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Copyright 1989 by the American Psychological Association, Inc.

0022-006X/89/S00.75

Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology


1989, Vol. 57, No. 1,31-38

The Role of Cognitions in Marital Relationships: Definitional,


Methodological, and Conceptual Issues
Donald H. Baucom
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Norman Epstein
University of Maryland, College Park

Steven Sayers and Tamara Goldman Sher

This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.
This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Although there have recently been numerous investigations exploring the role of couples' cognitions
in an attempt to understand marital distress, at present there is little cohesion and direction in the
study of how couples think about their relationships. The current article asserts that this lack of
direction results from at least three factors: (a) a lack of delineation of the important cognitive
variables to be considered in marital functioning, (b) conceptual and methodological difficulties that
arise in attempts to operationalize cognitive variables, and (c) a dearth of models of marital functioning that incorporate cognitions in a detailed manner. These three factors are discussed, along with a
review of empirical investigations supporting the importance of cognitions in intimate relationships.

The role of cognitions in intimate relationships has gained increasing attention in recent years. Most work has focused on the
area of causal attributions, and numerous investigations have
demonstrated empirical relations between various types of attributions and level of marital maladjustment (see Baucom, 1987,
and Thompson & Snyder, 1986, for recent reviews of this work).
However, the study of cognitions in intimate relationships has
little coherent direction of movement, either from a research perspective or in terms of the treatment of marital distress.
This lack of focus and direction probably stems from at least
three factors: (a) insufficient delineation of important categories of marital cognitions other than attributions (with the work
on relationship beliefs by Eidelson & Epstein, 1982, being one
exception), (b) methodological and conceptual problems in operationalizing cognitive variables and comparing disparate
measures used in different studies, and (c) few descriptions of
explicit models to direct future research and to clarify the roles
that cognitions play in intimate relationships (with the models
proposed by Bradbury & Fincham, 1987, and Doherty, 198la,
198 Ib, being the exceptions). Consequently, this article focuses
on three related issues: (a) a proposed classification of cognitions that are potentially important in intimate relationships,
along with a review of the empirical status of these variables as
they are related to intimate relationships; (b) important methodological and conceptual issues to be considered in the operationalization of these variables; and (c) a discussion of what
should be included in cognitive models of intimate relationships and relationship maladjustment.

cognitive phenomena can be delineated that appear to play important roles in the development and maintenance of marital
maladjustment. The first of these involves the perceptual process of selective attention. The other four categories involve the
outcomes of cognitive processes: attributions (about why events
occur), expectancies (predictions of what events will occur in
the future), assumptions (about the nature of the world and correlations between events and characteristics), and standards
(about what "should" be). Although empirical investigations
are only beginning in most of these areas, much more is already
known about the outcomes of the cognitive processes than is
known about the cognitive processes themselves. For example,
as will be discussed, a fair amount is known about the content
of couples' attributions and their relation to marital discord.
Yet, little is known about the processes by which these attributions are made; that is, are couples lay scientists advancing
hypotheses and evaluating data? Are they cognitive opportunists who advance self-serving attributions, or are they simply
responding to classically conditioned associations between
emotion and thought?
Cognitions vary in how appropriate they are and, thus, in
how much they might contribute to marital distress. The appropriateness of a cognition can involve (a) its validity as a representation of reality or (b) its reasonableness as a standard or
explanation for relationship events when there are not objective
criteria available for determining reality. Individuals do not
commonly question their own moment-to-moment thoughts
about events in their lives (Beck, Rush, Shaw, & Emery, 1979)
or their long-standing assumptions and standards about the nature of the world (Nisbett & Ross, 1980). Consequently, a major
task of cognitively oriented marital therapy is to help spouses
become more active observers and to help them evaluate their
own cognitions so that their emotional and behavioral responses to one another will be minimally affected by distorted
cognitions (Epstein, 1982, 1986). The following are descrip-

Cognitive Variables in Intimate Relationships


Derived largely from Beck's (1976) and Ellis' (1962) cognitive
theories of maladaptive behavior, five categories of interrelated

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to


Donald H. Baucom, Psychology Department, Campus Box 3270, Davie
Hall, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, North Carolina 27514.

31

32

BAUCOM, EPSTEIN, SAVERS, AND SHER

lions of the five categories of cognitions that are likely to play


roles in marital maladjustment and are potentially important
foci for treatment.

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This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.

