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We Can Work It Out: Age Differences in Relational Pronouns, Physiology, and Behavior in Marital Conflict

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Abstract

This study examined the relationship that personal pronouns spoken during a marital conversation have with the emotional qualities of those interactions and with marital satisfaction. Middle-aged and older couples (N = 154) engaged in a 15-min conflict conversation during which physiology and emotional behavior were continuously monitored. Verbatim transcripts of the conversations were coded into 2 lexical categories: (a) we-ness (we-words), pronouns that focus on the couple; (b) separateness (me/you-words), pronouns that focus on the individual spouses. Analyses revealed that greater we-ness was associated with a number of desirable qualities of the interaction (lower cardiovascular arousal, more positive and less negative emotional behavior), whereas greater separateness was associated with a less desirable profile (more negative emotional behavior, lower marital satisfaction). In terms of age differences, older couples used more we-ness words than did middle-aged couples. Further, the associations between separateness and marital satisfaction were strongest for older wives. These findings indicate that the emotional aspects of marital quality are expressed in the natural language of couples engaged in conversation.
We Can Work It Out: Age Differences in Relational Pronouns,
Physiology, and Behavior in Marital Conflict
Benjamin H. Seider, Gilad Hirschberger, Kristin L. Nelson, and Robert W. Levenson
University of California, Berkeley
This study examined the relationship that personal pronouns spoken during a marital conversation have with
the emotional qualities of those interactions and with marital satisfaction. Middle-aged and older couples (N
154) engaged in a 15-min conflict conversation during which physiology and emotional behavior were
continuously monitored. Verbatim transcripts of the conversations were coded into 2 lexical categories: (a)
we-ness (we-words), pronouns that focus on the couple; (b) separateness (me/you-words), pronouns that focus
on the individual spouses. Analyses revealed that greater we-ness was associated with a number of desirable
qualities of the interaction (lower cardiovascular arousal, more positive and less negative emotional behavior),
whereas greater separateness was associated with a less desirable profile (more negative emotional behavior,
lower marital satisfaction). In terms of age differences, older couples used more we-ness words than did
middle-aged couples. Further, the associations between separateness and marital satisfaction were strongest for
older wives. These findings indicate that the emotional aspects of marital quality are expressed in the natural
language of couples engaged in conversation.
Keywords: aging, marital satisfaction, personal pronouns, we-ness versus separateness, emotion
Husband: When “we” think about those things, the work on the house,
intimate vacation time . . .
Wife: It’s a “we” thing.
Husband: They are “we” things.
These comments were made by a couple in this study during a
discussion of an area of disagreement in their marriage. Notably,
they associated salient aspects of marital life with a collective
entity, using we-words. Other couples might have focused more on
the individual spouses, using you- and me-words. Is such word
usage merely random, or does it reflect enduring psychological
qualities of the couple’s relationship? Pennebaker, Mehl, and
Niederhoffer (2003) concluded that often more significant infor-
mation can be extracted from “junk words,” such as prepositions,
articles and, in particular, pronouns, than from words that convey
more overtly meaningful content. These findings are in keeping
with linguistic research that has emphasized the centrality of
pronouns in shaping shared meaning structures during conversa-
tions (Gordon, Grosz, & Gilliom, 1993; Sanford & Garrod, 1981).
Previous research has demonstrated that pronoun usage is associ-
ated with relationship commitment (Agnew, Van Lange, Rusbult, &
Langston, 1998), intimacy, and marital quality (Fitzsimons & Kay,
2004; Sillars, Shellen, McIntosh, & Pomegranate, 1997). Research
has also documented that the emotional qualities of marital interac-
tions are closely associated with marital satisfaction (Gottman &
Levenson, 1988, 1992; Levenson & Gottman, 1983, 1985). However,
there has been very little research examining the associations between
the use of pronouns and the emotional qualities of marriage. None-
theless, there is some evidence to suggest that natural language use is
associated with the emotional qualities of marriage. In an earlier study
from our laboratory, we examined how the use of emotion words and
metaphors relate to autonomic nervous system (ANS) activity during
marital interactions (Marchitelli & Levenson, 1992), finding evidence
of concordance between spoken emotion language and ANS physi-
ology (e.g., the use of heat and pressure metaphors were associated
with elevated levels of cardiovascular response). Additionally, Buehl-
man, Gottman, and Katz (1992) used an inferential coding system for
quantifying schemas of we-ness and separateness during oral history
interviews and found we-ness to be associated with more positive and
less negative emotional behaviors and lower levels of ANS activity
during subsequent couple interactions.
As in previous research, we focused on the distinction between
pronouns that convey we-ness (we-words)and those that convey
separateness (you-words and me-words). However, unlike previ-
ous research, we combined text analysis methodologies used in
studies of marital interaction (Marchitelli & Levenson, 1992; Sil-
lars et al., 1997; Simmons, Gordon, & Chambless, 2005) and
psychotherapy (e.g., Mergenthaler & Bucci, 1999) with our meth-
odology for studying the emotional qualities of naturalistic marital
interactions. Because a sense of we-ness may become stronger
Benjamin H. Seider, Gilad Hirschberger, Kristin L. Nelson, and
Robert W. Levenson, Department of Psychology, University of Cali-
fornia, Berkeley.
Gilad Hirschberger is now at the New School of Psychology, Interdis-
ciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya, Ramat Gan, Israel; Kristin L. Nelson is
now at the Department of Psychology, McDaniel College.
This research was supported by National Institute of Aging Grant
AG17766 to Robert W. Levenson. We are grateful to Tsachi Ein-Dor for
his extensive assistance with statistical analyses.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Robert
W. Levenson, Institute of Personality and Social Research, 4143 Tolman
Hall, Suite 5050, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720-5050.
E-mail: boblev@socrates.berkeley.edu
Psychology and Aging © 2009 American Psychological Association
2009, Vol. 24, No. 3, 604– 613 0882-7974/09/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/a0016950
604
over time in marriages, this study used a sample of middle-aged
and older long-term married couples.
