Natural Language Use and Couples’ Adjustment to Head and Neck Cancer

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Abstract

Objective: This multimethod prospective study examined whether emotional disclosure and coping focus as conveyed through natural language use are associated with the psychological and marital adjustment of head and neck cancer patients and their spouses. Method: One-hundred twenty-three patients (85% men; age X = 56.8 years, SD = 10.4) and their spouses completed surveys prior to, following, and 4 months after engaging in a videotaped discussion about cancer in the laboratory. Linguistic inquiry and word count (LIWC) software assessed counts of positive/negative emotion words and first-person singular (I-talk), second person (you-talk), and first-person plural (we-talk) pronouns. Using a grounded theory approach, discussions were also analyzed to describe how emotion words and pronouns were used and what was being discussed. Results: Emotion words were most often used to disclose thoughts/feelings or uncertainty about the future, and to express gratitude or acknowledgment to one’s partner. Although patients who disclosed more negative emotion during the discussion reported more positive mood following the discussion (p < .05), no significant associations between emotion word use and patient or spouse psychological and marital adjustment were found. Patients used significantly more I-talk than spouses and spouses used significantly more you-talk than patients (ps < .01). Patients and spouses reported more positive mood following the discussion when they used more we-talk. They also reported less distress at the 4-month follow-up when their partners used more we-talk during the discussion (p < .01). Conclusion: Findings suggest that emotional disclosure may be less important to one’s cancer adjustment than having a partner who one sees as instrumental to the coping process.

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