Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Emotional Transmission in Couples under Stress

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Emotional Transmission in Couples under Stress

Article excerpt

We examined emotional transmission in 68 couples in which one member was preparing to face a major stressful event, the New York State Bar Examination. This event is the final hurdle in the course of legal training, and it typically evokes high levels of distress in examinees. Examinees and partners provided daily diary reports of their activities and emotional states for 35 days surrounding the event. Concurrent and prospective analyses indicated that examinees' depressed mood on a given day was related to partners feeling less positive and more negative about the relationship. However as the examination approached, this association declined to a negligible level. These results suggest that partners increasingly made allowances for examinees' negative affect. In this way, partners preserved their ability to be supportive when examinees needed the support most.

Key Words: anxiety, close relationships, depression, emotional contagion, relationship satisfaction, stress.

A defining feature of a close relationship is that one partner's psychological states and actions have the capacity to influence those of the other partner (Rusbult & Van Lange, 1996). An important type of influence is emotional transmission, when, for example, one partner's state of emotional distress can increase distress or reduce positive affect in the other partner (Hatfield, Cacioppo, & Rapson, 1994). Evidence from a number of studies shows that emotional transmission is a common occurrence in close relationships in everyday life (Larson & Almeida, 1999; Larson & Richards, 1994).

If emotions are transmitted in everyday situations, then it is plausible that this process is accentuated in times of stress when negative emotions are particularly heightened. Hatfield et al. (1994), for example, argue that the more intense a person's emotions, the more likely they are to affect the emotions of another person. Consider the situation of a married couple living with an ill child who must undergo repeated hospitalizations over the course of a year. As this experience becomes prolonged, the parents may become more and more distressed and worn out, and they may be increasingly unable to prevent their negative emotions from affecting one another (Lane & Hobfoll, 1992). Or consider the case of a married couple in which the wife's breast cancer causes her to be highly distressed, a situation that, in turn, erodes her relationship with her spouse (Bolger, Foster, Vinokur, & Ng, 1996). Such situations plausibly involve an increase in emotional transmission between spouses.

On the other hand, it may be that in times of stress couples make special efforts to reduce the transmission of negative emotions. For example, in studies of patients and their spouses, Coyne and his colleagues identified a process they call relationship-focused coping. To protect the relationship, each partner attempts to avoid behaving in ways that might burden the other (Coyne, Ellard, & Smith, 1990; Coyne & Smith, 1991). Another possible reason why transmission might decrease under stress is that one spouse may attribute the distress of the other to the stressful situation and not react to it as strongly as he or she would in more ordinary circumstances (Revenson & Majerowitz, 1990). This process of making allowances for the spouse's distress can be seen as the opposite of the process described by Bradbury and Fincham (1993) in which spouses in distressed couples make distress-enhancing attributions for one another's behavior

Given that stressful situations might either accentuate or diminish emotional transmission, it is of interest to determine which scenario is accurate. To date, no studies have addressed the question of how transmission changes when couples experience a stressful event. Will emotional transmission increase as a stressful event unfolds, or is a coping process set in motion in which partners become less reactive to one another's distress? …

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