We-ness Versus Separateness
The constructs of we-ness and separateness have long been of
interest to social psychologists and marital researchers because the
formation of a close romantic relationship involves a partial transfor-
mation of identity—a shift from being two separate individuals into
being a couple. Early on, psychologists recognized this transforma-
tion, describing it in terms of autonomy versus homonomy (Angyal,
1943) or agency versus communion (Bakan, 1966). According to
interdependence theory (Kelley, 1979; Kelley & Thibaut, 1978),
dependence in the relationship results in more favorable relationship
outcomes. Rusbult (1983) extended this theory to incorporate an
investment model of interdependence that links dependence with
relationship commitment. Increases in relationship commitment lead
to a shared collective identity in which mental representations of the
couple become more prominent (Agnew et al., 1998). Related notions
emphasize the inclusion of other in the self (Aron & Aron, 1997;
Aron, Aron, & Smollan, 1992), and relational awareness (Acitelli,
1988, 1992, 1993). Over the course of the past few decades, the
construct of we-ness versus separateness has been shown to be asso-
ciated with relationship satisfaction using a number of different ap-
proaches to measure the construct (e.g., Aron et al., 1992; Buehlman
et al., 1992; Sillars et al., 1997).
Methods Used to Study We-ness and Separateness
Using self-report measures, researchers have documented that
relationship partners (Aron et al., 1992) and spouses (Acitelli &
Antonucci, 1994; Scott, Fuhrman, & Wyer, 1991) who report
perceiving themselves as a couple also report being more satisfied
with their relationship than do those who primarily perceive them-
selves as individuals. The implications of these findings are some-
what limited because of the shared method variance, but, as
described below, the results are consistent with those found using
other measurement approaches.
Content analyses of couples’ conversations and couples’ descrip-
tions of their relationship have also been used to assess we-ness versus
separateness and have revealed that themes of togetherness are asso-
ciated with relationship satisfaction. Specifically, content coding has
shown that satisfied couples emphasize communal themes both in
couples’ conversations (Sillars, Burggraf, Yost, & Zietlow, 1992;
Sillars, Weisberg, Burggraf, & Wilson, 1987) and in couples’ free-
response relationship descriptions (Fletcher, Fincham, Cramer, &
Heron, 1987). Further, in the Buehlman and Gottman work (Buehl-
man et al., 1992; Carrere, Buehlman, Gottman, Coan, & Ruckstuhl,
2000), relational schemas were derived from narrative coding of
videotaped oral history interviews of married couples. The researchers
found that greater we-ness was related to (a) more positive (e.g.,
humorous) and fewer negative (e.g., critical) problem-solving strate-
gies, (b) less negative affect, and (c) less cardiac arousal during
subsequent couple interactions. Greater we-ness was also associated
with higher marital satisfaction and less marital instability (separation
or divorce) 3 years later. These findings underscore the breadth of the
relationship between we-ness schemas and other aspects of marital
functioning.
Finally, natural language usage has also been used as an implicit
measure of we-ness versus separateness. Psycholinguistic research
has demonstrated that the words we speak reflect integral compo-
nents of our psychological makeup, including emotional state,
social identity, and cognitive style (Pennebaker et al., 2003). In the
domain of interpersonal relationships, subtle differences in lan-
guage have been correlated with relational perceptions and rela-
tionship closeness (Agnew et al., 1998; Fiedler, Semin, & Kop-
petsch, 1991; Fitzsimons & Kay, 2004; Ickes, Bissonnette, Garcia,
& Stinson, 1990). Despite this, the study of the use of speech
particles such as personal pronouns in natural language has been
relatively underutilized in the study of relationships (Pennebaker et
al., 2003). Ironically, adages such as “there is no Iin team” suggest
the importance that speech particles play in group processes and in
creating relational meaning. Without such referents, it would be
difficult or nearly impossible to express certain types of relation-
ships verbally (Bradac, 1983). Hence, the natural use of such
self/other referents may be an important linguistic marker of an
underlying shared versus separate dimension of identification.
Speech particles may be particularly useful in the study of rela-
tionships because they arguably are less likely to be monitored and
censored than is more elaborated speech content.
Existing theory and research that have considered pronoun
usage in the context of relationships have been promising. The use
of the pronoun we has been proposed as a marker of closeness,
intimacy, and involvement of the other (Duck, 1992; Mehrabian,
1971). Ellis and Hamilton (1985) found that first-person plural
pronouns (e.g., we,us,our) reflect common experience whereas
first- (e.g., I,me,my) or second-person singular (e.g., you,your)
pronouns reflect individuated experience. Previous work has indi-
cated that the frequency of we-words in one’s writing about a
romantic relationship is associated with greater relationship com-
mitment (Agnew et al., 1998). Fitzsimons and Kay (2004) manip-
ulated pronoun usage and found that people who used we-words as
opposed to you- and me-words perceived relationships as closer
and of higher quality. Sillars et al. (1997) found that happier
couples used fewer you- and me-words than did unhappy couples.
Emotional Behavior and Physiology in Marital Interaction
Research has consistently documented how the emotional cli-
mate of marital conflict interactions is an important marker of
overall marital quality. Two important indicators of emotion in
marital interactions are emotional behavior (facial expression,
voice tone, body posture, gestures, verbal content, and context)
and physiological responses. Research on marital interactions has
consistently found that emotional exchanges characterized by high
levels of negative emotional behavior and low levels of positive
emotional behavior are associated with greater marital dissatisfac-
tion and instability (Gottman, Coan, Carrere, & Swanson, 1998;
Gottman & Krokoff, 1989; Gottman & Levenson, 1992; Karney &
Bradbury, 1997). Research on physiological activation during mar-
ital interactions has also consistently shown that high levels of
physiological activation during the interaction are also associated
with greater marital dissatisfaction and instability (Levenson &
Gottman, 1983; 1985) as well as poor adjustment to retirement
(Kupperbusch, Levenson, & Ebling, 2003).
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WE CAN WORK IT OUT
Aging and Marriage
Socioemotional selectivity theory is a prominent aging theory that
offers clear predictions about the nature of close relationships in late
life. The theory is rooted in the idea that perceived limitations on time
lead to motivation shifts in behavior (Carstensen, 1991). Specifically,
the theory holds that perceived limitations on time lead to greater
investment in close relationships. There is a great deal of evidence to
support this prediction. Research has shown that older adults increas-
ingly prefer and make greater investments in close relationships
(Fredrickson & Carstensen, 1990; Fung, Carstensen, & Lutz, 1999;
Lang, 2000, 2001; Lang & Carstensen, 1994). Not only do older
adults invest more resources in close relationships, but Clements and
Swensen (2000) showed that an older individual’s marital relationship
is an important determinant of his or her overall quality of life.
