January 30, 2023

New study highlights the importance of perspective taking in maintaining healthy romantic relationships

Perspective-taking appears to act as a buffer against psychological relationship aggression during emerging adulthood, according to new research published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

Forming and maintaining romantic relationships is an important part of emerging adulthood, and psychological aggression can play an pivotal role in this process. However, the authors of the current research said that few previous studies had considered the relationship experiences of both partners when investigating this topic.

“My interest in what makes healthy romantic relationships in adolescents and emerging adults dates back to the early 1990s; I was a co-investigator on a longitudinal study that began in infancy – where relationships with parents was a focus, and followed the sample into childhood where friendship became important for well-being,” said study author Candice Feiring, a senior research scholar at The College of New Jersey.

“Not much work had been done on adolescent romantic relationships because teenage love was considered short lived and without much consequence. That was an outdated view as Wyndol Furman, Bradford Brown and I argued in our edited book ‘The development of romantic relationships in adolescence.’ Now, 20 year later, research shows how romantic experiences in adolescence and emerging adulthood are related to current well-being and to relationship health later in life.”

In the new study, each partner in 126 couples individually completed an audio-recorded interview in which they described two specific times when they faced a relationship conflict because their partner had not met their needs. The participants then completed assessments of relationship aggression and satisfaction. The participants were between the ages of 18 and 25 years, and were together for more than a year on average.

The researchers transcribed the interviews and then analyzed how often words and phrases related to anger, break-up anxiety, and perspective taking were used by the participants. After controlling for relationship satisfaction, they found that participants who exhibited more anger while describing a past conflict tended to score higher on the measure of relationship aggression, while those who exhibited more perspective taking tended to score lower. Relationship aggression included behaviors such as “exploding and getting out of control” and insulting one’s partner.

“How emerging adults interpret conflict events can guide their behavior when they interact with their partners,” Feiring told PsyPost. “Reflecting back on past conflicts can affect who you behave in future conflicts. Our study shows that recalling conflict and using anger to interpret/make meaning of events is related to using more verbal aggression when you are disagreeing with your partner. On the positive side, being able to put yourself in your partner’s shoes when interpreting the conflict is related to using less aggression.”

“Say your partner has been late for a dinner date to celebrate your 6 month anniversary. In recalling this event, you might interpret it with anger – saying your partner is selfish and that pissed you off,” Feiring said. “A different person might also interpret a very similar series of events by talking about how stressed the partner has been lately because of summer internship interviews/applications – in this case, the person is using perspective taking to understand why the partner was late. Perspective taking is an important skill for managing conflict in healthy ways but it’s hard to do – especially when a person is angry. And we typically don’t educate adolescents or emerging adults in how to use this kind of skill.”

As with all research, the study includes some limitations. The sample was comprised of college students and only included 3 same-sex couples. Future research examining this topic should included larger samples that are more diverse, the researchers said.

The researchers also noted that semi-structured interviews can provide important insights into couples’ relationship functioning, but they also have some drawbacks.

“Narratives about romantic relationships in emerging adults provide rich insight into how people think through and feel about relationship events but collecting them is time consuming so not done as much as surveys,” Feiring explained. “But romantic relationships are complex and narratives get at the complexity. For example, ask a person to rate how well they take their partner’s perspective and they are likely to score themselves high on this skill. Ask then to recount conflict events and you are much less likely to see such skills demonstrated.”

The study, “Romantic conflict narratives and associations with psychological relationship aggression in emerging adult couples“, was authored by Candice Feiring, Elisa Liang, Charles Cleland, and Valerie Simon.

New study highlights the importance of perspective taking in maintaining healthy romantic relationships