Assumptions and Standards


Spouses develop long-standing cognitions about the nature
of the world, including both the way that they think the world
actually is and the way that they think that the world should be,
which we respectively label assumptions and standards. These
classes of cognitions are important because, together, they serve
as the templates by which an individual processes the ongoing
events in his or her marriage. These "cognitive structures,"
"knowledge structures," or "schemata" (Nisbett & Ross, 1980;
Seller, 1984) are an individual's internalized representations regarding rules for categorizing objects and events, for solving
problems, for evaluating the appropriateness of events, and for
taking actions to achieve certain goals. Seller (1984) noted that,
beginning in infancy, the individual's repeated experiences in
the world produce complex concepts about the characteristics
of classes of objects and how one relates to them. Once established, cognitive structures are hypothesized to have vital survival value by allowing people to understand and interact adaptively with the complexities in their lives.
Assumptions. Of relevance to marital interaction, an individual develops assumptions about the set of characteristics of a
person who fills the role of husband or wife (or comparable roles
in a nonmarital relationship) as well as assumptions about how
the members of a couple relate to one another. The former assumptions focusing on characteristics of persons are commonly
labeled personae, and the latter assumptions, which focus on
events or chains of events, are referred to as scripts (Nisbett &
Ross, 1980). (This is a restricted use of the term script, which
at times has been used by other theorists to include standards
and expectancies as they are defined in this article.) A persona
about a person who fills a particular role includes not only a
set of characteristics but also a set of correlations among the
characteristics. For example, an individual may assume that
wives tend to be loving, emotionally sensitive, cooperative, and
responsible. Also, the individual may assume that the degree to
which a wife is cooperative is highly associated with how responsible a person she is.
An individual's personae can easily influence other cognitions and are probably related to marital discord. For example,
the assumption that "men are only interested in sex" could result in a wife making biased attributions for her husband's behavior and inaccurate expectancies about his future behavior
and could also lead to marital discord.
The scripts relevant to marriage involve sequences of events
that an individual assumes typically occur between spouses. An
individual's script for an argument with his or her spouse might
include a sequence of events such as, "We begin debating a
point. Then she tells me that I don't know what I'm talking
about. Then I defend myself, and then she leaves the room or
the house."
Personae (e.g., the henpecked husband) and scripts (e.g., the
exploits of Archie and Edith Bunker) can be widely shared in a
culture, or they can be idiosyncratic to an individual (e.g., a

husband's fairly unique script about how he and his wife behave
in order to respect each other's privacy). Accurate assumptions
allow individuals' past experiences to guide their current understanding and interaction with their spouses, but inaccurate assumptions may produce dysfunctional responses to marital
problems. Unfortunately, very little empirical research has investigated the importance of distorted assumptions in marital
discord, so their importance in marital distress has not yet been
demonstrated. However, Epstein and Eidelson (1981) found
that the more distressed spouses assumed that their partners
could not change a relationship and that overt disagreement was
destructive to a relationship, the more they preferred individual
therapy to marital therapy and the lower were their estimates
that therapy would benefit their own marital problems.
Standards. In contrast to the assumptions that a person
makes about the way relationships are, standards involve the
characteristics that the individual believes a partner or relationship should have. As emphasized by rational-emotive therapists
(Dryden, 1985; Ellis, 1962), an individual may hold an extreme
or irrational standard about intimate relationships that no reallife relationship could match. For example, one spouse might
cling to the standard that "\bu should be able to read my mind,
and I should not have to tell you what I want or need." In addition, he or she might also apply an extreme negative evaluation
when that standard is not met (e.g., "It is awful if you do not
know what I want intuitively; I can't stand it").
Standards per se are not dysfunctional; ethical and moral
standards are commonly quite functional guides for human relationships. They become problematic when they are extreme
or rigid or when they detract from other aspects of an individual's life (e.g., the person who strives to "do the best I can in
everything I do" may suffer exhaustion and may alienate neglected family members).
As in the area of assumptions, investigation into the role of
extreme standards in marital discord is only beginning. The few
existing studies have typically distinguished between extreme
standards for individuals and extreme standards for intimate
relationships. For example, Epstein and Eidelson (1981) found
that spouses' marital distress and low involvement in marital
therapy were more strongly correlated with a measure of unrealistic assumptions and standards about intimate relationships
(Eidelson & Epstein, 1982) than with Jones's (1968) measure
of irrational beliefs (extreme standards) about individual functioning described by Ellis (1962). Similarly, Jordan and McCormick (1987) found that unrealistic assumptions and standards
about relationships were more predictive of general marital distress than were extreme standards about sexual relationships.
These findings indicate the importance of assessing the content
of assumptions and standards focal to relationships in order to
understand marital adjustment.
Selective Attention, Attributions, and Expectancies
Spouses' perceptions and inferences about each other's behavior can contribute to marital distress independent of any
extreme standards and evaluations because they can serve as a
distorted and dissatisfying version of reality. That is, a spouse
might not violate standards about how a partner should behave,

