Running head: LISTENING DURING STRESS
The power of listening: Lending an ear to the partner during dyadic coping
Rebekka Kuhn1, Thomas N. Bradbury2, Fridtjof W. Nussbeck3, and Guy Bodenmann1
1 University of Zurich, 2 University of California at Los Angeles, USA, 3 Bielefeld
Rebekka Kuhn, Department of Psychology, University of Zurich, Switzerland;
Thomas N. Bradbury, UCLA Department of Psychology, Los Angeles, CA, USA; Fridtjof
W. Nussbeck, Bielefeld University, Germany; Guy Bodenmann, Department of Psychology,
University of Zurich, Switzerland
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Rebekka Kuhn,
Department of Psychology, University of Zurich, Binzmuehlestr.14, Box 23, 8050 Zurich,
Switzerland. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
This research project has been funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation
(SNF: CRSI11_133004/1) to Guy Bodenmann, Veronika Brandstätter, Mike Martin, Fridtjof
W. Nussbeck, and Thomas N. Bradbury.
© 2018, American Psychological Association. This paper is not the copy of
record and may not exactly replicate the final, authoritative version of the article.
Please do not copy or cite without authors permission. The final article will be
available, upon publication, via its DOI: 10.1037/fam0000421
Running head: LISTENING DURING STRESS
Although active, responsive listening is widely assumed to be essential for well-functioning
intimate relationships, the manner in which this important behavior might promote closeness
remains unknown. To test the prediction that listening may be especially influential when
partners disclose experiences of stress, we instructed 365 heterosexual couples to hold two 8-
min conversations in which each partner discussed a stressful personal experience while the
other partner was asked to respond as he or she ordinarily would. We coded expressions of
stress and listening behavior at 10s-intervals during these conversations, applied Actor-
Partner Multilevel models to compute a variable capturing the covariation between one
partner’s stress expression and the other partner’s listening behavior, and then used that
variable in regression analyses to predict observed dyadic coping behaviors, self-reports of
the quality of dyadic coping in general, and self-reports of relationship satisfaction. Attentive
listening while the other partner expressed stress was significantly linked with better dyadic
coping behaviors and higher relationship satisfaction. Partners displaying less attentive
listening during the partner’s stress expression also engaged in more problem-oriented coping
and more negative dyadic coping. Because attentive listening during disclosure of stress
covaries in expected ways with support provision and judgments of relationship quality,
appreciating the context-specific effects of active listening merits careful consideration as an
intervention target in couple therapy and in relationship education programs.
Keywords: listening, dyadic coping, couple conversation, multilevel
The power of listening:
Lending an ear to the partner during dyadic coping conversations
Attentive listening in relationships, particularly during moments of self-disclosure, is
hypothesized to be essential for sustaining intimacy (Reis & Shaver, 1988) and for providing
adequate support (i.e., “dyadic coping”; Bodenmann, 2005). Evidence-based relationship
education programs (e.g., CCET: Bodenmann & Shantinath, 2004; EPL: Hahlweg, Markman,
Thurmaier, Engl, & Eckert, 1998; Couple Care: Halford & Simons, 2005), and most
approaches of couple therapy, therefore aim to strengthen listening skills in couples as a
strategy for promoting or restoring closeness. Nevertheless, listening remains underexplored
(e.g., Bodie, Gearhart, Denham, & Vickery, 2013; Bodie, Vickery, Cannava, & Jones, 2015;
Jones, 2011), especially in couples talking about stress. The current article thus seeks to
understand mechanisms of listening and its association with supportive behaviors during
couple conversations, as well as with subjective evaluations of partner support and
The Role of Listening for the Relationship
Active listening can be conceptualized as having three main elements (Weger et al.,
2014). First, the listener shows interest in the speaker’s message by nonverbal behaviors such
as back channeling. Back channeling includes brief acknowledgements showing that the
listener is following the conversation, such as “mmh” or “yeah”. Second, active listening
includes paraphrasing the partner’s message without evaluations or judgement. The third
element is comprised of open questions that would encourage the speaker further to elaborate
on his or her personal thoughts and feelings. These elements reflect Rogers’ (1951) basic
features of interpersonal empathic listening and have several functions in the context of
emotional disclosures of stressful events.
