similarity in RSSD should be fairly high in the early years of marriage as couples as partners have exerted significant effort in getting to know each other. While that knowledge will remain over the course of the marriage, the degree to which spouses continue to exert the effort to continue to learn about each other is likely to be impacted by a variety of factors such as the birth of children and job demands.
The model presented here is built from and reflective of the previous discussion on marriage and empathy, perspective-taking social decentering, and RSSD. Two primary assumptions underlie this model:
- The level of relational satisfaction of married couples impacts a variety of dynamics including the development and application of social decentering.
- The degree to which a couple’s social decentering is symmetrical (both spouses high or both spouses low) or complementary (one spouse high and one spouse low) affects and/or is affected by a variety of marital behaviors and outcomes including marital satisfaction and adjustment.
While the identified behaviors are distinguished by their relationship to satisfaction, the model is not intended to be interpreted as positing a cause–effect relationship. So, for example, satisfied social decentering couples might display mutual concern for each other’s welfare, but is satisfaction the product of showing concern or is showing concern the product of being satisfied? The likely answer is both – satisfaction and showing concern probably have a systemic relationship with each promoting development of the other. Satisfaction is expected to have such a relationship with each of the behaviors and qualities identified in the model.
Type I. Symmetrically Strong Couple: Both Husband and Wife Are Strong Social Decenterers
Strong mutual understanding.
Strong use of confirming communication.
Frequent use of information seeking behaviors.
Display of active and mutual listening behaviors.
Mutual concern for the other’s welfare.
Few attempts to influence or persuade each other.
Type II. Nontraditional Mixed Couple: Husband Is Strong Social Decenterer and Wife Is Weak Social Decenterer
Wife more satisfied than the husband.
Husband engages in accommodating behavior toward wife.
Wife appreciates husband’s understanding.
Husband harbors some resentment toward his wife and feels taken for granted at times.
Relationship viewed as a gender role reversal from traditional marital relationship.
Both are dissatisfied but for different reasons.
Wife’s self concept, and thus satisfaction, is threatened by husband’s decentering.
Husband is frustrated by doing all of the accommodating and thus less satisfied.
Husband infrequently accommodates his wife.
Relationship discussions prove to be unfruitful – no change or improvements.
Husband “chooses” not to socially decenter with his wife.
Husband is more likely to initiate relational termination if he feels the situation is futile.
Type III. Traditional Mixed Couple: Wife Is Strong and Husband Is Weak Social Decenterer
Similar level of satisfaction for both the wife and husband.
Husband plays a more traditional role.
Wife accommodates toward the husband.
Husband is dependent upon the wife to be a confidant and friend.
Wife seeks and gains relational satisfaction in friendships outside the marriage.
Wife resents husband.
Husband doesn’t understand wife’s discontent; sees things as okay and comfortable.
Wife is more likely to initiate conflict.
Wife is likely to initiate relational termination if she feels her situation is futile.
Type IV. Symmetrically Weak: Both Husband and Wife Are Weak Social Decenterers
Higher amounts of conflict but with little relational damage or long-term effects.
Fairly independent operating couple.
Each does their own thing and leaves the other spouse alone.
High role definition and expectation.
High amounts of conflict leading to damaged relationship and likely termination.
Perception that the other spouse is blocking their goals and preventing their happiness.
Each are frustrated by the lack of accommodation by the other.
High degree of independence.
Unlike the trait nature of social decentering, the state nature of RSSD leads to some differences in its relationship to marriage. People do not enter into a relationship with a pre-existing level of RSSD but instead develop it as they get to know new partners. The growth of RSSD is in concert with the movement toward close, intimate relationships. As discussed in the last chapter, the more intimate the relationship, the higher the level of RSSD. Indeed, the level of intimacy, relational satisfaction, and RSSD can all be expected to reach a maximum point where little further increase occurs. On the other hand, if one partner does not reach the requisite higher level of RSSD, the relationship is likely to decrease in intimacy and if the couple is fortunate, dissolve altogether before reaching marriage. As relationships develop, partners expect each other to have greater understanding and thus greater RSSD. To the degree that RSSD is like empathic accuracy in depending upon the acquisition of partner information, then RSSD’s role in marriage should parallel the patterns of development and use of empathic accuracy. Given the results reviewed earlier that showed empathic accuracy declining after the second year of marriage, RSSD can also be expected to decline from a peak achieved in the first years of marriage.
Combining the conceptualization of RSSD provided in Chapter 2 and discussion of empathy and perspective-taking provided in this chapter lead to the propositions listed below. Research suggests dramatic changes in marriage after the first year or two and as children are born, leading to change in the relational dynamics and decreased satisfaction. As the children get older, more independent, and move out of the house, couples have more time to devote to their relationships starting around 20 years or so into the marriage. Other significant changes occur as couples move toward retirement accompanied by more time together and increased relational awareness, somewhere after 30 or so years of marriage. The changes that occur during these three periods of marriage have an impact on RSSD and related behaviors.
In the first years of marriage:
1.Both spouses will be strong in RSSD (a symmetrical relationship).
2.Spouses will possess strong understanding of each other and of strong feelings of being understood by the partner.
3.Both spouses will display strong adaptation and accommodation to their partners.
As marriages progress (~3 to ~20 years):
4.Increasing individual responsibilities (work/family) negatively impact the time and effort spent refreshing and/ or applying knowledge of the partner; thus RSSD will decline.
5.Since wives start with a higher level of RSSD, and to the degree they are more involved in childcare, their level of decline in RSSD will be relatively larger than their husbands.
6.Adaptation and accommodation to the partner will decrease.
7.Spouses will feel less understood and that increases the probability for conflict.
Later years of marriage (~21+):
8.RSSD will increase over the previous years of marriage.
9.To the degree that wives have been more involved in childcare, the reduction in responsibilities will have a greater positive effect on wives’ RSSD than on the husbands.
Some of the above relationships were examined in a study on social decentering and RSSD that I conducted with 101 married couples. The study specifically focused on changes in social decentering and RSSD, comparisons between husbands and wives, and the impact on satisfaction, relational attitudes, and relational communication.
The following ten questions were developed as a way to operationalize each of the dimensions of social decentering to focus individual’s thinking about a spouse’s dispositions. The questions have been successfully utilized in teaching social decentering, having individuals share a personal emotional situation and then having a partner consider and answer each of the following questions. As they proceed, the target indicates the accuracy or inaccuracy of those responses. These questions should be useful for married couples who are interested in improving their sensitivity to and understanding of each other.
- What factors or circumstances are affecting my spouse regarding this situation?
- How can I determine if there are factors I don’t know about or don’t fully understand?
- What do I know about my spouse that explains his or her behaviors and feelings?
- What is going through my spouse’s mind regarding this situation at this time?
- What are my spouse’s feelings about the situation at this time?
- What other explanations could there be for my spouse’s actions?
- What would I think if I were in the same situation?
- How would I feel if I were in the same situation?
- What would other people think if they were in that situation?
- What would other people feel if they were in that situation?
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