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Conflict, Social Support, and Relationship Quality: An Observational Study of Heterosexual, Gay Male, and Lesbian Couples' Communication

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  • Hôpital du Sacré-Coeur de Montréal - CIUSSS NIM

Abstract

Data from 42 heterosexual, 46 gay male, and 33 lesbian couples were used to assess the contribution of conflict and support discussions to relationship quality. Couples completed questionnaires, and videotaped discussions were coded for levels of negative and positive behaviors. Correlations showed that behaviors were associated with relationship quality in the expected directions. Hierarchical linear modeling analyses assessed the unique contributions of individual and dyadic behaviors to the variability of relationship quality. The findings indicated that, beyond the contribution of individual negative behaviors in the conflict task, the variables of dyadic positive behaviors in the conflict task, individual positive behaviors in the support task, and perceived help accounted for unexplained variance in relationship quality. There were no differences between types of couples on levels of behaviors or on their contributions to relationship quality.
Conflict, Social Support, and Relationship Quality:
An Observational Study of Heterosexual, Gay Male, and
Lesbian Couples’ Communication
Danielle Julien, Elise Chartrand, Marie-Claude Simard, Donald Bouthillier, and Jean Be´gin
University of Quebec at Montreal
Data from 42 heterosexual, 46 gay male, and 33 lesbian couples were used to assess the
contribution of conflict and support discussions to relationship quality. Couples completed
questionnaires, and videotaped discussions were coded for levels of negative and positive
behaviors. Correlations showed that behaviors were associated with relationship quality in the
expected directions. Hierarchical linear modeling analyses assessed the unique contributions
of individual and dyadic behaviors to the variability of relationship quality. The findings
indicated that, beyond the contribution of individual negative behaviors in the conflict task,
the variables of dyadic positive behaviors in the conflict task, individual positive behaviors
in the support task, and perceived help accounted for unexplained variance in relationship
quality. There were no differences between types of couples on levels of behaviors or on their
contributions to relationship quality.
Communication studies in heterosexual married and co-
habiting couples in several countries (Australia, Canada,
Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and the United States)
have shown that negative behaviors during marital conflict
are robust predictors of marital dissatisfaction. However, it
has been argued that an exclusive focus on marital conflict
fails to take into consideration the positive behaviors marital
partners perceived as the motives for getting married, such
as intimacy, friendship, and companionship (e.g., Prager,
1995), and the positive behaviors enabling partners to better
adapt to environmental pressures, for example, spousal sup-
port (e.g., Pasch, Bradbury, & Davila, 1997). Thus, because
positive behaviors during conflict discussions have not been
consistently associated with marital satisfaction (e.g., Weiss
& Heyman, 1990), researchers have begun to question how
to best conceptualize, generate, and measure positive be-
haviors and to assess their contribution to relationship qual-
ity
1
(e.g., Gottman, Coan, Carrere, & Swanson, 1998;
Julien, 1992).
A first objective of this study was to assess the contribu-
tion of negative and positive communication to relationship
quality. A second objective was to examine whether the
findings with heterosexual couples generalize to gay male
and lesbian couples. Because sexual minorities have be-
come increasingly visible in recent years, this offers oppor-
tunities to examine the structures, processes, and outcomes
of gay male and lesbian couples’ relationships, to test the
generalizability of current theories of marital relationships,
and to broaden understanding of the role of communication
in dyadic outcomes.
Conflict, Social Support, and Relationship Quality
It is difficult to assess the unique contribution of positive
behaviors to the variability of relationship quality when
using a conflict task because high levels of negativity limit
the opportunity to display positive behaviors. For example,
during a conflict discussion in which a husband is the target
of his wife’s complaints, it may be difficult for the husband
to empathize with his wife. Being flooded by negative affect
inhibits one’s capacity to be receptive to one’s partner
(Gottman et al., 1998). Assessment of communication in
separate and relatively independent tasks from the conflict
task would facilitate the emergence of negative and positive
behaviors as independent dimensions. Researchers who ad-
vocated the study of positive domains in marriage assumed
that frequencies of negative and positive communication
vary with the topic discussion and that marital communica-
tion develops along several paths. That is, engagement in
high levels of conflict episodes at one time does not prevent
partners from engaging in positive episodes at other times of
1
Given the proliferation of measures of relationship outcomes
(satisfaction, commitment, adjustment, etc.), we use the expression
“satisfaction” whenever a specific study that has used a measure of
marital satisfaction or dyadic adjustment is referenced. We use the
expression “relationship quality” in the remainder of the text.
Danielle Julien, Elise Chartrand, Marie-Claude Simard, Donald
Bouthillier, and Jean Be´gin, Department of Psychology, University
of Quebec at Montreal, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
Donald Bouthillier is now at the Psychosomatic Medical Unit,
Sacre-Coeur Hospital, Montreal.
This research was supported in part by grants from the Social
Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and by the
Conseil Que´be´cois de la Recherche Sociale.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to
Danielle Julien, De´partement de Psychologie, Universite´ du Que´-
bec a` Montre´al, C. P. 8888, Succ. A, Montre´al, Que´bec, Canada.