First, listening is necessary and inevitable if one wants to understand a partner’s
stressful experience and its meaning for the disclosing partner. As Garland (1981) states, “a
spouse’s perceptions of the partner's communicated attitudes, feelings, and behavior should
be more accurate if he [or] she listens to the partner more effectively” (p. 298). According to
the Systemic Transactional Model (STM; Bodenmann, 1995, 2005), the supporting partner
must first perceive and decode the stressed partner’s signs of stress in order to understand the
significance of the stressful situation. This requires attentive listening which, in turn, is
needed to adapt to the situation and provide adequate dyadic coping that meets the needs of
the stressed partner (Bodenmann, 2007; Cutrona, Shaffer, Wesner, & Gardner, 2007;
Garland, 1981; Jones, 2011). Dyadic coping is defined as the joint coping efforts enacted by
both partners to deal with stress that concerns one or both partners (Bodenmann, 2005). The
STM posits that, ideally, the stressed partner discloses his or her reflections about a personal
stressor during which the other partner listens. On the basis of what the listening partner has
perceived, he or she can then respond, for example, with supportive coping such as showing
understanding or validating the partner’s feelings. The current article tests this theoretical
assumption of the STM.
Second, listening attentively and understanding the partner’s stress also has an effect
on the disclosing partner. In fact, active listeners are also perceived by disclosing partners as
more understanding (Cahn & Frey, 1992), responsive (Reis, Lemay, & Finkenauer, 2017),
and supportive (Collins & Feeney, 2000). Consequently, when partners are perceived to be
more understanding and responsive, partners feel more intimate (Prager & Buhrmester, 1998;
Reis & Shaver, 1988) and satisfied (Cahn, 1990) after having disclosed about a personal
stressor; diary studies replicate this same effect (Laurenceau, Barrett, & Rovine, 2005).
Third, listening encourages more self-disclosure. When partners listen attentively, the
speaker is more prone to talk without fear of criticism or negative judgements (Burleson &
Goldsmith, 1998), adding depth and detail to their disclosures. For example, people talking
about their stress disclose more details to the extent their partner is attentive and responsive
(Miller, Berg, & Archer, 1983). Listening, therefore, can be seen as “an essential component
of interpersonal communication and of relationships more generally” (Bodie et al., 2013,
Experimental Manipulations of Listening in Applied Settings
Distinguishing the appropriate roles and behaviors of speakers and listeners is central
to relationship education programs and to couple therapy (e.g., Markman, Renick, Floyd,
Stanley, & Clements, 1993). In communication training, partners are prompted to provide
active listening and to summarize important aspects of the stress expression in order to
enhance the partner’s deeper understanding and the process of jointly coping with the stressor
(also called “dyadic coping”; Bodenmann, 2005). Experimental manipulations of the couple’s
communication in intervention studies can therefore provide important basic information
about listening and the specific pathways by which listening can promote relationship
functioning. The Couples Coping Enhancement Training (CCET; Bodenmann & Shantinath,
2004), for example, is derived from the STM and systematically strengthens active listening
in the 3-phase method (Bodenmann, 2010; Bodenmann & Randall, 2012). In the first phase,
one partner is instructed to express his or her stress while the other partner listens attentively
and summarizes what has been disclosed. Next, the listener is instructed to provide support in
response to the partner’s specific needs, which the partner then acknowledges and comments
upon in the third phase (Bodenmann, 2010). This intensive listening encourages the stressed
partner to deepen his or her stress-related self-disclosure, thereby increasing both partners’
feelings of closeness, and allowing the couple to strengthen their dyadic coping repertoire.
The efficacy of this intervention program has been documented using self-reports (e.g.,
Bodenmann, 2015; Zemp et al., 2017) and behavioral observation (Widmer, Cina, Charvoz,
Shantinath, & Bodenmann, 2005), providing some corroboration for the assumption that
listening is a critical element in couple communication. These applied findings provide an
important foundation for asking new questions in basic research addressing how and why
listening might increase couple functioning. The present study aims to do so, focusing in
particular on how the effects of listening on relationship functioning may depend upon the
quality of listening a partner displays while his or her partner is disclosing stressful
Basic Research on Listening
Despite its theoretical and clinical significance, research focusing specifically on
listening as a fundamental element of responsiveness in relationships is surprisingly rare
(Bodie et al., 2015; Jones, 2011), especially for couples talking about stress. Although most
behavioral coding systems of interpersonal interaction (i.e., communication, dyadic coping)
include listening as a category either directly or indirectly, this variable is often embedded
within a larger construct of positive communication behavior (Hafen & Crane, 2003). Studies
that code for listening behaviors have examined informal helping conversations between
strangers (Bodie et al., 2015), conflict or problem-solving discussions (e.g., Gottman, Coan,
Carrere, & Swanson, 1998; Pasupathi, Carstensen, Levenson, & Gottman, 1999), or dyadic
coping conversations (Bodenmann, 2000; Widmer et al., 2005). While Gottman et al. (1998)
questioned the usefulness of active listening in conflict discussions and criticized relationship
education programs that aim to promote this communication behavior, others (Hafen &
Crane, 2003; Stanley, Bradbury, & Markman, 2000) challenged this view on the grounds that
it emphasized conflict over other prosocial domains of behavior in couples. For example,
during conflict discussions, partners often show insufficient listening as they are primarily
motivated to advance their own views or to solve the problem at stake rather than to
understand or validate the partner’s perspective or personal concern. In the context of
emotional disclosure related to stressful experiences, however, listening might play a
different role (Pasch & Bradbury, 1998).
