Disorder-Specific Patterns of Emotion Coregulation in Couples: Comparing Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Anorexia Nervosa

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Impaired emotion regulation and maladaptive strategies to manage distress are central to psychopathology, including obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and anorexia nervosa (AN). Emotion regulation can be fostered or thwarted by romantic partners, and the tendency to rely on interpersonally oriented emotion regulation may vary by disorder. This study examined coregulation as a form of interpersonal emotion regulation in OCD and AN. We hypothesized that OCD is associated with exaggerated and AN with diminished coregulation, and that OCD patients have greater overall levels of emotional arousal than AN patients. Greater symptom severity was expected to exacerbate these opposing tendencies. Vocally encoded emotional arousal was measured during couple conversations in 34 AN patients, 18 OCD patients, and their partners. Two indicators of coregulation (covariation and coupling) were analyzed using cross-lagged actor–partner interdependence and coupled linear oscillator models. As hypothesized, OCD was associated with greater overall emotional arousal than AN. Symptom severity was not associated with emotional arousal or coregulation. Covariation differed in the opposite direction of the hypothesis; there was no difference in coupling. AN patients exhibited consistent coregulation, indicating high reactivity to partners‘ emotional arousal which may contribute to interpersonal avoidance. OCD couples showed limited predictability of patients’ arousal over time, while partners were affected by the patients’ emotional arousal; thus, symptom accommodation may in part be partners’ attempts at managing their own distress along with the patients’. A better understanding of interpersonal emotion regulation in OCD and AN can inform treatment by targeting interaction patterns that may maintain symptoms.

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