Notably, they found relationship commitment to be the strongest
predictor of marital quality for older adults. In addition to the in-
creased importance of close relationships for older adults, there is
evidence that older adults demonstrate the improved ability to regulate
emotions in close relationships. Observational studies of the marital
interactions of middle-aged and older couples have documented that
older couples expressed more positive and less negative emotion
(Carstensen, Gottman, & Levenson, 1995), had lower physiological
arousal (arguably an indicator of more regulated emotional ex-
changes), and reported more positive subjective experience than did
middle-aged couples (Levenson, Carstensen, & Gottman, 1994).
On the basis of the increased importance of close relationships
and the improved regulation of emotion within close relationships
for older adults, we expect that older married couples are more
likely to represent their relationship using a shared identity than
are younger couples. Sillars and colleagues (1992) found support
for this insofar as older couples used more we-words than did
younger couples during a marital interaction. Consistent with this
finding, Pennebaker and Stone (2003) reported that as people get
older, they use fewer me-words. Beyond these studies, there has
been little work on how pronoun use is associated with age.
The Current Study
The research we have reviewed illustrates the importance of the
constructs of we-ness and separateness as predictors of marital
satisfaction and indicates that this quality may be tapped by
self-report measures (Aron et al., 1992), oral histories (Buehlman
et al., 1992), and the language that spouses use in conversation
(Sillars et al., 1997). We know that pronoun usage is associated
with relationship closeness and satisfaction and that positive and
negative emotions are also associated with relationship satisfac-
tion, yet little work has been done exploring whether pronoun
usage is associated with emotion. To date, only one study has
examined the relationship between pronoun use and emotional
behavior during the interactions of married couples (Simmons,
Gordon, & Chambless, 2005). The study explored this relationship
using a sample of highly dissatisfied couples in which one spouse
was diagnosed with a mental illness and found that greater use of
we-words was associated with less negative interaction behavior
and more positive problem-solving skills. Simmons and colleagues
also found that greater use of you- and me-words was associated
with negative interaction behavior but that only you-words were
associated with lower self-reported marital satisfaction.
In the current study, we build upon the prior work by evaluating a
normative sample of both happy and unhappy marriages as well as
middle-aged and older marriages; we include a continuous assessment
of autonomic physiology during the couples’ interactions. In the
Buehlman and Gottman studies, we-ness was quantified on the basis
of the ways couples described their relationship when responding to
questions posed by an interviewer. Clearly, such interviews provide a
useful format for examining relational schemas. However, in such
contexts couples are not really talking to one another but rather are
responding to the interviewer. In the present research, we were inter-
ested in examining whether the constructs of we-ness and separate-
ness also emerged in the natural language couples use when talking to
each other during an unrehearsed, minimally structured interaction
about a topic of marital conflict. As such, the present study is the first
to combine a measure of we-ness and separateness derived from
conversational text analysis with measures of emotional behavior and
physiology, all obtained during naturalistic marital interaction. Fi-
nally, we considered both within-spouse and between-spouse effects
using the Actor–Partner Interdependence Model (APIM; Kashy &
Kenny, 2000).
Our primary hypotheses were the following: (a) older couples
use more we-ness words (we) and fewer separateness words (me/
you), compared with middle-aged couples; (b) greater use of
we-ness words is associated with higher marital satisfaction, and
greater use of separateness words is associated with lower marital
satisfaction; (c) greater use of we-ness words is associated with
more favorable emotional qualities of the interaction (less physi-
ological arousal, more positive and fewer negative emotional be-
haviors), and greater use of separateness words is associated with
less favorable emotional qualities of the interaction (more physi-
ological arousal, fewer positive and more negative emotional be-
haviors). Because the literature on gender differences and natural
language has been inconclusive (Pennebaker et al., 2003), we did
not cast a priori hypotheses about gender but planned to conduct
exploratory analyses.
Method
Participants
The data in this study came from our ongoing longitudinal study
of long-term marriages in middle age and old age that began in
1989 (Levenson, Carstensen, & Gottman, 1993). The participants
were 154 couples who differed in age (middle-aged 40 –50
years; older 60 –70 years) and represented a wide range of
marital satisfaction levels. Couples were all in first marriages
(middle-aged at least 15 years in duration; older at least 35
years). All data used for the present study were collected during
the initial wave of assessment conducted in 1989 –1990.
For middle-aged couples, N80, the mean age was 44.3 (SD
2.9) for husbands and 43.2 (SD 2.9) for wives. For older
couples, N74, the mean age was 63.7 (SD 2.9) for husbands
and 62.3 (SD 3.2) for wives.
The sample was recruited so as to be representative of long-term
marriages in the Berkeley, California area and can be described as
being predominantly Caucasian, upper middle class, white-collar,
well educated, and Judeo-Christian. For complete details on sam-
pling and recruitment, see Levenson et al. (1993).
606 SEIDER, HIRSCHBERGER, NELSON, AND LEVENSON
Procedure
The laboratory sessions used procedures for studying marital inter-
action developed originally by Levenson and Gottman (1983). Cou-
ples engaged in three conversations: (a) events of the day, (b) marital
conflict, and (c) pleasant topic. Each conversation started with a 5-min
preinteraction period during which the couple was asked to relax and
refrain from conversation. This was followed by a 15-min conversa-
tion. Throughout the preinteraction and conversation periods, couples’
behavior was recorded on video and their physiological responses
were monitored (see below). The present study focuses on the emo-
tional behavior of the couples during the 15-min marital conflict
conversation. The conflict conversation provides a context in which
couples either come together as a team or oppose each other as
individuals. Thus, given our research interest in we-ness and sepa-
rateness, the conflict conversation was optimally suited to address our
research questions. Using spouses’ responses on the Couple’s Prob-
lem Inventory (Gottman, Markman, & Notarius, 1977), a trained
interviewer helped the couple choose a topic of disagreement on
which they thought they could make progress during the course of the
interaction. Several days later, spouses returned separately to the
laboratory to view the video recording of their interaction and used a
rating dial to provide a continuous report of their emotions during the
interaction.
