Conflict and Collaboration in Middle-Aged and Older Couples: I. Age Differences in Agency and Communion During Marital Interaction

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Prior theory and research regarding age differences in marital interaction suggest that older couples display and experience more positivity and less negativity than middle-aged couples. However, studies of overt behavior in older couples are relatively rare and have emphasized disagreement, neglecting other important contexts for older couples such as collaboration during everyday problem solving. Further, the affiliation or communion dimension of social interaction (i.e., warmth vs. hostility) is commonly assessed but not the control or agency dimension (e.g., dominance vs. submissiveness). The present study examined affect, cognitive appraisals, and overt behavior during disagreement (i.e., discussing a current conflict) and collaboration (i.e., planning errands) in 300 middle-aged and older married couples. Older couples reported less negative affect during disagreement and rated spouses as warmer than did middle-aged couples. However, these effects were eliminated when older couples' greater marital satisfaction was controlled. For observed behavior, older couples displayed little evidence of greater positivity and reduced negativity—especially women. During collaboration, older couples displayed a unique blend of warmth and control, suggesting a greater focus on emotional and social concerns during problem solving.

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