Given that listening is generally acknowledged to be an important element in couple
communication, one might wonder how listening can be the most effective. In what particular
moments might listening enable understanding and adequate dyadic coping? As Schumm
(1983) noted, listening is relevant in moments of self-disclosure. Although more recent
studies are beginning to identify crucial moments of stress disclosure (e.g., on days where the
workload was particularly high; Laurenceau et al., 2005), researchers often use aggregated
data such as average scores of partner support. Micro-processes of dyadic coping processes
distinguishing between listening and other categories of support could yield valuable insights
into underlying mechanisms (Johnson & Bradbury, 1999). Hence, there may be value in
research that focuses more on moment-to-moment dynamics and crucial moments during a
conversation, in order to identify the behaviors (e.g., listening) that are relevant for the
couple’s functioning. By examining the interdependent processes of partner’s behaviors
unfolding over time in this way, we position ourselves to “capture the complex nature of both
listening and providing emotional support” (Jones, 2011, p. 92).
The Current Study
We aim to understand mechanisms related to listening by observing dyadic
interactions in which partners talk about a stressful experience that they have undergone.
First, we graphically display and examine the temporal course of observed stress-related self-
disclosure (“stress expression”), listening, and dyadic coping behavior during couples’
conversations. Based on the assumptions of the STM, we investigate whether the listening of
one partner occurring simultaneously with the stress expression of the other partner is
functional for subsequent dyadic coping and subjective measures such as relationship
satisfaction. Specifically, one could expect that attentive listening during stress expression
will co-vary with more functional dyadic coping and less negative dyadic coping displayed in
the conversation, due to an enhanced understanding of the partner’s experience. However, we
treat listening and dyadic coping behaviors as mutually exclusive in our data analysis.
Therefore, we expect that partners who listen intensively would have lower scores of verbal
dyadic coping. When almost exclusively displaying listening, they may not be able to
verbalize much affective understanding or support during the conversation. Additionally, we
expect that those who do not listen at all either provide no or inadequate emotional dyadic
coping insofar as they might not be very motivated to truly understand their partner via
listening. As a consequence, we postulate that the association between displayed listening
and emotion-oriented dyadic coping behaviors would be quadratic instead of linear
. We code
as well for problem-oriented dyadic coping, though we do not advance a specific prediction
for this behavior, as the association could go in more than one direction. On one hand,
problem-oriented responses might covary directly with partner listening because, e.g., more
listening allows the listener to understand the problem better and thus provide informed
solutions. On the other hand, more problem-oriented responding might covary with less
partner listening to the extent that the listener might be overwhelmed by the discloser’s stress,
prompting less listening but verbalization of frequent, abrupt solutions aimed at curtailing the
disclosure. Finally, we hypothesize that adequate listening also covaries with the general
subjective perception of the partner’s dyadic coping and relationship satisfaction, as assessed
Similar to Olson (2011), we expect a curvilinear, i.e. quadratic model for emotion-oriented coping. In the
model, he hypothesizes that too much or too little cohesion or flexibility would be unhealthy for marital and
The current study uses data from a larger project investigating the impact of stress on
the development of couple relationships. Couples were recruited in 2011 via radio and
newspaper advertisements. To be eligible, couples had to be in their current relationship for
at least one year. In total, 368 heterosexual couples filled out questionnaires and took part in
videotaped conversations. Three couples did not have observational data (one couple refused
to participate in the interaction task, one couple wanted to delete their video after the task,
and one video is missing due to technical problems), yielding a final sample of 365 couples.
Participants ranged in age from 20 to 80 years old (M = 47.2 years for women, SD =
18.3; M = 49.3 years for men, SD = 18.3) and partners had been in their current relationship
for M = 21.2 years (SD = 18.1, range: 1-60). Sixty-six percent of the couples were married,
85% lived together, and 65% had children. The sample is a middle-class sample as indicated
by the participant's level of education and income (for detailed sample description see Kuster
et al., 2015).
Interested couples were informed about the study and, after agreeing to participate,
were instructed to independently complete a set of questionnaires and bring them to the
laboratory session. At the beginning of the session, partners provided informed consent and
completed additional questionnaires in separate rooms. To generate samples of dyadic coping
behavior, partners each identified recent stressors arising outside of the relationship. Using
these topics, two 8-min interactions were recorded in which each partner described the
outside stressor while the other partner responded as they typically would in their daily lives.
