The power of listening: Lending an ear to the partner during dyadic coping conversations

J Fam Psychol. 2018 Sep;32(6):762-772. doi: 10.1037/fam0000421. Epub 2018 Jun 4.


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 10-s 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. (PsycINFO Database Record

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological*
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Communication*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Sexual Partners / psychology*
  • Spouses / psychology*
  • Young Adult