E-mail: julien.danielle@uqam.ca
Journal of Family Psychology Copyright 2003 by the American Psychological Association, Inc.
2003, Vol. 17, No. 3, 419–428 0893-3200/03/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/0893-3200.17.3.419
419
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This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
the day or week (e.g., Fincham & Lineld, 1997). There-
fore, after years of focus on conict and negative behaviors
as sources of variability in relationship quality, researchers
have begun to look at marital domains uncharted by the
traditional approach and likely to elicit positive communi-
cation. Of particular interest have been behaviors pertinent
to intimacy and affectional processes (e.g., Cordova, 1998;
Fruzetti & Rubio-Kuhnert, 1998), attachment behaviors
(e.g., Kobak & Hazan, 1991), and social support (e.g.,
Cutrona, 1996).
Recent ndings on the connection between marriage and
health underscore the relevance of examining social support
in marriage (e.g., Schmaling & Golden Sher, 2000). Social
support refers to the fulllment by others of basic ongoing
requirements for well being . . . and the fulllment of more
specic time-limited needs that arise as the result of adverse
life events or circumstances(Cutrona, 1996, p. 3). Increas-
ing empirical evidence has shown that both higher levels of
marital discord and lower levels of enacted and perceived
marital support are associated with immunological down-
regulation and poorer mental and physical health (for a
review, see Kiecolt-Glaser & Newton, 2001). The connec-
tion between marriage and health has raised concerns about
the processes of marital support facilitating partnerswell-
being. Cutrona (1996, 1998) speculated that in times of
stress, marital support prevents emotional isolation from
ones partner and the onset of depression that could lead to
deterioration of the relationship. It also lowers the chances
of conict escalation and promotes a sense of cohesion and
connectedness. Thus, marital support would inuence part-
nersmental and physical health, in part indirectly, through
its enhancement of relationship quality. In that vein, several
researchers, using various measures of support, have shown
positive associations between observed marital support and
marital satisfaction (e.g., Julien et al., 1991; Pasch et al.,
1997) as well as between perceived support and marital
satisfaction (Acitelli & Antonucci, 1994; Julien & Mark-
man, 1991; Suitor & Pillemer, 1994). These two measures
of support refer to overlapping but also distinct dimensions
of the support construct: Whereas perceived support is part
of a constellation of insiderscognitions that derives from a
history of dyadic interactions (Beach, Fincham, Katz, &
Bradbury, 1996; Carels & Baucom, 1999; Sarason, Sarason,
& Pierce, 1994), observed support captures outsidersviews
of the supportive communication transactions presumed to
facilitate adaptation and satisfaction. Therefore, given the
robust association between conict and conjugal distress
within the observed communication paradigm, a critical
issue to address is whether observed and perceived marital
support account for variance in relationship quality that is
not captured by conict.
Negative and Positive Domains, Negative and
Positive Behaviors
Equating conict taskwith negative behaviors and
support taskwith positive behaviors creates a mistaken
sense when referring to marital communication. It is impor-
tant not to confound marital domains with marital behaviors
and to keep in mind that both domains elicit negative and
positive behaviors. Positive behaviors during conict (e.g.,
editing) and negative behaviors during a support task (e.g.,
accusing the helpee) may be strong predictors of relation-
ship quality. For instance, a wife may feel quite relieved to
be received positively when she complains about unequal
sharing of household tasks (a conict issue). Conversely, a
husband may feel quite upset to be received negatively
when he talks about concerns at work (a support issue).
Therefore, a thorough test of the unique impact of positive
behaviors on marital satisfaction entails the procedural dis-
tinctions between domain effect (conict and support), be-
havior effect (negative and positive), and their interaction.
Most observational studies involving support tasks (ex-
clusive of conict tasks) have measured negative and pos-
itive behaviors (Barker & Lemle, 1984; Cormier & Julien,
1996; Cutrona, 1998; Dehle, 1999; Julien et al., 1991; Pasch
& Bradbury, 1998; Pasch & Bradbury, 1993; Pasch et al.,
1997). In all these studies (but see Cutrona, 1998), both
negative and positive behaviors were correlated with marital
outcomes. However, none of the studies controlled for neg-
ative behaviors when assessing the contribution of positive
behaviors to marital satisfaction. Thus, the research has not
provided empirical evidence of the unique role of positive
marital communication in relationship quality.
Very few studies of marital communication have ob-
served negative and positive behaviors within the conict
and support domains concurrently. Miller and Bradbury
(1995) conducted the rst study using conict and support
tasks in a study of the connection between marital attribu-
tion and behaviors in newlywed couples. However, these
authors performed independent analyses for the two tasks
and did not examine their unique contribution to marital
satisfaction. Pasch and Bradbury (1998) examined conict
and social support in newlywed couples. Positive behaviors
in the support task contributed unique variance in satisfac-
tion after controlling for negative behaviors in the conict
task. However, the study did not control for positive behav-
iors in the conict task. Thus, because in that study positive
behaviors in the conict task were correlated with behaviors
in the support task and with marital satisfaction, whether
positive behaviors in the support task contributed nonredun-
dant information remains an empirical question.