In addition, observational data from a couple conflict were collected but are not used in the
current report. Upon completion of the interactions, couples were debriefed and paid
approximately $100. All procedures were evaluated and approved by the local Institutional
Coding procedures. Stress expression, listening, and dyadic coping were coded from
the two dyadic coping conversations (once man and once woman as speaker per couple).
Coding was based on the Coding System for Dyadic Coping (SEDC; System for assessing
observed dyadic coping; Bodenmann, 2000), which was developed specifically to code
support interactions in intimate relationships. Coders were trained to a criterion of .90 on
interrater agreement, assessed by Cohen’s kappa, requiring a minimum of 60 hours of coding.
Each video was coded by two coders, who focused on either partner. Videos were split into
48 10s-sequences, and each unit was coded for the stress communication behavior of the one
partner and listening/dyadic coping behavior of the other.
Stress expression. Stress expression was coded with a score of ‘1’ during 10s-
sequences when the disclosing partner was talking about a relevant stressful situation. Stress
expression consisted of four subcategories: verbal problem-oriented stress expression (e.g.,
asking the partner for advice or specific assistance), neutral stress expression (neutral or
factual descriptions), and verbal emotional self-disclosures including implicit stress
expression (e.g. superficial feelings such as “stressed” or “frustrated”), and explicit stress
expression (“I have never been that embarrassed” or “I was really hurt by that person’s
behavior”). For all 48 sequences, we created a stress expression score that was coded as ‘1’ in
sequences where one of the four stress expressions was observed. We do thus not
differentiate between the different types of stress expression.
Listening. Listening was coded during 10s-sequences when the non-disclosing
partner showed active, interested listening. The partner has to be oriented towards the speaker
while seating and showing eye-contact. Listening was defined as nodding and back-
channeling behaviors (e.g., “mmh”, “yeah”). In addition, asking open questions (“What
happened exactly?”, “How did you experience the situation?”), as well as more specific
questions exploring the speaker’s experience (“Was that aggravating?”) were coded as
Dyadic coping. Dyadic coping was coded into one of three categories: problem-
focused dyadic coping (e.g., giving advice), emotion-focused dyadic coping (all emotion-
focused positive verbal support; e.g., empathic understanding, showing solidarity with the
partner, encouraging the partner), or negative dyadic coping (e.g., hostile, insensitive,
superficial support behavior). In any sequence, the listener received only one possible score,
thus, these behaviors are mutually exclusive in the coding system. Also, if a listener showed
3 seconds of listening behavior but 4 seconds of emotion-focused dyadic coping, only the
latter was coded.
Relationship satisfaction. Relationship satisfaction was measured by the German
version of the Relationship Assessment Scale (RAS; Hendrick, 1988; Sander & Boecker,
1993). Both partners rated seven items on a 5-point scale with various verbal anchors
depending on the content of the items (e.g., "How often do you wish you had not gotten into
this relationship?" (reverse coded)). Internal consistencies for men (α = .84) and women (α =
.84) were acceptable.
Evaluation of dyadic coping. Subjective evaluations of partner’s dyadic coping
quality in the relationship were assessed using two items from the 37-item Dyadic Coping
Inventory (DCI; Bodenmann, 2008): “I am satisfied with the support I receive from my
partner and the way we deal with stress together”; “I am satisfied with the support I receive
from my partner and I find as a couple, the way we deal with stress together is effective”).
This evaluation does not refer to the conversation but to the partner’s dyadic coping efforts in
general. Responses were made on 5-point Likert scales, where higher scores reflect greater
satisfaction with support. Cronbach’s alpha was high with α = .87 for men and α = .88 for
We treated the behavioral coding as intensive longitudinal data. The dataset consisted
of 365 (couples) × 2 (partners) × 48 (sequences) = 35,040 data points. To take the nested and
dyadic structure of the data into account, we used a multilevel model for dyadic data that
treats the three levels of our data (sequences nested within partners nested within couples) as
two levels (see Laurenceau & Bolger, 2005; Raudenbush & Bryk, 2002). As the dependent
variable of listening behavior was coded as a binary variable (0 = no listening, 1 = listening),
we used a generalized mixed linear model with a logit link function, calculating average
effects over all couples (fixed effects) and couple-specific residuals (random effects). We
tested the optimal random structure with a stepwise procedure of model comparisons
(comparing log likelihoods with a χ2-test; Zuur, Ieno, Walker, Saveliev, & Smith, 2009).
This resulted in the specification of random slopes for all Level-1 within-person variables
(sequence coded in minutes with, e.g., 1/6 representing the first sequence and 6/6 one minute,
stress expression coded as 0 = absent and 1 = present). We used the lme4 package (Bates,
Maechler, Bolker, & Walker, 2015) for multilevel modeling in R.
