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Discrete emotion sequences and marital satisfaction in middle-aged and older couples


Research indicates that positive emotions are associated with satisfied marriages while negative emotions are associated with dissatisfied marriages. Still unknown is whether all negative emotions are equally associated with dissatisfied marriages and all positive emotions equally are associated with satisfied marriages. Also unknown is whether sequences of discrete emotion between spouses (i.e., how each spouse responds to the emotions of their partner) are related to marital satisfaction. This study examined middle-aged (N = 82) and older (N = 74) couples engaged in a 15-minute conflict conversation to determine how discrete emotion sequences between spouses were related to marital satisfaction. It further examined whether age and gender moderated the relationships between discrete emotion sequences and marital satisfaction. Emotional behavior was coded using the Specific Affect Coding System (SPAFF), consisting of five positive codes, ten negative codes, and a neutral code. The study focused on discrete emotion sequences initiated by three antecedent emotions (anger, contempt and sadness) previously associated with distressed marriages. Consequent emotions included any SPAFF code. Conditional probabilities were computed using the method of Allison and Liker (1982). Results revealed significant associations between discrete emotion sequences and marital satisfaction for 11 of the 39 discrete emotion sequences examined. The significant associations were found for discrete emotion sequences with negative emotion consequents, but not positive emotion consequents. The results were consistent with the predicted pattern in all cases with one exception: spouses who had a greater likelihood of expressing sadness consequents in response to anger antecedents were in more satisfied marriages. There was no evidence of differences in the relationships between discrete emotion sequences and marital satisfaction for husbands and wives. The findings indicated that the relationships between discrete emotion sequences and marital satisfaction did not consistently differ as a function of age, but when they did, they tended to be stronger for older couples. This study revealed important differences in how discrete emotion sequences relate to marital satisfaction. It shows that anger, contempt, and sadness, three emotions that have previously been linked to marital distress, are not always associated with less satisfied marriages. Instead, these emotions are associated with distressed marriages when partners respond to them with certain emotions, but not others.

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