Pasch, Bradbury, Davila, and Sullivan (1999) again ex-
amined positive and negative communication in conict and
support episodes in two samples of newlywed couples.
These authors conrmed that behaviors in the support task
shortly after marriage accounted for additional variance in
couplessatisfaction 4 years later, after controlling for ini-
tial levels of satisfaction. In the rst sample, only negative
behaviors (and not positive behaviors) in the support task
predicted satisfaction. In the second sample, the block of
negative and positive behaviors in the support task in-
creased prediction of marital satisfaction, but no specic
information was provided on the particular contributions of
negative and positive behaviors. Overall the two studies
suggested that communication during a support episode
explains added variance in satisfaction, but whether positive
420 JULIEN, CHARTRAND, SIMARD, BOUTHILLIER, AND BE
´GIN
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This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
behaviors in the support domain play a unique role remains
to be tested.
A main objective of the current study was to examine
whether the support domain accounts for variance in rela-
tionship quality that is not captured by the conict domain
and whether positive behaviors in the conict and support
domains contribute relationship quality variance not cap-
tured by negative behaviors. We also considered the impact
of perceived support on relationship quality after controlling
for behaviors in the two domains. Perceived support is not
an isolated perception that comes into play after a support
episode, but is part of a constellation of cognitions that
derives from a history of dyadic interactions (e.g., Carels &
Baucom, 1999). Thus, the control of behaviors in both
domains offers an opportunity to evaluate its distinct con-
tribution to variability in relationship quality. Our predic-
tions were as follows: First, because negative behaviors
(e.g., hostility) erode relationship satisfaction (e.g., Mark-
man, 1994) and because positive behaviors (e.g., validating)
promote a sense of cohesion and connectedness (Cutrona,
1996, 1998), we predicted that negative and positive behav-
iors in the conict and support domains would be associated
with relationship quality. Second, because negative behav-
iors elicit negative affect during interactions and because
being ooded by negative affect during discussion may
inhibit ones capacity to be receptive to the partner and to be
empathetic to the partners concerns (e.g., Gottman et al.,
1998), we did not expect positive behaviors in the conict
task to increase prediction of relationship quality beyond
that afforded by negative behaviors. Third, we predicted,
however, that positive behaviors in the support task would
account for unique variance in relationship quality beyond
that afforded by negative behaviors in the two domains and
beyond positive behaviors in the conict task. This hypoth-
esis is based on the premise that communicating about a
positive domain of the couples life is distinct from com-
municating about conict issues and that communication
about positive aspects thus is more likely to lead to the
emergence of positive behaviors as independent contribu-
tors to the variability of couplesrelationship quality.
Fourth, we predicted that perceived help following the sup-
port task would account for unique variance in couples
relationship quality.
Relationships in Gay Male, Lesbian, and
Heterosexual Couples
The ndings on conict and support in heterosexual
couples raise the question of whether they generalize to
same-sex couples. In recent years, researchers have shown
an increased interest in such couples (for recent reviews, see
James & Murphy, 1998; Klinger, 1996; Kurdek, 1995b;
McWhirter & Mattison, 1996; Ossana, 2000; Patterson,
2000; Peplau, Veniegas, & Campbell, 1996). Overall, re-
search results have run counter to the stereotype that gay
men and lesbians are able to be involved only in transient
relationships. Research involving questionnaires and inter-
views has shown that similar to heterosexual people, the
majority of gay men and lesbians engage in or want to
engage in stable relationships as a main source of affection
and companionship, and they prefer stable relationships to
occasional liaisons. When living in an established relation-
ship, they report experiencing levels of relationship quality
and support as high as those of heterosexual couples, and
they experience sources of relational problems similar to
those of heterosexual couples.
Few studies have examined the specic characteristics of
same-sex couples with samples of heterosexual, gay male,
and lesbian couples within the same study. Research com-
paring these three types of couples has shown that the
couples do not differ with respect to mean levels of most of
the relationship variables examined. However, reports indi-
cate reliable differences in several areas: higher exibility
and more egalitarian division of labor in same-sex than in
heterosexual couples (e.g., Kurdek, 1993), greater impor-
tance to partnersequality in lesbian than in gay male and
heterosexual couples (e.g., Kurdek, 1993, 1995a, 1995b,
1998), more intimacy in lesbian than in heterosexual cou-
ples (Kurdek, 1998), and a stronger interpersonal focus and
higher rewards from the relationships in lesbian than in gay
male couples (e.g., Kurdek, 1988, 1991), more autonomy
and less stability in gay male as compared with heterosexual
couples (Kurdek, 1998), and fewer monogamous relation-
ships in gay male as compared with lesbian and heterosex-
ual couples (e.g., Blumstein & Schwartz, 1983). Other dif-
ferences reported are more conjugal problems arising from
the social environment in gay male and lesbian couples than
in heterosexual couples (Goulet, Tremblay, Julien, & Trem-
blay, 2000), fewer barriers to leaving the relationship in gay
male and lesbian couples (Kurdek, 1998), and weaker sup-
port from outsiders for the dyadic unit in gay male and
lesbian couples than in heterosexual couples (Julien, Char-
trand, & Be´gin, 1999; Julien et al., 2001). However, het-
erosexual, gay male, and lesbian couples do not differ in the
strength of the associations between those variables and
relationship quality.