1
Measures
Language. Trained research assistants transcribed the conflict
interactions into Standard English (Mergenthaler & Stinson,
1992). A computer program, Oedipus Text, written by Robert W.
Levenson (1992), was used to count the total number of words
spoken by each spouse and the number of pronouns in each of
three lexical categories as defined in a dictionary file: (a) we-
words—pronouns that refer to the couple (e.g., we,our,ourselves,
us), (b) me-words—pronouns that refer to the speaker (e.g., I,me,
mine,myself), and (c) you-words—pronouns that refer to the other
spouse (e.g., you,yours,yourself). The complete dictionary is
presented in the Appendix to this article.
Because the meaning of a word can be markedly altered by its
context, we undertook an additional contextual analysis using the
Oedipus Text program to improve the accuracy of pronoun clas-
sification. The program displayed each personal pronoun that was
used in the conversation in context (i.e., the sentence in which it
occurred and the preceding and following sentences). Two trained
coders placed each pronoun into one of the following five catego-
ries:
1. Actual personal pronouns referencing the speaker, other
spouse, or couple.
2. Dysfluencies—pronouns used prior to a repetition and/or
the truncation of a proposition (e.g., “I...I, I never
wanted to do that”). If the proposition was later com-
pleted, then any personal pronouns in that proposition
were coded as a personal pronoun reference (in this
example, only the last Iwould be coded as personal
pronoun referencing the self).
3. Generic—pronouns referring to a general or universal
other (e.g., “You always get what you pay for . . .”).
4. Filler—pronouns used as part of an idiomatic phrase used
to fill a speech pause (e.g., “you know,” “Idon’t know”).
5. No code—pronouns used in references to the speech of a
third person (e.g., “My boss said ‘I am really sick of this
backlog we’ve got!’”). Only personal pronoun categories
that referenced the speaker, spouse, or couple were used
in subsequent analyses.
The context coding resulted in dropping 8.6% of the pronouns
from the verbatim transcriptions. Reliability for this secondary
coding was very high. On the 20% of transcripts coded by both
coders, Cohen’s kappa was .99 for me-words, .99 for you-words,
and .99 for we-words.
Physiology. Continuous recordings of seven physiological
measurements of autonomic and somatic nervous system activity
were collected with a system consisting of a Grass Model 7
12-channel polygraph and a microcomputer with analog and dig-
ital input/output capabilities:
1. Cardiac interbeat interval (IBI)—Beckman miniature
electrodes with Redux paste were placed in a bipolar
configuration on opposite sides of the participant’s chest,
and the interval between successive R-waves of the elec-
trocardiogram (EKG) was measured in milliseconds.
2. Skin conductance level—a constant voltage device
passed a small voltage between Beckman regular elec-
trodes attached to the palmar surface of the middle pha-
langes of the first and third fingers of the nondominant
hand using sodium chloride in Unibase as the electrolyte.
3. Pulse transmission time to the finger—the time interval
was measured between the R-wave of the EKG and the
upstroke of the peripheral pulse at the finger.
4. Finger pulse amplitude—a UFI photoplethysmograph at-
tached to the second finger of the nondominant hand re-
corded the volume of blood in the finger. The trough-to-
peak amplitude of the finger pulse was measured, providing
an index of the amount of blood in the periphery.
5. Pulse transmission time to the ear—a UFI photoplethys-
mograph attached to the right earlobe recorded the vol-
ume of blood in the ear. The time interval was measured
between the R-wave of the EKG and the upstroke of the
peripheral pulse at the ear.
6. Finger temperature—a Yellow Springs Instruments ther-
mistor was attached to the palmar surface of the first
phalange of the middle finger of the dominant hand with
surgical tape.
7. General somatic activity—an electromechanical trans-
ducer attached to a platform under the participant’s chair
1
The rating dial data were not included because we chose to emphasize
variables (emotional behavior and physiology) that were assessed during
the interactions.
607
WE CAN WORK IT OUT
generated an electrical signal proportional to the amount
of body movement in any direction.
The physiological measures were selected to sample broadly
from major organ systems (cardiac, vascular, thermoregulatory,
electrodermal, and somatic muscle), to allow for continuous mea-
surement, to be as unobtrusive as possible, and to include measures
used in our previous studies of marriage (e.g., Levenson & Gott-
man, 1983; Levenson et al., 1994) and emotion. A computer
program written by one of the authors (Robert W. Levinson) was
used to calculate second-by-second averages for each physiologi-
cal measure for each spouse.
Emotional behavior. Two remotely controlled video cameras,
which were partially concealed behind darkened glass, were used to
obtain frontal views of each spouse’s face and upper torso. These
images were combined into a single split-screen image using a video
special-effects generator and were recorded on a VHS videocassette
recorder. Two lavaliere microphones were used to record the couples’
conversations. The computer was programmed to enable synchroni-
zation between video and physiological data by controlling the oper-
ation of a device that superimposed the elapsed time on the video
recording and a second device that recorded a synchronization tone on
one of the audio channels of the videotape recording. This tone was
also used to synchronize the data obtained in the recall session with
the data obtained in the interaction session.
Emotional behavior during the conflict conversation was pro-
cessed by a team of coders using the Specific Affect Coding
System (SPAFF; Gottman & Krokoff, 1989; SPAFF Version 2.0,
Gottman, 1989). SPAFF is a cultural informant coding system in
which coders, working with videotapes, consider a gestalt consist-
ing of verbal content, voice tone, context, facial expression, ges-
tures, and body movement. SPAFF treats the stream of behavior as
continuous (rather than segmenting it into time blocks or turns at
speech), and, thus, codes can be given at any time.
For speakers, the positive affect codes were interest, affection,
humor, validation (i.e., acknowledgment for partner’s feelings),
and joy. The negative affect codes were anger, contempt, disgust,
belligerence, domineering, defensiveness, fear/tension/worry, sad-
ness, and whining. There was also a neutral code. For listeners,
codes were positive, negative, neutral, and stonewalling. As an
assessment of reliability, Cohen’s kappa was computed to control
for agreement by chance alone. The overall kappa for the SPAFF
coding was 0.64 (Carstensen et al., 1995).
Marital satisfaction. The Locke–Wallace Marital Adjustment
Test (LW; Locke & Wallace, 1959) and the Marital Relationship
Inventory (MRI; Burgess, Locke, & Thomas, 1971), two highly
validated measures, were used to assess marital satisfaction. The
MAT is a 15-item inventory, and the MRI is a 22-item inventory.