We extracted the individual random slopes of stress expression from the multilevel
models. The slopes represent the strength of the association between stress expression of the
one partner and listening behavior of his or her partner, and thus serve as the primary
independent variable in this study. Because we had one conversation for the men’s stress
expression and one for the women’s, each couple had two slopes. These slopes of listening
during stress expression were normally distributed and had a mean of M = 0.00
(SD = 1.68,
range: -3.65 – 3.62) for men and a mean of M = 0.00 (SD = 1.40, range: -4.19 – 3.05) for
The mean is close to zero because listening occurs in approximately 50% of the cases.
women, indicating extensive variability in how people listen to their partner’s stress
We then estimated several sets of multiple regression models (see Table 2) in which
the random slope was the independent variable and the intercept of the listening behavior
were control variables; dependent variables included specific coping behaviors during the
conversation that were averaged across sequences, self-report scores on the relationship
satisfaction measure, or self-report scores on the evaluation of perceived dyadic coping
quality. We did not estimate Actor-Partner Interdependence models due to the high shared
variance (r = .83) of men’s and women’s listening slopes
Table 1 presents the means, standard deviations, t-tests, and intercorrelations of the
mean amount of listening, stress expression and coping behaviors that were observed during
the 48 sequences of the conversations for the two conversations, as well as self-reports of the
evaluation of dyadic coping and relationship satisfaction. On average, listening and stress
expression were displayed about half of the time of the conversation. Men’s and women’s
listening behavior did not differ, but women expressed significantly more stress (t(364) =
3.77, p < .001). Men displayed significantly more problem-oriented coping than women
(t(364) = 4.15, p < .001). Listening and partner’s stress expressions were highly correlated
across partners within the conversation (r = .80 for men listening and r = .84 for women
listening). Men reported slightly higher relationship satisfaction than women (t(364) = -2.24,
p = .025).
A lack of independent variance led us enter the slopes independently for male and female partners in the
multiple regression part. We refrained from entering both slopes as we anticipated problems of
multicollinerarity and, hence, model estimation problems. In addition, we calculated the multiple regressions
with the residual variance of the partner’s behavior as an additional predictor. Only the residual variance of the
female’s stress conversation slope was significant in the model for male stress conversations and female
relationship satisfaction (p = .040).
The Temporal Course of Listening, Stress Expression, and Coping Behaviors
Figures 1 and 2 show the general course of listening, stress expression and coping for
the two conversations where either the man or the woman talked about a stressful experience.
For a simplified illustration, we display the total amount of coping instead of the different
forms. For each 10s-time point (sequence), the percentage of couples displaying the specified
behavior is indicated on the y-axis. In general, the beginning of the conversation documents
the highest amount of couples showing stress expression for both conversations. In fact, out
of 365 couples, 76% of men and 79% of women show stress expression in the third sequence
20 seconds after the beginning of the conversation, which marks the highest point of stress
expression. We can also observe a decrease in stress expression over the course of the
conversation. In the last sequence, for example, only 23% of men and 28% of women still
express stress. Similar results can be denoted for the listening behavior. The listening
behavior is observed parallel to the stress expression and decreases over time. The percentage
of couples displaying coping behaviors increases over the course of the conversation.
For illustrative reasons, we also display the two extreme groups with respect to the
interplay of stress communication and listening behavior (Figures 3 and 4). The graphs on the
left hand show the couples with the weakest association between listening and stress
expression (15% of the couples with the lowest slopes), the “bad” listeners. These couples
have a negative individual slope, which was extracted from the multilevel model (M = -2.53,
SD = 0.44, range: -3.65 – -1.92 for men’s conversations and M = -2.12, SD = 0.54, range: -
4.19 – -1.58 for women’s conversations). On the right side, the “good” listener couples with
the strongest association of listening and stress expression are displayed (15% with the
largest slopes), as indicated by the multilevel random slopes (M = 2.46, SD = 0.54, range:
1.99 – 3.62 for men’s conversations and M = 2.06, SD = 0.37, range: 1.55 – 3.05 for women’s
conversations). These graphs are intended to visualize the difference of the temporal course
for the extreme “good” and “bad” listeners and their difference in coping behavior. Per
definition, the group of “bad” listeners shows an asynchrony between listening and stress
expression, whereas the “good” listeners have very similar amounts of stress expression and
listening per time sequence. Observed coping behavior also differs between the two groups:
Whereas the “good” listeners show very little coping, the “bad” listeners cope much more
during the conversation. It thus seems important to investigate what type of coping the
couples are using and what this might imply for the relationship.