Despite increased research interest in same-sex couples
over the past decade, few researchers have observed same-
sex couplescommunication or assessed how gay male,
lesbian, and heterosexual couples fare relative to each other
on levels of conict and supportive communication or on
the importance of communication behaviors as sources of
variability in relationship quality (e.g., Arellano, 1993;
Julien, Arellano, & Turgeon, 1997). Given the paucity of
data on the communication of gay male and lesbian couples,
it is difcult to make predictions about differences among
the three types of couples.
On the one hand, studies assessing emotions among un-
related women and men have found that women are gener-
ally more expressive than men (e.g., see review by Kring &
Gordon, 1998). Likewise, reviews in the elds of develop-
mental psychology (e.g., Leaper, 1994), social psychology
(e.g., Aries, 1987), linguistics (e.g., Tannen, 1994), sociol-
ogy (e.g., West & Zimmerman, 1985), and anthropology
(e.g., Philips, 1980) have reported that women are more
likely than men to use language to develop, maintain, and
regulate their interaction with people, whereas men are
more likely to use language to reach utilitarian goals and to
421CONFLICT AND SUPPORT
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stress their independence. On that basis, gay male and
lesbian couples should be different because, by contrast
with heterosexual couples, partners in gay male and lesbian
couples would not have to cross over boundaries of their
different gender socialization. However, research has shown
that gay men and lesbians do not conform to stereotyped
notions of what it means to be a boy or a girl (e.g., Bell,
Weinberg, & Hammersmith, 1981; Kurdek, 1987). In the
Kurdek (1987) study, for instance, both gay men and les-
bians were more likely than heterosexual men and women
to endorse androgynous (feminine and masculine) traits on
a gender scale. On that basis, therefore, gay male and lesbian
couples might not be different in their communication.
On the other hand, studies of gender differences in com-
munication with presumed heterosexual men and women
have suggested that men in dyadic interactions with women
are less stereotyped than men in dyadic or group interac-
tions with other men (for a review, see Aries, 1987). For
instance, in the context of heterosexual communication,
men tend to adapt to womens communication style and
become more expressive, validating, and so forth. On that
basis, therefore, heterosexual couples might not be different
from gay male and lesbian couples.
Arellano (1993) conducted one of the rst observational
studies, to our knowledge, of distressed and nondistressed
gay male and lesbian couples during a conict discussion.
Her ndings did not show differences between gay male and
lesbian couples in the ways they communicated or handled
negative affect. Gay male partners, for example, did not
indicate a greater tendency than lesbians to distance them-
selves from potential conicts, nor did lesbians demonstrate
a stronger propensity toward confrontation. However, her
study showed that, irrespective of gender, gay male and
lesbian distressed partners had higher levels of negative
behaviors relative to nondistressed partners. Her study did
not include a heterosexual group permitting comparisons
between types of couples, but her ndings suggested that
those behaviors that contribute to distress in heterosexual
marriages remain key components of relationship distress in
same-sex couples. Given the rarity of data on gay male and
lesbian couples, the current study provides descriptive data
on heterosexual, gay male, and lesbian couples in two core
domains of conjugal communication: resolving conict, and
mobilizing and providing support. We did not make predic-
tions regarding differences between the three types of cou-
ples relative to levels of negative and positive behaviors in
the two communication domains or predictions concerning
the contribution of behaviors to the variability of relation-
ship quality.
Method
Participants
Participants were 121 cohabiting couples. All couples were
French-speaking partners from Montreal and suburbs. There were
42 heterosexual married couples, 46 gay male couples, and 33
lesbian couples. Couples were recruited by classied advertising in
the media. Same-sex couples were also recruited by announce-
ments in gay male and lesbian publications with the help of gay
mens and lesbiansassociations. Screening criteria stipulated that
couples had to have been living together for at least 2 years at the
time of their participation. Table 1 presents the means and standard
deviations for the demographic variables for the three groups.
Given that raising children is currently more probable among
heterosexual couples than among same-sex couples (Patterson,
2000), a separate chi-square test was performed on the proportions
of couples having children as a function of sexual orientation. A
bigger proportion of heterosexual couples than gay male and
lesbian couples had children,
2
(2, 121) 29.30, p.05. There
were no differences between gay male and lesbian couples. A
multivariate analysis of variance with sexual orientation as the
independent variable and the set of remaining demographic char-
acteristics as the dependent variables showed no signicant effect
of sexual orientation. Subsequent analyses did not take into ac-
count the difference in the number of children.
Procedure
After completing a set of questionnaires in the laboratory, the
partners took turns completing two 20-min videotaped interaction
tasks during which they talked (in the helpee role) to their partner
(in the helper role) about their most salient personal problem. A
personal problem was dened as any problem the source of which
was not the partner or the partners family (e.g., problems at work,
problems with ones own health, problem with ones own family).