Data Reduction
Language. Two language variables were created for each
spouse. The total number of we-words divided by the total number of
words spoken was treated as a we-ness variable. The total number of
me-words plus the total number of you-words divided by the total
number of words spoken was treated as a separateness variable.
Physiology. Using the second-by-second data obtained for
each physiological measure, we computed means for each spouse
for the entire 15-min conversation. In the current research we
focused on cardiovascular, electrodermal, and somatic measures.
We computed a composite measure of physiological activation by
averaging the standardized means of the following variables for
each spouse: cardiac IBI, pulse transmission time to the finger,
finger pulse amplitude, and pulse transmission time to the ear (the
standardized scores of the cardiovascular measures were multi-
plied by 1 so that higher numbers would indicate greater acti-
vation), skin conductance, and somatic activity. We have used
these kinds of physiological composites in our previous work (e.g.,
Gross & Levenson, 1997; Mauss, Levenson, McCarter, Wilhelm,
& Gross, 2005; Sturm, Rosen, Allison, Miller, & Levinson, 2006;
Werner et al., 2007). Composites of this sort have a number of
advantages: (a) They reduce the number of physiological depen-
dent variables, thus helping control for Type I error; (b) the
composite is sensitive to change in any of the included physiolog-
ical variables, which is important should different subjects respond
in different ways to the stimulus; and (c) in general, forming
composite measures increases reliability (e.g., Lord & Novick,
1968; Tryon & Bernstein, 2003). In the case of autonomic mea-
sures, it has been noted that correlations among measures are often
low (e.g., Davidson, 1978; Lacey, 1967; Lazarus, Speisman, &
Mordkoff, 1963). This is certainly true when the individual is at
rest, but the coherence among these measures increases when
individuals are exposed to potent stimuli (Mauss et al., 2005). For
example, in the present data set, with subjects likely to be highly
activated by the conflict discussion, the reliability index for the
physiological composite (␣⫽.41) was quite comparable with that
of the emotional behavior composites (positive emotion ␣⫽.29;
negative emotion ␣⫽.39). Nonetheless, to make sure that the use
of the physiological composite did not distort the findings, we also
conducted exploratory analyses at the level of individual physio-
logical variables.
Emotional behavior. The number of occurrences of each
SPAFF code for each spouse was expressed as a percentage of the
total number of SPAFF speaker and listener codes during the
interaction. Total positive and total negative composites were
computed for each spouse that included both speaker and listener
codes. As with physiological data, we often use emotional behav-
ior composite scores (e.g., Kupperbusch et al., 2003; Tsai, Leven-
son, & McCoy, 2006) to increase reliability and decrease the
number of dependent variables (and associated risk for Type I
error). An exploratory analysis at the level of individual SPAFF
codes was conducted to ensure that the use of the composite did
not alter the findings in any important ways.
Marital satisfaction. Scores on the LW and MRI inventories
were averaged for each spouse. For the entire sample, the mean
marital satisfaction was 111.5, and the median was 115.25 (SD
17.61).
Results
Analyses
Data were analyzed using the Actor–Partner Interdependence
Model (APIM; Kashy & Kenny, 2000), a data analytic approach
designed to deal with dyadic data. The APIM estimates two kinds
of effects: actor effects and partner effects. Actor effects are
within-person effects: They represent the contribution of an indi-
vidual’s level of a predictor variable to that individual’s level of an
608 SEIDER, HIRSCHBERGER, NELSON, AND LEVENSON
outcome variable. Partner effects are between-person effects: They
represent the contribution of a partner’s level of a predictor to an
individual’s level of the outcome variable. APIM provides separate
and statistically independent tests of actor and partner effects by
testing each while controlling for the other. With this approach the
dyad can be treated as the unit of analysis, and actor and partner
effects are tested with the proper degrees of freedom (see Camp-
bell & Kashy, 2002; Kashy & Kenny, 2000; Kenny, 1996).
We conducted the analyses using hierarchical linear modeling
(HLM 6.0). Models were set up to test the relationship between the
four predictor variables (positive emotional behavior, negative
emotional behavior, cardiovascular physiology, and marital satis-
faction), two moderator variables (age and gender) and the two
criterion language variables (we-ness and separateness). Because
marital satisfaction has been associated with emotional behavior
and physiology (Gottman & Levenson, 1988, 1992; Levenson &
Gottman, 1983, 1985), marital satisfaction was entered as a co-
variate in the models of each of the other three predictor variables.
To facilitate interpretation, the emotional behavior, physiology,
language, and marital satisfaction variables were all normalized.
Multiple imputation with multilevel regression as the imputation
method was used to account for missing data. Actor- and partner-
standardized coefficients for the models predicting we-ness and
separateness are reported in Table 1.
Pronoun Usage
Across the entire sample, the means (ratio of total use of a type
of pronoun to total words) and standard deviations for each type of
pronoun were .012 (SD .008) for we-ness and .072 (SD .03)
for separateness. Correlations between the two types of pronouns
failed to reach significance both for husbands, r(154) ⫽⫺.126,
p.121, and wives, r(154) ⫽⫺.155, p.057. Examining the
size of the correlation coefficients suggests that there is less than
3% shared variance between we-ness and separateness pronouns,
thus justifying our decision to treat them separately.
Age and Gender Differences in Language
Analyses revealed age and gender differences in language use
(see Table 2). With regard to we-ness, consistent with our hypoth-
esis, we found that older couples used more we-ness words than
did middle-aged couples, ␤⫽.17, t(154) 2.51, p.01. In terms
of separateness, middle-aged and older couples did not differ, ␤⫽
.01, t(154) ⫽⫺0.178, ns. Husbands and wives did not differ in
their use of we-ness, ␤⫽.05, t(154) 1.23, ns. However, wives
used more separateness words than did husbands, ␤⫽⫺.20,
t(300) ⫽⫺6.72, p.001.