Regression Analyses between Listening and Different Outcomes
Table 2 displays the results of the multiple regression using the random slopes as
predictors of observed coping behaviors and self-reported relationship outcomes (evaluation
of the dyadic coping, relationship satisfaction). The random slopes (as measures of
association) indicate the strength of the association between stress expression and listening,
thus reflecting how likely partners listen when the other one is disclosing. We also used the
random intercept as predictor to control for the unconditional level of listening, that is
listening behavior that is not triggered by a stress communication; the intercept reflects the
ratio of listening behavior if there is no stress communication. Because of the sparse research
in this field, our analyses are exploratory and should be used as a basis for further
investigations. To correct for multiple testing, we lowered the TYPE-I error rate to α = .005.
Predicting observed coping behaviors with the random slopes showed that the
stronger listening was associated with stress expression (positive random slope), the less
problem-oriented coping was displayed throughout the conversation (Table 2). Effect sizes
indicated strong effects (f = .55 for men’s conversations and f = .52 for women’s
conversations; Cohen, 1992). The same effect was found for negative coping with effect sizes
ranging from f = .39 for men’s conversations and f = .46 for women’s conversations.
Emotion-oriented coping was not associated with the random slopes for both
conversations when we tested for linear effects. However, as expected, the conversations in
which couples display the most responsive listening (highest 15%; see Figures 3 and 4) are
characterizd by very little observed coping behavior. We thus additionally tested for a
quadratic association following the rationale that partners who always listen to the disclosing
partner may prevent themselves from providing emotional support. Additional regression
analyses with the quadratic term of the slope confirm our expectation that a moderate amount
of listening might be the most suitable in order to provide more emotion-oriented coping for
women’s stress conversations (this effect is moderate in magnitude, f = .18). For men’s
conversations, the quadratic regression coefficient was not significant.
Regression models predicting the evaluation of dyadic coping (as measured with the
questionnaire) reveal that only women's evaluation of dyadic coping is associated with the
random slope parameter. That is, the closer the relation between stress expression and active
listening in cases where women are disclosing, the better they evaluate their partner’s general
dyadic coping efforts. With respect to relationship satisfaction, we found that both partners’
relationship satisfaction can be predicted by the association between self-disclosure and
active listening: the closer the association the higher the relationship satisfaction irrespective
of who is expressing the stress; note, however, that the regression parameter linking the
random slope of women's stress conversations to their own relationship satisfaction falls just
short of our corrected p value (p = .006). The strongest effect is found for women’s
relationship satisfaction in men’s conversations (R2 = .056), indicating a moderate effect (f =
.24). The more listening women thus display during their partners’ stress expression, the
more satisfied they are. A similar finding is evidenced for men. In addition, men are also
more satisfied when their partners listen more closely. The intercept of listening shows
significant associations with women’s relationship satisfaction only for the men’s
conversations, perhaps indicating that men’s listening independent of female stress
expression is not as relevant as women’s listening intercept.
The aim of this article was to investigate listening behavior during a support
conversation and its association with different dyadic coping behaviors, the evaluation of the
dyadic coping, and relationship satisfaction. We learn from this analysis that, although there
are between-couple differences in the associations between stress expression and active
listening, overall, partners listen quite closely to the other partner’s stress expression. We also
learn that active listening during stress expression is strongly related to dyadic coping
behaviors that occur in the same conversation, and to women’s evaluation of dyadic coping
and relationship satisfaction.
The graphs of the temporal course illustrate how listening and stress expression
represent parallel processes. In the current sample, the amount of couples displaying listening
and stress expression decreases during the conversation, whereas the amount of couples
displaying coping behaviors seems to increase. These observations are in line with the
assumptions of the Systemic Transactional Model (STM; Bodenmann, 2005). Thus, we can
assume that the partners generally first try to understand by listening before they provide
dyadic coping, which is what the Couple Coping Enhancement Training (CCET; Bodenmann
& Shantinath, 2004) or Coping-oriented Couple Therapy (COCT; Bodenmann, 2010) aim to
strengthen. This might suggest that listening, by itself, might already function as a support
strategy in relationships (Weger et al., 2014). Jones (2011) addressed this conceptual debate
regarding whether listening should be considered as a form of support, and concluded that
listening is indeed a key mechanism of emotional support. As evident from Figures 3 and 4
and the regression analyses, listening and dyadic coping are strongly interrelated. Whereas
“good” listeners, or those who listen quite closely to the partner’s expressions of stress, tend
to provide less problem-oriented and negative coping, relatively “bad” listeners are
asynchronous to their partner and engage much more in giving advice or offering support that
is negative or counterproductive. Ineffective listeners might be overwhelmed or flooded with
the partner’s stress, more occupied with their own stress regulation, and therefore have fewer
resources available to attend to the stressed partner’s needs and concerns (Jones, 2011;
Muraven & Baumeister, 2000). Coping that is negative or problem-oriented might thus mask
important affective experiences for the support provider, rendering him or her unable to pay
close attention and otherwise overwhelmed by the immediate demands of the situation.