No explicit instructions regarding role-appropriate behaviors were
Table 1
Means (and Standard Deviations) of Participants’ Demographic Characteristics
and Relationship Quality
Characteristic
Heterosexual Gay male Lesbian
M(SD)M(SD)M(SD)
Age 32.39 (5.91) 32.67 (8.40) 32.25 (7.31)
Years living together 6.38 (4.39) 4.93 (3.47) 5.42 (5.03)
Income
a
2.45 (1.35) 2.46 (1.21) 2.60 (1.20)
Relationship quality 105.38 (19.49) 107.53 (19.35) 110.21 (21.48)
% Couples with children
b
59% 12% 11%
% With college degree 47% 35% 38%
% Working full-time 55% 62% 64%
n84 92 66
a
Income was categorized from 1 (less than $10,000)to5($40,000 and more in Canadian
dollars).
b
Percentages of couples with dependent children out of n121.
422 JULIEN, CHARTRAND, SIMARD, BOUTHILLIER, AND BE
´GIN
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suggested to helpees and helpers. Partners were told there would
be two distinct conversations, one for each partner talking about
his or her problem. Helpees and helpers were instructed to behave
as naturally as they do when disclosing important difculties or
preoccupations to one another. There was a 10-min break between
the two conversations. Immediately after completing their respec-
tive support task, helpees completed a post-interaction assessment.
Then the two partners took 15 min to examine a list of relationship
problems (e.g., money, in-laws, sex) and to agree on one to be
discussed in a 20-min problem-solving task. They were told to try
to reach a solution. To prevent carryover of negative affect in the
marital conict discussion into the social support task, the order of
the social support task and the conict task was not randomized.
The order of the two support tasks was randomized.
Self-Report Measures
Relationship quality. Relationship quality was measured with
an adapted version of the Marital Adjustment Test (Locke &
Wallace, 1959). This instrument has high internal consistency
(split-half r.90), good concurrent validity (r.86) with the
Dyadic Adjustment Scale (Fredman & Sherman, 1987), and ex-
cellent validity in terms of discriminating between unadjusted and
adjusted couples (Gottman, Markman, & Notarius, 1977). Our
adapted version eliminated any gender-specic wording. Scores
for Item 10 were modied. In the original version for heterosexual
couples, a score of 2 was given to husbands, and a score of 1 was
given to wives when they reported being the one who always
gives inin case of disagreements. In the version we used, a score
of 2 was given to either one or the other partner who gives in.All
three groups of couples were administered the adapted version.
Earlier studies with male couples have shown good reliability and
concurrent validity of the adapted version (Julien, Pizzamiglio,
Le´veille´, & Brault, 1992). The Cronbachs alpha of the adapted
version with the current sample was .79. An analysis of the
variance of relationship quality scores as a function of couples
sexual orientation showed that the relationship quality mean scores
of heterosexual, gay male, and lesbian couples were not different
(Table 1).
Post-interaction assessment. Immediately after terminating
their respective support task, the helpees were asked to indicate
how helpful the conversation was, using a scale ranging from 1
(not at all helpful)to6(very helpful).
Observational Measures
Interactional Dimension Coding System (IDCS). Communica-
tion behaviors in the conict task were coded with a revised
version of the IDCS (Chartrand & Julien, 1994; Julien, Markman,
& Lyndahl, 1989). Four individual IDCS dimensions were used for
this study: two negative dimensions (conict, withdrawal) and two
positive dimensions (communication skills, problem-solving
skills). In addition, we used four dyadic IDCS dimensions assess-
ing the couple as an interactive unit: one positive (interactional
synchrony) and three negative (negative escalation, dominance,
asymmetry in communication repair). Using behavioral cues for
each dimension, trained raters assessed each partner on each indi-
vidual dimension and assessed the dyad on each dyadic dimension
using a 9-point scale ranging from 1 (very low)to5(moderate)to
9(very high). Ratings were based on the entire interaction. Several
studies have used the IDCS with heterosexual couples and have
demonstrated good reliability, good concurrent validity with mi-
croscopic coding, and good predictive validity of dyadic outcomes
(for a review, see Kline et al., in press).
Social Support Interaction Global Coding System (SCIS).
Communication behaviors in the social support task were coded
with the SCIS (Pizzamiglio, Julien, & Parent, 1991). This coding
system is composed of two negative dimensions (countervalidation
and withdrawal) and six positive dimensions (self-disclosure, help
request, expressiveness, attention while listening, validation, solu-
tion proposals). The SCIS also comprises a positive dyadic dimen-
sion assessing the couple as an interactive unit: interactional syn-
chrony. As for the IDCS, trained raters used behavioral cues to
assess each partner on each individual dimension and to assess the
dyad on the dyadic dimension. The raters also used a 9-point scale
ranging from 1 (very low)to5(moderate)to9(very high). Ratings
were made on the basis of the entire interaction. Earlier studies
involving the SCIS with heterosexual couples (Cormier & Julien,
1996) have demonstrated good reliability and good concurrent
validity with marital adjustment measures. For the support task
(SCIS), the ratings for each partner were averaged across the two
support interactions (helper and helpee roles).