Marital Satisfaction
We hypothesized that more we-ness would be associated with
higher actor and partner marital satisfaction and that more sepa-
rateness would be associated with lower actor and partner marital
satisfaction. These hypotheses received partial support. We found
no association between we-ness and actor or partner marital sat-
isfaction; however, we found that separateness was associated with
lower actor satisfaction, ␤⫽⫺.12, t(300) ⫽⫺2.18, p.05, and
approached significance for partner marital satisfaction, ␤⫽⫺.12,
t(300) ⫽⫺1.79, p.07. Notably, we found that these effects
were moderated by significant three-way interactions between
age-group, gender, and marital satisfaction: actor marital satisfac-
tion, ␤⫽.29, t(300) 2.098, p.05; and partner marital
satisfaction, ␤⫽⫺.32, t(300) ⫽⫺2.222, p.05. Simple slope
analyses were conducted using a web utility designed to probe
interaction effects in hierarchical linear modeling (Preacher, Cur-
ran, & Bauer, 2006; Curran, Bauer, & Willoughby, 2006). The
results from the simple slope analyses indicated that for actor
marital satisfaction the effect of separateness was found predom-
inantly for older wives, ␤⫽⫺.51, t(300) ⫽⫺2.218, p.05, but
for partner marital satisfaction, this effect was found predomi-
nantly for older husbands, ␤⫽⫺.51, t(300) ⫽⫺2.477, p.05.
These results indicate that greater use of separateness words spo-
ken by older wives are more strongly associated with their own
marital dissatisfaction and that separateness words spoken by older
husbands are more strongly associated with the marital dissatis-
faction of their wives. Thus, greater use of separateness words by
both spouses appears to be most strongly associated with wives’
marital dissatisfaction.
Taken together, these results indicate that we-ness, which reflects
the spouses as a collective entity, was not associated with marital
Table 1
APIM Standardized Coefficients for Marital Satisfaction, Positive Emotion, Negative Emotion, and Physiology Predicting
Pronoun Categories
Variable
We Me and you
Marital
satisfaction
Positive
emotion
Negative
emotion Physiology
Marital
satisfaction
Positive
emotion
Negative
emotion Physiology
Gender .047 .033 .040 .033 .203
ⴱⴱⴱ
.210
ⴱⴱⴱ
.204
ⴱⴱⴱ
.207
ⴱⴱⴱ
Age group .177
ⴱⴱ
.177
ⴱⴱ
.200
ⴱⴱ
.113 .012 .032 .014 .001
Actor effect .030 .018 .108
.075 .124
.048 .250
ⴱⴱⴱ
.040
Partner effect .052 .123
.141
ⴱⴱ
.185
.119 .022 .257
ⴱⴱⴱ
.009
Age Actor Effect .092 .089 .013 .052 .061 .031 .022 .012
Age Partner Effect .004 .060 .036 .049 .060 .019 .033 .057
Gender Age Actor Effect .020 .072 .091 .035 .296
.067 .003 .060
Gender Age Partner Effect .008 .034 .134
.012 .323
.006 .039 .102
Note. APIM Actor–Partner Interdependence Model.
p.05.
ⴱⴱ
p.01.
ⴱⴱⴱ
p.001.
609
WE CAN WORK IT OUT
satisfaction. In contrast, separateness, which reflects the spouses as
independent entities, was associated with marital dissatisfaction. Fur-
ther, this latter connection between use of separateness words and
marital dissatisfaction was strongest for older wives.
Emotional Behavior and Physiology
Analyses revealed a number of significant associations between
pronoun use and emotional behavior and physiology.
We-ness. Consistent with our hypotheses, greater we-ness was
associated with less actor negative emotion, ␤⫽⫺.108, t(299)
2.31, p.05, and less partner negative emotion, ␤⫽⫺.141,
t(299) ⫽⫺2.84, p.01. This effect was moderated by a signif-
icant three-way interaction between age-group, gender, and nega-
tivity, ␤⫽.134, t(299) 2.11, p.05. Simple slope analyses
indicated that it was primarily older wives who showed the asso-
ciation between we-ness and less partner negative emotion, ␤⫽
.310, t(299) ⫽⫺2.91, p.01. Also consistent with our hypoth-
eses, greater use of we-ness was associated with more partner
positive emotion, ␤⫽.123, t(299) ⫽⫺1.90, p.05. Finally, as
expected, we found that greater we-ness was associated with lower
partner physiological arousal, ␤⫽⫺.19, t(299) 2.26, p.05.
2
Thus, the general pattern of these findings was that greater we-ness
was associated with more positive emotional behavior, less nega-
tive emotional behavior, and greater physiological calm.
Separateness. Consistent with our hypotheses, greater use of
separateness was associated with more actor negative emotion,
␤⫽.250, t(299) 5.29, p.001, and more partner negative
emotion, ␤⫽.257, t(299) 5.47, p.001.
3
However, our
hypotheses that greater use of separateness words would be asso-
ciated with fewer positive emotions and greater cardiovascular
arousal were not supported. Thus, the general pattern of these
findings was that greater separateness was associated with more
negative emotional behavior.
4
Discussion
The goal of this study was to determine whether the kinds of
personal pronouns used by couples when attempting to resolve a
marital conflict reflect the emotional nature of their interactions and
their marital satisfaction. Our findings provide substantial evidence
that pronoun usage is related to the emotional quality of marital
interaction (in both emotional behavior and physiological arousal) as
well as to marital satisfaction. Specifically, we found that we-ness
language (we-words), which reflect a schema of interdependence,
shared responsibility, and partnership, were associated with interac-
tions characterized by relatively high levels of positive emotional
behavior, low levels of negative emotional behavior, and low levels of
cardiovascular arousal. Interestingly, our APIM data analytic proce-
dure, which treats actor and partner effects separately, revealed that
these associates were stronger for partners than for actors. Thus, in the
context of discussions of marital conflict, when one spouse uses
we-ness, the primary soothing or emotion-regulating effect is on the
other spouse.
In contrast, separateness words (me/you-words), which reflect a
schema of independence and a focus on the individual spouses, were
associated with interactions characterized by high levels of negative
emotional behaviors and with more dissatisfied marriages. These
associations were equally strong for both actors and partners, suggest-
ing that the activation of a separateness schema is particularly toxic to
marriages insofar as its influences extend to both spouses. We believe
that these findings result from interaction patterns in which spouses
use separateness language as a way of expressing their frustrations in
ways that are often contentious and adversarial. Not surprisingly,
couples who interact in this manner are more dissatisfied with their
marriages. Thus, these results are quite consistent with previous
research demonstrating that the schemas of we-ness and separateness
are associated with important qualities of intimate relationships.
