Discourse of de-escalating arousal: how couples interact during problem-solving discussions when heart rate is decreasing
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Couples with high levels of aversive physiological arousal during marital conflict risk becoming divorced (Gottman, 1994). This study examined the features of discourse characterizing episodes of decreasing heart rate. Twelve married couples engaged in a fifteen-minute videotaped marital problem-solving discussion while wearing a heart rate monitor. Their IBI data were used to identify 120 episodes of decreasing heart rate of at least five-seconds duration, and 120 comparable episodes of increasing heart rate. All videotaped episodes were coded for both husband’s and wife’s behaviors, and t-tests were conducted to compare features during increasing versus decreasing heart rate. The characteristic features of discourse during decreasing heart rate were: speaking with certainty, and being open to another perspective. Features that occurred significantly less often during both husband’s and wife’s decreasing heart rates were: eye gaze, head nods, deep breaths, self-adaptors, and illustrative gestures. Features that occurred less often only during husbands’ decreasing heart rate were humor, acknowledgement tokens, and responding neutrally to wife’s negative remark. Humor occurred more often during increasing heart rate that was followed immediately by decreasing heart rate. A discourse analysis of two exemplar episodes revealed that decreasing heart rate was demonstrated by gentleness, certainty, and openness to another perspective. Increasing heart rate was characterized by the cautious use of language and illustrative gestures, by self-adaptors, and by careful listening behavior, including acknowledgement tokens. An understanding of discourse features characterizing changes in heart rate is a first step toward enabling people to manage their own physiological arousal during problem-solving discussions, and to support their partners’ arousal management. Gottman, J. M. (1994). What predicts divorce? Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.