Intercoder agreement. A team of four coders were trained to
use the IDCS. An independent team (relative to the IDCS) of six
coders was trained to use the SCIS. The two support discussions
for a couple were coded by different coders. Intercoder agreement
for the SCIS dimensions was assessed weekly with intraclass
correlations between codersratings of a randomly selected set of
20% of the interactions. Observers were blind to the reliability
checks. Intercodersagreement ranged from .62 to .87 for the
IDCS dimensions and from .74 to .89 for the SCIS.
Results
Data Reduction
Because the dimension scores within the two tasks were
correlated, composite scores were used to reduce the num-
ber of variables to a few positive and negative behavior
variables at both the individual level and the dyadic level in
each task. Other studies conducted with the IDCS have
relied on the composite score method and found good
internal consistencies and convergent validity of the com-
posite scores (for a review, see Kline et al., in press).
Because partnersindividual behaviors were correlated,
partners within couples were randomly assigned to two
groups. For the individual dimensions in the conict task,
we used the Cox, Paley, Burchinal, and Payne (1999) com-
posite score method in which the conict score is used for
the negative behavior variable, whereas the mean of com-
munication skills, problem solving, and withdrawal (nega-
tive) is used for the positive behavior variable (in this study,
Cronbachs alphas .78 and .70 for Partners 1 and 2,
respectively). At the dyadic level, the mean of negative
escalation, dominance, and asymmetry in communication
repair was used to create the dyadic negative behavior
variable (Cronbachs alpha .64), and interactional syn-
chrony constituted the dyadic positive behavior variable.
For the support task, dimension scores were averaged across
the two support tasks. Countervalidation was used as the
individual negative behavior variable, and the individual
positive behavior variable was created with the mean of
expressiveness, attention, withdrawal (negative), self-
disclosure, validation, and solution proposals (Cronbachs
alphas .79 and .80 for Partners 1 and 2, respectively).
Interactional synchrony was used as the dyadic positive
423CONFLICT AND SUPPORT
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behavior variable. There were no negative behavior vari-
ables at the dyadic level for the support task.
Relations Between Sexual Orientation and the
Conflict and Support Variables
Table 2 presents the means and standard deviations for
the variables in the three groups of couples, and Table 3
presents the correlations between the variables. We exam-
ined whether heterosexual, gay male, and lesbian couples
differed in levels of negative and positive behaviors in the
conict and support tasks using multivariate analyses of
variance with sexual orientation (heterosexual/gay male/
lesbian) as the independent variable and the behaviors and
perceptions as the dependent variables. A rst multivariate
analysis of variance (MANOVA) was conducted on the set
of individual variables in the two tasks, followed by a
MANOVA on the set of dyadic variables in the two tasks.
Finally, a separate analysis of variance (ANOVA) was
conducted on perceived help, because only helpees assessed
perceived support. For the individual variables, separate
analyses were conducted on the two groups of randomly
assigned partners, providing a within-study replication. The
ndings showed that for the two groups of partners, no
sexual orientation multivariate effect was found on levels of
individual negative and positive behaviors in the two tasks.
Likewise, there was no signicant effect of sexual orienta-
tion on levels of dyadic variables. Finally, the helpees in the
three types of couples did not differ in levels of perceived
help following the support task.
Contribution of Communication Behaviors to
Relationship Quality
Correlations showed that both negative and positive com-
munication patterns in the conict and support tasks were
associated with relationship quality in the expected direc-
tion (Table 3). Regression techniques were used to deter-
mine the unique contribution of the positive and negative
behaviors to relationship quality. Because partnersscores
were correlated, partnersinterdependence was controlled
with the use of a two-level hierarchical linear modeling
method (Raudenbush, Bryk, & Congdon, 2000) in which
partners (Level 1) are nested within couples (Level 2) and
the intercepts are declared random. The random-intercept
analysis retains information from each partner while con-
trolling for partnersinterdependence (e.g., Kurdek, 1997,
1998). The model comprised ve Level 1 variables (indi-
vidual negative behaviors in the conict task, individual
positive behaviors in the conict task, individual negative
behaviors in the support task, individual positive behaviors
in the support task, and perceived help) and three Level 2
variables (dyadic negative behaviors in the conict task,
dyadic positive behaviors in the support task, and dyadic
positive behaviors in the support task). In addition to in-
cluding the behaviors as predictors in the equation, the
model comprises sexual orientation as a Level 2 variable.
Information about the type of couple was captured by means
of two dummy variables in the form of two orthogonal
contrasts: one variable contrasting same-sex and heterosex-
ual couples and another contrasting gay male couples and
all other couples. Similarly, a second regression included a
variable contrasting same-sex and heterosexual couples and
another contrasting lesbian couples and all other couples.
All analyses were conducted with Version 5 of the Rauden-
bush et al. (2000) program.
Table 4 presents the nal estimations of xed effects. In
accordance with our hypothesis, negative behaviors in the
conict task explained unique variance in relationship qual-
ity. Also, positive behaviors in the conict task, measured at
the dyadic level, contributed variance in relationship quality
independent from the variance accounted for by individual
negative communication. Also in line with predictions, pos-
itive behaviors in the support task accounted for unique
variance in relationship quality beyond that afforded by
negative and positive behaviors in the conict task. Finally,
perceived help similarly added no redundant variance in
relationship quality.