SPECIAL SERIES: COGNITIONS AND MARRIAGE


but his or her behavior might be perceived or interpreted as be-

sions borrowed from the reformulated learned helplessness the-

ing inconsistent with what brings the other person pleasure,


thus leading to dissatisfaction.

ory (Abramson, Seligman, & Teasdale, 1978). This is a logical

Selective attention. Consistent with the idea that perception


is an active process rather than a passive reception of information (Kelly, 1955), we define perceptions as those aspects of the

between depression and

link because of the many cognitive and behavioral similarities


marital maladjustment (Epstein,

information available in a situation that an individual notices

1985). In spite of several methodological issues to be discussed,


there have been some common findings across studies (e.g.,
Baucom, Bell, & Dune, 1982; Fincham, Beach, & Baucom,

and fits into cognitive structures (e.g., personae, scripts) that


have meaning to him or her. Social cognition researchers (cf,

cobson, 1985; Jacobson, McDonald, Follette, & Berley, 1985;

Nisbett & Ross, 1980) and clinical writers (e.g., Beck et al.,
1979; Weiss, 1980) have described how perceptions are susceptible to selective attention because of factors such as emotional

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33

states, fatigue, and preexisting cognitive structures. Perceptual


biases can have powerful effects on marital interaction because
spouses are normally unaware that the information they perceive is only a subset of the data available in any situation.
Two types of related behavioral investigations have implica-

1987; Fincham & O'Leary, 1983; Holtzworth-Munroe & JaKyle & Falbo, 1985). Distressed spouses tend to rate causes of
negative partner behaviors as more global and stable than do
nondistressed individuals, whereas nondistressed spouses rate
causes of positive behavior of the partner as more global and
stable. In addition, distressed spouses have a tendency to blame
their partners for negative marital events. These attributional
tendencies serve to accentuate the positive in nondistressed relationships and the negative in distressed relationships.

tions for the issue of selective attention. First, the extent to


which the two members of a married couple share a common

Recent studies have investigated other attributional dimensions that focus on the characteristics and motives of the part-

perception of what has occurred in their relationship provides


information regarding the selective abstraction of information.

ner, such as positive versus negative intent, blameworthiness,


selfish motivation, and lack of love (Epstein, Pretzer, & Fleming,

Several investigations have demonstrated that married partners

1987; Fincham, Beach, & Nelson, 1987; Fincham & Bradbury,

have relatively different perceptions of what behaviors have occurred in the marriage during a given 24-hr period; the kappas
calculated between husbands' and wives' reporting of behavior

consistently found strong associations between such attribu-

1988; Pretzer, Epstein, & Fleming, 1985). These studies have

have averaged approximately .50 (Christensen & Nies, 1980;

tions and indices of marital maladjustment, again indicating


that distressed spouses explain their partners' behavior in ways

Christensen, Sullaway, & King, 1983; Jacobson & Moore,

that focus on negative aspects of the partner.

1981). Jacobson and Moore (1981) concluded that two partners


in a marriage agreed less than half of the time about whether or

As with almost all of the studies on cognitions and intimate

not a certain event had occurred during the past day. In addi-

relationships, the investigations of attributions and marriage


are correlational, and conclusions about cause and effect rela-

tion, all three of these investigations, as well as a study by Christensen and Wallace (1976), indicated that more satisfied cou-

tionships cannot be drawn (see Fincham & Bradbury, 1987, for


an exception). Also, because there are no criteria for assessing

ples evidenced a higher rate of agreement than more distressed


couples. Thus, although a certain degree of differential percep-

the validity of the attributions, it is unclear whether distressed

tion of marital events appears to be a way of life for most if

spouses are offering distorted attributions or whether their partners actually do behave with negative motivations.

not all couples, couples who are more distressed seem to attend
selectively in different ways to a greater extent.

and Bandura (1977) have described how people learn to antici-

Other investigators have compared a spouse's report of marital events with a trained rater's report of the couple's behavior.