Age, Gender, and Pronoun Usage
In this study we found that older couples showed greater levels
of we-ness than did middle-aged couples. These results, and re-
lated findings by others (e.g., Sillars et al., 1997), suggest that
older couples have a greater sense of shared identity than do
middle-aged couples, likely resulting from older couples, by virtue
of their longer marriages, having more experience navigating both
the adversities (e.g., working through problems, dealing with cri-
sis) and joys (e.g., celebrating accomplishments of children and
grandchildren) associated with marriage. These collective experi-
ences likely lead to greater shared identification.
Although the relationships between pronoun usage and the
emotional qualities of conflictive marital interactions were consis-
tent across both age groups, relations between pronoun usage and
marital satisfaction did differ as a function of age and gender. An
association between greater use of separateness words and actor
marital satisfaction was found for older wives, and an association
between greater use of separateness words and partner marital
satisfaction was found for older husbands. Thus, the pattern of
results indicates that the association between greater use of sepa-
rateness words and greater marital dissatisfaction was most prom-
2
The general pattern of findings was the same for each of the specific
physiological and emotional behavior variables. The primary predictors of
we-words were: (a) physiology— cardiac IBI, finger pulse amplitude, and
skin conductance; (b) positive emotion— humor and affection; and (c)
negative emotion— contempt, domineering, and anger.
3
The general pattern of findings was the same for each of the negative
emotional behaviors with the major predictors of me- and you-words as
anger, belligerence, defensiveness, sadness, fear/tension, domineering, and
contempt.
4
The same pattern of results emerged when me-words and you-words
were analyzed separately.
Table 2
Descriptive Statistics of the Pronoun Usage by Age Group
Presented as the Ratio of Pronouns Relative to Total
Words Spoken
Variable
Middle-aged Older
MSDMSD
We .01 .008 .013 .008 .177
ⴱⴱ
Me and you .072 .025 .069 .025 .012
Note. Test statistics are standardized coefficients from Actor–Partner
Interdependence Model analyses.
ⴱⴱ
p.01.
610 SEIDER, HIRSCHBERGER, NELSON, AND LEVENSON
inent for older couples. Further, for older couples, wives’ marital
dissatisfaction was most strongly associated with both husbands’
and wives’ use of separateness words. We speculate that this result
reflects differences in the social worlds of middle-aged and older
individuals. In middle age, social networks are larger, in large part
due to the presence of workplace relationships. If middle-aged
couples do not forge a collective identify, this can be compensated
for by other relationships. As people age, however, social networks
contract, and the marriage becomes an increasingly important
source of social support (Lang, 2000; 2001; Lang & Carstensen,
1994). Older marriages that do not forge a collective identity are
less likely to provide critical social support and thus will be
experienced as less satisfying.
With regard to gender, the finding of stronger relationship between
pronoun usage and marital satisfaction for wives than for husbands is
consistent with gender differences in self-construals. Whereas wom-
en’s self-construals are characterized by relational interdependence in
which women incorporate representations of significant others into
their self-concept, men’s self-construals tend to be more independent
and less relationship driven (Cross & Madson, 1997a, 1997b). Con-
sistently, research has documented that the marital satisfaction of
wives has been more strongly associated with the emotional quality of
marital interactions than it is for husbands (Kiecolt-Glaser & Newton,
2001). Wives can be thought to be the barometer of distressed mar-
riages, as indicated by findings that wives’ autonomic and immuno-
logical responses are greater predictors of future marital quality than
are husbands’ responses (Gottman & Levenson, 1992; Kiecolt-Glaser,
Glaser, Cacioppo, & Malarkey, 1998). The findings that the relation-
ship between pronoun usage and marital satisfaction is particularly
strong for older wives suggest that this sensitivity of wives to the
interpersonal structure of the relationship may become even stronger
as they age.
Strengths and Limitations
This study builds upon and extends prior research on schemas of
we-ness and separateness in a number of ways: (a) operationalizing
schemas in terms of pronouns that occur during naturalistic conver-
sations, (b) using text analysis methodology, (c) assessing emotional
behavior and physiology, and (d) studying middle-aged and older
individuals in long-term marriages. Limitations include the use of
cross-sectional comparisons between age groups (which confound
age and cohort effects), the exclusive use of couples in long-term first
marriages (which confound age of the individual with duration of
marriage), and sampling of couples that are representative of a par-
ticular community (with associated issues of generalization).
Conclusion
Personal pronouns that convey schemas of we-ness and sepa-
rateness that are used during conflictive marital interactions are
highly meaningful psychologically. These speech particles reveal
important information about the emotional qualities of marital
interaction and about marital satisfaction. The use of a particular
pronoun marks a natural and almost entirely unconscious repre-
sentation of the nature of the identification with self and other.
Using we-ness language implies a shared identification between
spouses, even when the conversation is focused on an area of
conflict. Consistent with this, we-ness was associated with more
positive and less negative emotion behaviors and with lower
cardiovascular arousal. In contrast, separateness language implies
a greater sense of independence and distance in the relationship.
Compared with we-ness, separateness was associated with a very
different set of marital qualities, including more negative emo-
tional behavior and greater marital dissatisfaction. Thus, it appears
that pronouns, a seemingly innocuous part of everyday speech,
provide an important window into the inner workings of intimate
relationships, the qualities of the connections between partners,
and the ways that emotions are expressed and regulated as couples
deal with the inevitable problems that arise in married life.
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Appendix
Pronoun Dictionary
Me- and You-Words
I
I’d
I’ll
I’m
I’ve
me
mine
my
myself
you
you’d
you’ll
you’re
you’ve
your
yours
yourself
We-Words
our
ours
ourselves
us
we
we’d
we’ll
we’re
we’ve
Received January 22, 2007
Revision received April 8, 2009
Accepted July 2, 2009
613
WE CAN WORK IT OUT
... A third measurement draws from psycholinguistic research, and involves analyses of couples' pronoun usage (e.g., Slatcher et al., 2008). Seider et al. (2009) described partners' usage of first-person plural pronouns versus the use of firstor secondperson singular pronouns as a "reliable linguistic marker of an underlying shared versus separate dimension of identification" (p. 605). ...