Discussion
This research examined the global coding of conict and
supportive interactions among heterosexual, gay male, and
lesbian couples and determined whether positive communi-
Table 2
Means (and Standard Deviations) for the Conflict and Support Variables and for Helpees’ Post-Interaction Perceptions
Variable
Heterosexual couples Gay couples Lesbian couples
Partner 1 Partner 2 Partner 1 Partner 2 Partner 1 Partner 2
M(SD)M(SD)M(SD)M(SD)M(SD)M(SD)
Conict task
Individual negative 4.38 (2.45) 4.24 (2.24) 3.72 (2.04) 3.80 (2.38) 3.21 (1.71) 3.27 (2.22)
Individual positive 5.29 (1.62) 5.29 (1.38) 5.26 (1.68) 4.96 (1.92) 5.99 (1.70) 5.68 (1.62)
Dyadic negative 3.15 (2.09) 2.79 (1.85) 2.89 (1.84)
Dyadic positive 5.84 (1.88) 5.67 (1.87) 6.13 (1.61)
Support task
Individual negative 2.65 (1.53) 2.63 (1.52) 2.15 (0.82) 2.29 (1.07) 2.14 (1.17) 2.21 (1.16)
Individual positive 4.77 (0.82) 4.75 (0.78) 4.67 (0.74) 4.63 (0.74) 5.03 (0.81) 4.97 (0.92)
Dyadic positive 5.69 (1.38) 5.74 (1.29) 5.68 (1.16)
Perceived help 5.17 (1.12) 5.07 (1.02) 5.20 (1.11) 4.96 (1.21) 5.48 (0.97) 5.44 (1.08)
424 JULIEN, CHARTRAND, SIMARD, BOUTHILLIER, AND BE
´GIN
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This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
cation predicted unique variance in relationship quality. It
was a rst attempt to use observation of both conict and
social support for linking communication to gay male and
lesbian couplesrelationship quality.
Conict, Social Support, and Relationship Quality
In accordance with prediction, negative and positive be-
haviors in the conict and support domains were associated
with relationship quality. In that respect, our ndings are
consistent with most studies linking conict and support to
relationship quality.
Behaviors in the conict domain. Unexpectedly, the
results showed that both negative behaviors and positive
behaviors in the conict task contributed independently to
the variability of relationship quality. We did not anticipate
positive behaviors in the conict task to account for unex-
plained variance in relationship quality, given the robust
effect of negative behaviors in the conict task across
marital studies in the past and given the inconsistent and
poor contribution of positive behaviors to relationship qual-
ity in that context. This unexpected result did not show a
contribution of positive behavior at the individual level of
measurement but points to the role of positive behaviors at
the dyadic level. We used the interactional synchrony di-
mension (Bernieri & Rosenthal, 1991) for constructing this
variable. Interactional synchrony ratings were based on
behavioral cues referring to an equal and balanced partici-
pation of the two partners to solve the conict issue in the
form of a seamless coordination and tightly knitted coop-
erative involvement. Thus, beyond the effect of individual
partnersnegative behaviors in the two tasks and beyond the
effect of their levels of individual positive behaviors, our
nding suggests that couplesrelationship quality is sensi-
tive to the variability of partnersco-involvement in the
task.
This nding is interesting in light of the limitations of the
behavior reciprocity framework for capturing the process of
positive communication and its role in building the quality
of intimate relationship (e.g., Julien, Brault, Chartrand, &
Be´gin, 2000). It is also interesting in light of the difculty in
establishing the independence of interactional synchrony
measures relative to baselines of individual behaviors
(Bernieri & Rosenthal, 1991). It suggests that gains in
understanding processes of positive communication could
be made in pursuing a synchrony framework. The global
nature of our measurement procedure surely limits the ex-
tent of this nding. How to best operationalize positive
behaviors at the dyadic level in a way that goes beyond the
sum ofor the association betweenpartnersindividual
behaviors is an empirical question to be pursued.
Behaviors in the support domain. In line with predic-
tions, positive behaviors in the support task accounted for
unique variance in relationship quality beyond that afforded
by negative and positive behaviors in the conict task. Our
ndings suggest that positive individual behaviors in the
social support domain not only are relevant to relationship
quality but also convey information not already captured by
the assessment of communication in the conict domain.