Alternatively, partners might lack competence in active listening because they had never
learned it in the first place. Another explanation might be that these partners are less
committed, demonstrate decreased motivation in dyadic coping efforts, and are less satisfied
with the relationship. Conversations characterized by less listening “do not flow as smoothly”
(Bodie et al., 2015, p. 166) and, as a consequence, disclosing partners encounter difficulties
expressing themselves. In a similar vein, listeners who primarily give advice rather than
engaging in supportive listening techniques tend to be significantly more depressed and more
dismissing of their distressed interaction partners compared to listeners who acknowledge the
distressed person’s mood, which might be accomplished via more emotion-oriented support
(Notarius & Herrick,1988). Solutions and advice are often neither well received nor desired
in the first place (e.g., Jones, 2011), which might explain the fact that listening less closely to
the partner is associated with lower relationship satisfaction. Further research could test for
potential mediating effects for listening and relationship satisfaction. Additional studies on
physiological arousal and listening might affirm our assumptions about partners being too
overwhelmed to listen closely.
Our results reveal differences between men and women in stress expression and
dyadic coping competences, similar to previous studies (e.g., Barbee et al., 1993; Bodenmann
et al., 2015; Dindia & Allen, 1992; Noller, 1980). The finding that women talk significantly
more about their stress aligns with previous findings that women report more stress (e.g.,
Matud, 2004). In addition, Figures 1 and 2 suggest that women, on average, listen more
closely than men. Future studies should investigate gender differences in more detail during
the temporal course of the conversation. At present, it is not clear how different types of
stress expression shape listening behaviors. Whereas prior research reports gender differences
for types of stress expression (e.g. factual vs. emotional), and investigates how different
forms of stress expression are linked with different dyadic coping efforts (Kuhn, Milek,
Meuwly, Bradbury, & Bodenmann, in press), it remains unclear whether listening is also
dependent on different types of disclosure and differs for men and women.
Our descriptive findings raise questions about whether there is an optimal time point
when dyadic coping should set in during the conversation. Obviously, it depends on the
intensity and complexity of the stress experience being disclosed at what time point exactly
the dyadic coping is perceived as helpful and not incomprehensive and overwhelming. Our
analyses have advanced understanding of this issue by showing that good listening coincides
with better dyadic coping efforts and with a better evaluation of the dyadic coping in women,
and thus seems to be consequential for relationship functioning.
Strengths and Limitations
Major strengths of the current study are the inclusion of intensive longitudinal
observational data, the focus on listening behavior, and the investigation of the temporal
course of the observed behaviors. Including observational data limits the risk of having
inflated results due to shared method variance, and the additional inclusion of questionnaire
data enables us to test our hypotheses using different methodological approaches.
Furthermore, this study investigates the temporal dynamics of supportive discussions, which
has rarely been done before.
Our results are limited, however, to fairly satisfied, heterosexual couples that made up
the majority of our sample. Nevertheless, our focus on relatively satisfied couples might
imply that the true association between satisfaction and listening in the general population
might be even more robust. Severely dissatisfied couples, for example, might display much
less listening behavior. Second, because the couple conversations took place in a laboratory,
we do not have naturalistic observations of the couples speaking with each other. Listening
partners might have felt pressured to show favorable behavior and thus showed more
attentive behavior towards their disclosing partners (Jones, 2011). In fact, conversations like
those in our study occur rarely in daily life (Campos et al., 2009), with back-channel
communication only compromising about 8% of the respondent’s behavior (Alberts,
Yoshimura, Rabby, & Loschiavo, 2005). Third, in our coding system, we do not make a clear
difference between verbal and nonverbal listening cues. Having information about verbal
listening such as asking questions would provide further insight into the listener’s role and
the effect of listening on the speaker. In addition, positive and negative listening (such as
turning away from the partner) behaviors might be distinguished. Furthermore, the evaluation
of the dyadic coping quality has only been assessed generally and is not explicitly linked with
the coping conversation. A direct rating following the conversation would provide even better
insights of the subjective perception of partner’s dyadic coping efforts. A statistical limitation
of this study includes the two-step approach we adopted in our analyses. The slopes used as
predictors for the multiple regression models might not be error free. One possible alternative
might be to include, for example, relationship satisfaction as a moderator in the multilevel
model. Finally, we cannot draw causal conclusions. Although the relationship between
listening and relationship outcomes is most probably bi-directional, we cannot be certain that
listening behavior exerts a causal effect on relationship satisfaction. As an alternative
explanation, less satisfied couples might make fewer efforts to connect to their partner during
the conversation. However, women indicate being more satisfied with the dyadic coping they
receive from their partner the closer their male partners listen during the conversation. This
finding leads to the assumption that the partner’s listening behavior has the potential to
increase the satisfaction with the coping.
