New study highlights the importance of perspective-taking in maintaining healthy romantic relationships

Perspective taking appears to act as a buffer against psychological relationship aggression during emerging adulthood, according to new research published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships

Forming and maintaining romantic relationships is an important part of emerging adulthood, and psychological aggression can play a central role in this process. However, the authors of the current study said few previous studies had taken into account both partners’ relationship experiences when examining this topic.

“My interest in what makes healthy romantic relationships in adolescents and emerging adults dates back to the early 1990s; I co-investigated a longitudinal study that started in childhood — where parental relationships were central, and I followed the sample through childhood, where friendship became important for well-being,” said study author Candice Feiring, a senior research scientist at The College of New Jersey.

“Not much work had been done on romantic relationships between adolescents because teenage love was considered short-lived and without much consequence. That was an outdated view, as Wyndol Furman, Bradford Brown, and I argued in our edited book, The Development of Romantic Relationships in Adolescence. Now, 20 years later, research shows how romantic experiences in adolescence and emerging adulthood are related to current well-being and to the health of relationships later in life.”

In the new study, each partner in 126 couples individually completed an audio-recorded interview in which they described two specific moments when they faced relationship conflict because their partner had not met their needs. The participants then completed assessments of relationship aggression and satisfaction. The participants were between the ages of 18 and 25 and had been together for more than a year on average.

The researchers transcribed the interviews and then analyzed how often the participants used words and phrases related to anger, fracture anxiety, and perspective taking. After controlling for relationship satisfaction, they found that participants who showed more anger when describing a past conflict tended to score higher on the measure of relationship aggression, while those who showed more perspective scored lower. Relationship aggression included behaviors such as “exploding and spiraling out of control” and insulting the partner.

“How emerging adults interpret conflict events can guide their behavior when they interact with their partners,” Feiring told PsyPost. “Looking back on past conflicts can influence your behavior in future conflicts. Our research shows that recalling conflict and using anger to interpret/mean events is related to using more verbal aggression when you disagree with your partner. On the positive side, being able to put yourself in your partner’s shoes when interpreting the conflict is related to using less aggression.”

“Suppose your partner has been late for dinner to celebrate your 6th anniversary. If you remember this event, you might interpret it with anger – saying that your partner is being selfish and that you got mad,” said Feiring. “Another person can also interpret a very similar set of events by talking about how stressed the partner has been lately due to interviews/applicants for summer internships – in this case the person uses perspective taking to understand why the partner is late used to be. Perspective taking is an important skill for healthy handling of conflict, but it’s hard to do, especially when someone is angry. And we don’t usually teach adolescents or emerging adults how to use these kinds of skills.”

As with all studies, the study also has some limitations. The sample was made up of college students and included only 3 same-sex couples. Future research on this topic should include larger samples that are more diverse, the researchers said.

The researchers also noted that semi-structured interviews can provide important insights into couples’ relationship functioning, but they also have some drawbacks.

“Romantic relationship stories in emerging adults provide a rich insight into how people think and feel about relationship events, but collecting them is time-consuming, so not done as much as surveys,” explains Feiring. “But romantic relationships are complex and stories get the complexity. For example, ask someone to rate how well he takes his partner’s perspective and that he probably ranks high on this skill himself. Then ask to narrate conflict events and the chances are much smaller that such skills are demonstrated.”

The study, “Romantic Conflict Narratives and Associations with Psychological Relationship Aggression in Emerging Adult Couples,” was authored by Candice Feiring, Elisa Liang, Charles Cleland, and Valerie Simon.

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