... At each measurement time, using an open-ended and spontaneous thought-listing procedure (Agnew et al., 1998), participants were asked to describe (a) a positive interaction and (b) a negative interaction with their partner, that took place within the last 7 days. Two trained researchers coded the we-ness and the separateness data in accordance with the coding procedure developed by Seider et al. (2009) (see appendix). This procedure resulted in two pronoun variables for each interactional context (i.e., negative vs. positive interaction). ...
... Means and standard deviations for the pronoun variables were highly comparable with existing research (Galdiolo et al., 2016;Hinnekens et al., 2016;Seider et al., 2009) for separateness but not for we-ness (i.e., we-ness was higher at Time 1 and 2 in our sample). Non-significant or weak negative correlations were found between the we-ness and separateness indicators across measurement times and interaction contexts (i.e., positive versus negative interaction), i.e., −.14 (p = .18) ...
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This 5-wave longitudinal study aimed to monitor the feeling of we-ness and separateness over one year of the COVID-19 pandemic by examining partners’ natural pronoun usage when reporting couple interactions. Compared to the start of the pandemic, a general decline of we-ness was found after one year. Moreover, the changes in couple we-ness were non-linear, resulting in an increase at the end of the strict lockdown, followed by a decrease. No change in couple separateness was found.
... Text analysis is a powerful tool for studying relational dynamics as language often reflects underlying social and psychological meaning [8]. Studies of personal pronoun usage ("we," "you," "I," and "he/she/they") in naturalistic conversation have revealed associations of we-pronoun use with marital satisfaction, marital quality, health, and well-being [9][10][11][12]. To our knowledge, no prior studies have investigated pronoun use of individual caregivers in a narrative or interview format, which may offer insights into caregivers' experience outside of the conversational context. ...
... In the present study, caregivers described a recent time they felt connected to the PLWD, and we measured their pronoun use to assess the quality of that connection. As in prior work [9,13], we conceptualized we-pronoun use as reflecting greater connection between the caregiver and PLWD and greater I-and they-pronoun use as reflecting greater perceived separateness. Given documented associations of relationship factors (e.g., satisfaction, closeness, etc.) with the caregiver's and PLWD's health and well-being [14][15][16], we sought to examine whether a language-based measure of connection (i.e., pronoun use) would reveal similar associations with caregiver health and well-being. ...
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... Couple's pronouns usage during conversation shows how the couple refers to each other and the underpinning themes recursive in the relationship (Tausczik & Pennebaker, 2010). Pronouns can tell us whether a person's language tends to be joining or disjoining with their partner to provide clues to their relationship commitment (Seider et al., 2009). First-person pronouns (i.e., I, we) have been associated with higher relationship satisfaction, whereas second-person pronouns (i.e., you) have been associated with lower relationship satisfaction (Seider et al., 2009;Simmons et al., 2005;Slatcher et al., 2008;Williams-Baucom et al., 2010). ...
... Pronouns can tell us whether a person's language tends to be joining or disjoining with their partner to provide clues to their relationship commitment (Seider et al., 2009). First-person pronouns (i.e., I, we) have been associated with higher relationship satisfaction, whereas second-person pronouns (i.e., you) have been associated with lower relationship satisfaction (Seider et al., 2009;Simmons et al., 2005;Slatcher et al., 2008;Williams-Baucom et al., 2010). ...
... Couple's pronoun use may predict relationship satisfaction (Seider et al., 2009;Simmons et al., 2005;Slatcher et al., 2008;Williams-Baucom et al., 2010) and attachment behaviors (Borelli et al., 2013;Lee et al., 2011;Pearce & Halford, 2008). Many studies investigating pronoun use were not with both dyad partners and if both partners were present, researchers examined a stressful conversation that may not easily translate across other couple interactions. ...
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Research shows pronoun use may be related to relationship factors. Our research invited 40 couples (adults mostly partnered for 2 or fewer years) to engage in a 15-min conversation after completing demographics, attachment, and relationship satisfaction measures. Romantic partners tended to use pronouns similarly. Attachment anxiety and avoidance were related to lower relationship satisfaction. Bivariate actor partner interdependence models showed when men used we pronouns, lower relationship satisfaction was reported in both partners. When men used I pronouns, women were more likely to use we pronouns. When men used you pronouns, women were more likely to use I pronouns and engage in more attachment avoidant behaviors. Findings suggest communication patterns may be interpreted differently by younger couples. Couples therapists may want to investigate communication patterns to create a new dialogue that increases relationship satisfaction and limits insecure attachment behaviors.
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... A plethora of studies found that age trajectories in romantic relationships are strongly influenced by dynamics within dyads (see review by Michalowski et al., 2018), and that these dynamics differ significantly among older couples (Brinberg et al., 2018). In addition, past studies found age differences in couples' behavior and emotional experience within situations (Carstensen et al., 1996;Levenson et al., 1994;Seider et al., 2009), which the current study did not examine. The current finding that relationship quality among older and younger couples may be similar is consistent with the past findings indicating no associations between age and relationship satisfaction (Braun et al., 2018). ...
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... The current finding that usage of first-person plural pronouns was linked to lower loneliness among the women and higher social support among men is consistent with previous research on first-person plural pronoun use as a linguistic indicator of interdependence that has been consistently associated with higher quality relationships and better physical and mental health functioning (33). Studies have also described the links between first-person plural pronoun usage and better perceived support, an expanded sense of self (34), and better conflict resolution in couples (35)(36)(37)(38). First-person plural pronoun use also reflects social support within couples, exhibited in how dyads cope together with challenges such as a cancer diagnosis (39)(40)(41)(42). ...
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... This idea is in line with socioemotional selectivity theory, which suggests that individuals increasingly nurture their Downloaded from https://academic.oup.com/psychsocgerontology/advance-article/doi/10.1093/geronb/gbab193/6398507 by guest on 11 November 2021 A c c e p t e d M a n u s c r i p t closest relationships as they age and perceive their future lifetime as more and more limited (Lang & Carstensen, 2002). Consistently, older adults report greater feelings of togetherness (Rohr et al., 2019;Seider et al., 2009) and express greater affection and less negative reciprocity (Carstensen et al., 1995;Luong et al., 2011). As mimicry facilitates togetherness and affection and reduces negative reciprocity (Chartrand & Lakin, 2013), it should increase with age. ...
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