Notwithstanding these limitations, the present study suggests that relationships benefit
when partners listen attentively to the one another’s expressions of stress. Clinicians might
be able to improve couple’s competences and functioning by focusing even more on effective
listening. Effectiveness studies on the 3-phase-method (Bodenmann, 2007), where the first
phase is devoted to stress expression and listening, support the contention that relationship
education programs and couple therapy should continue to strengthen listening competences
in the relationship. Listening seems to be a key component for dyadic coping and
communication in general. Enhancing partners’ listening might thus be a promising way to
enhance relationship satisfaction and mutual intimacy. Evaluations of the 3-phase-method
(Bodenmann, 2000) revealed that partners experience empathic listening as one of the most
beneficial forms of support. This study highlighted why this is the case and how the fine
tuning between self-disclosure and listening should be a focus of the therapists. Encouraging
couples to listen more attentively in daily life might create positive changes in the experience
of support with long-lasting effects on the relationship satisfaction.
The current study advances existing research on listening by investigating the
temporal course of couple conversations while one partner discusses a personal stress
experience. The associations of listening with coping behaviors and couple’s relationship
satisfaction highlight the importance of listening behaviors when communicating with the
partner. Future research should now address questions regarding the quality of listening,
different forms of listening, as well as the important time points within conversations when
listening proves most beneficial. Furthermore, gender differences regarding these aspects
should be addressed further in future studies.
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Intercorrelations, Means, and t-Tests of All Study Variables
(df = 364)
.00 - 1.00
.00 - .98
.00 - .94
.00 - 1.00
.00 - .73
.00 - .65
.00 - .38
.00 - .31
.00 - .69
.00 - .40
1.00 - 5.00
1.00 - 5.00
2.29 - 5.00
2.43 - 5.00
Note. DC = dyadic coping; DCI = Dyadic Coping Inventory. Variables 1-5 represent the average score throughout the conversation. Correlations for women's conversation
(with women expressing their stress and men coping) as well as women's evaluation and relationship satisfaction are presented above the diagonal, correlations for men's
conversation (with men expressing their stress and women coping) as well as men's evaluation and relationship satisfaction are presented below the diagonal, and
correlations between men and women are displayed in the diagonal (marked in bold).
* p < .05. ** p < .01. *** p < .001 (two-tailed).
Results from the Multiple Regression Analyses of the Multilevel Intercept and Slopes on Video Data and Questionnaire Outcomes
Men's Stress Conversations
Women's Stress Conversations
Note. N = 365. DC = dyadic coping; DCI = Dyadic Coping Inventory. Intercept (random intercept) and slope (random slopes) were derived from the multilevel models and
represent the within-couple association between stress expression and listening. To test for quadratic effects, we added the squared slope as a predictor for emotion-oriented
DC. Effect sizes were calculated based on Cohen (1992): f = √𝑅2
1−𝑅2. R2 and f refer to the complete model including intercept and slope, R2 and f in brackets refer
to the change in R2 for the model when the slope (or slope2) is added as an additional predictor compared to the model with constant and intercept (and linear slope) only.
† p < .05, * p < .01 (two-tailed).
Figure 1. Temporal course of women’s stress expression, and men’s listening and coping behaviors as observed in the dyadic coping
1 5 9 13 17 21 25 29 33 37 41 45
Amount of couples (%)
Stress expression women
Coping men (verbal)
Figure 2. Temporal course of men’s stress expression, and women’s listening and coping behaviors as observed in the dyadic coping
1 5 9 13 17 21 25 29 33 37 41 45
Amount of couples (%)
Stress expression men
Coping women (verbal)
Figure 3. Temporal course of women’s stress expression, men’s listening and coping behaviors as observed in the dyadic coping
conversation split for “bad” (left) and “good” (right) listeners.
1 5 9 13 17 21 25 29 33 37 41 45
Amount of couples (%)
Stress expression women
Coping men (verbal)
1 5 9 13 17 21 25 29 33 37 41 45
Amount of couples (%)
Stress expression women
Coping men (verbal)
Figure 4. Temporal course of men’s stress expression, women’s listening and coping behaviors as observed in the dyadic coping
conversation split for “bad” (left) and “good” (right) listeners.
1 5 9 13 17 21 25 29 33 37 41 45
Amount of couples (%)
Stress expression men
Coping women (verbal)
1 5 9 13 17 21 25 29 33 37 41 45
Amount of couples (%)
Stress expression men
Coping women (verbal)