In addition to the association between couplesbehaviors
and the quality of their relationships, our ndings showed
that perceived help after the support interaction contributed
nonredundant information. Other studies examining marital
behaviors and perceptions have suggested that partners
long-term cognitive and emotional experiences in their re-
lationship determine satisfaction beyond the immediate ex-
Table 3
Correlations for Individual Variables, Dyadic Variables, and Relationship Quality
Variable
Individual variables Dyadic variables
123456789
1. Conict task, negative .57*** .38*** .47*** .18* .27** .49*** .59*** .35*** .09
2. Conict task, positive .29 .22* .21* .47*** .23* .32*** .23* .52*** .29**
3. Support task, negative .44 .16 .63*** .18* .42*** .27** .41*** .14 .25**
4. Support task, positive .11 .42 .16 .56*** .40*** .30** .06 .36*** .58***
5. Perceived help .23 .09 .30 .29 .30** .37*** .15 .19* .37***
6. Relationship quality .40 .25 .22 .27 .31 .69*** .48*** .39*** .33***
7. Conict task, dyadic negative .32*** .01
8. Conict task, dyadic positive .33***
9. Support task, dyadic positive
Note. For the individual variables, Pearson correlations below the diagonal are for individual partners (n242) and were not tested for
statistical signicance because partner interdependence was not controlled; intraclass correlations between partners (n121) are on the
diagonal; and Pearson correlations between averaged scores over partners (n121) appear above the diagonal. Intercorrelations between
the dyadic variables and partnersaveraged individual variables appear in the three rightmost columns.
*p.05. **p.01. ***p.001.
Table 4
Summary of Hierarchical Linear Modeling for Variables
Predicting Relationship Quality
Variables BSEB
t(236)
Conict task
Individual negative 2.27 0.71 19 3.17**
Dyadic positive 2.60 1.09 .18 2.39*
Support task
Individual positive 4.31 2.01 .13 2.15*
Perceived help 3.60 1.26 .15 2.86**
*p.05. **p.01.
425CONFLICT AND SUPPORT
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This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
perience of specic communication (e.g., Carels & Baucom,
1999). Such distal factors may take the form of past positive
or negative experiences of problem solving or support epi-
sodes within marriage or more global feelings such as
sentiment override (Weiss, 1980).
Sexual Orientation and Communication
The results showed that heterosexual, gay male, and
lesbian couples did not differ in levels of communication
behaviors. In both the conict and the support domains, they
exhibited similar levels of negative and positive behaviors.
The three types of couples also showed similar levels of
perceived support following support discussions. The sim-
ilarities in observed communication are consistent with
much of the empirical ndings in studies that have used
self-report methods for comparing heterosexual, gay male,
and lesbian couples on various traits and dimensions perti-
nent to couplesrelationship quality. These ndings are also
consistent with Arellanos (1993) study, which did not nd
differences between gay male and lesbian couplescommu-
nication during conict discussions. Given the coherent set
of ndings on gender differences in emotion expression, it
is possible that a discrete, categorical coding system focus-
ing on emotion expression would reveal differences not
detectable with the use of molar coding. However, we must
also keep in mind that lesbians and gay men are known to
adopt atypical gender traits and that mutual adaptation in
heterosexual partnerscommunication style may lessen gen-
der disparities observed in other contexts (Aries, 1987).
Likewise, heterosexual, gay male, and lesbian couples
did not differ in the amount of variance in relationship
quality accounted for by communication behaviors. Thus,
beyond the diverse and specic ways that communication
seems to affect relationship quality when couples develop in
different contexts, our ndings highlight a uniformity of
function that generalizes to heterosexual, gay male, and
lesbian couples.
The results of this study should be interpreted with cau-
tion. First, even though our theoretical framework empha-
sized the effect of communication on relationship quality,
the cross-sectional nature of our design does not permit
inferring causality, and the associations we found were
possibly the products of bidirectional processes. Second, the
relationship quality measure used in this study has been
normed for American, English-speaking, heterosexual cou-
ples and could potentially have affected the results. Third, it
is probable that the same-sex couples who volunteered to
participate in our study were openly self-identied gay men
and lesbians in their communities, which is not necessarily
typical of nonparticipant couples. Fourth, the couples in this
study were Caucasian, middle-class, and from a large met-
ropolitan area, so our ndings may not generalize to all
couples. Fifth, with no explicit instructions given to couples
for the behaviors to be enacted during the social support
task, we have little evidence that the task adequately pro-
vides a valid interactional sample of social support in cou-
ples or that the coding has construct validity as a measure of
social support in relationships. Finally, given that dependent
children at home was not a controlled variable in this study,
we did not control for the effect of children on the charac-
teristics of the couplescommunication. The emergence of
the lesbian baby boomin the Western world, especially of
children born within the context of established intimate
lesbian relationships, should enable researchers to examine
similarities and differences between couplesrelationships
among those having similar family structures.
Implications for Application and Social Policy
This study examined the unique contribution of positive
communication to relationship quality. Our ndings suggest
that partnerspositive communication during conict as
well as during support episodes is pertinent to couples
development and maintenance. For clinical assessment pur-
poses, positive communication patterns provide nonredun-
dant information with information provided by the evalua-
tion of negative behaviors during conict resolution. This
study also provides descriptive data on the communication
behaviors of heterosexual, gay male, and lesbian couples
during conict resolution as well as during social support
episodes. In showing similarities among heterosexual, gay
male, and lesbian couples in two core domains of relation-
ships, this research makes available empirically based ob-
servations for enhancing prevention programs and therapy
with these types of couples.
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Received March 26, 2001
Revision received November 14, 2001
Accepted December 19, 2002
428 JULIEN, CHARTRAND, SIMARD, BOUTHILLIER, AND BE
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