UC Santa Barbara
Couple Identity Gaps and the Management of Stress and Conflict in Romantic Relationships
- Author(s): Merrill, Anne Francisca
- Advisor(s): Afifi, Tamara
- et al.
The purpose of this study was to investigate the role of couple identity (or the degree to which one's partner and relationship are central to one's personal identity; Acitelli, Rogers, & Knee, 1999) in romantic partners' communicative and physiological management of
stress associated with relational conflict. The current study extends the research on couple identity by introducing the concept of identity gaps (Hecht, 1993) into relational contexts as a way to explain why couples vary in their ability to manage stress. With assumptions that
perceptions of couple identity are beneficial to stress management and that perceptions of couple identity gaps are detrimental to stress management, it was hypothesized that these variables would predict romantic partners' a) perceptions of anxiety, stress, and negativity
associated with a conflict-inducing discussion and b) their salivary alpha-amylase (sAA) and salivary cortisol reactivity and recovery in response to a conflict-inducing discussion. One hundred eighteen couples participated in a laboratory study, in which they engaged in a
discussion about conflict-inducing topic and provided saliva samples to assess biological stress markers. The couples were also randomly assigned to one of three conditions (couple identity prime, individual identity prime, or control) to test whether priming partners' sense of couple identity (compared to individual identity) prior to the conflict-inducing discussion influenced the results. The results showed that perceptions of couple identity predicted perceptions of conflict negativity, but not anxiety or stress. Overall, perceptions of couple identity gaps emerged as a stronger predictor in this study than perceptions of couple identity. Perceptions of couple identity gaps were associated with greater conflict anxiety, stress, and negativity, as well as heightened cortisol and sAA reactivity. Intriguing results emerged when testing the possibility of interaction effects between the type of prime (couple identity or individual identity) and individuals' pre-existing perceptions of couple identity (and couple identity gaps) on conflict and stress outcomes. The interaction effect patterns suggest that for some outcomes, priming couple identity for those who have weak perceptions of couple identity or have high couple identity gap perceptions increases stress associated with conflict (self-reported and physiological). On the other hand, the interaction effects revealed some evidence that priming individual identity for those who have strong perceptions of couple identity or those with low couple identity gap perceptions increases stress associated with conflict (self-reported and physiological). The current study contributes to the existing research on couple identity by highlighting its role in the romantic partners' experiences and management of stress associated with relational conflict. The study also is the first known to the author to translate identity gaps from the individual context to a dyadic context. Furthermore, the predictive power of couple identity gaps in this study was noteworthy and further supports the viability of this concept in future relationship research. Finally, the study integrated multiple approaches to studying stress (cognitive, behavioral, and physiological) in a novel and theoretically-rich way.