Expectancies. Social learning theorists such as Rotter (1954)


pate probable consequences of their behavior and alter their behavior accordingly. For example, an individual may develop an

The logic underlying such investigations is that a trained rater


will have less reason to ignore certain events and will be sensi-

expectancy that behaving assertively will elicit intense criticism

tized to the full range of behaviors under investigation. For ex-

choose a submissive response. Expectancies can be situation-

ample, Robinson and Price (1980) trained observers to rate the


behaviors of both distressed and nondistressed couples in their

or relationship-specific, or they can be more generalized (e.g.,


applied to a range of relationships, not only marriage, or ap-

own homes. The couples also rated their own behaviors. A com-

plied across a wide range of situations within a marriage).

parison of the raters' observations with the couples' observations revealed results consistent with the findings of differential

Bandura (1977) distinguished between an outcome expectancy (a prediction that a particular action will produce partic-

perception. The level of overall agreement between raters and

ular consequences in a certain situation) and an efficacy

spouses was low, with correlations of approximately .50. Also,


there was greater agreement between raters and nondistressed

tancy (an estimate of the probability that one will be able to

from his or her partner and, consequently, the individual will

expec-

carry out the particular action needed to produce those conse-

spouses than between raters and distressed spouses. In fact, distressed couples underestimated the frequency of pleasurable

quences). Individuals' expectancies about interactions between

events by 50%.

tions about reactions of the partner to one's own behavior, reac-

Attributions. As noted earlier, a rapidly growing body of literature has examined the attributions or causal explanations that
spouses provide for events in their relationships. The most common marital attribution dimensions investigated have been the
global-specific, stable-unstable, and internal-external dimen-

spouses tend to take an "if-then" form and can involve predictions of the self to the partner's behavior, and outcomes of a
joint event (e.g., "If we argue in front of the children, they will
be harmed psychologically").
As with some of the other cognitions described previously,
there is scant research on the role of expectancies in intimate

34

BAUCOM, EPSTEIN, SAVERS, AND SHER

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This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.

relationships. Crossing two dimensions of expectanciesgeneralized versus specific by outcome expectancy versus efficacy
expectancyresults in at least four different types of expectancies that can be explored. Pretzer et al. (1985) conducted one of
the only studies in this area, and it focused solely on generalized
efficacy expectancies. Their results supported Doherty's
(1981a, 1981b) hypotheses that spouses' low efficacy expectations regarding their ability to solve their marital problems are
associated with marital distress and depression and with attributions of causality for relationship problems to their partner's
behavior, stable personality, malicious intent, and lack of love.

Operationalizing Terms
To evaluate a model of marital functioning that primarily
considers cognitive factors, these cognitive variables must be operationalized. Although there has been considerable attention
given to the role of causal attributions in marital functioning,
few attempts have been made to operationalize the other cognitive variables previously discussed. Yet, even when attributions
have been considered alone, a number of unresolved conceptual
and methodological issues have surfaced. Several of these issues
will be considered because they will probably resurface when
attempts are made to assess the other categories of cognitions.
One general issue that has arisen in assessing attributions is
the extent to which the assessment strategies mirror the attributional processes that occur in the day-to-day lives of couples.
This rather broad concern incorporates several specific issues.
First, the extent to which the individual is asked explicitly to
make attributions is important. That is, individuals do not
make attributions about every event; to do so would result in
an extreme amount of cognitive processing that would severely
curtail the person's ability to proceed through even uncomplicated events. Consequently, although most self-report inventories of attributions concerning marital interaction explicitly ask
the respondent to explain why an event or behavior occurred,
it is unclear whether the person would have provided an attribution for the event in the natural environment (e.g., Pyszcynski
&Greenberg, 1981). Holtzworth-Munroeand Jacobson (1985)
both directly and indirectly probed for attributions regarding
marital events. They found that, although the two methodologies resulted in attributions that were statistically significantly
correlated, the correlations were all modest in magnitude.
Thus, the manner in which attributions are elicited probably
influences what is obtained, and at present the relative merits
of the various strategies are unclear. Similarly, the extent to
which the assessment strategy directs the respondent's thoughts
is pertinent when cognitions other than attributions are considered.
The representativeness of the cognitive assessment strategy
for understanding the couple's marital functioning is influenced
by a second factor whose relationship is focused on in the assessment. Some inventories ask respondents only about their
cognitions regarding their own marriages (Baucom & Sayers,
1987; Pretzer et al., 1985), yet other self-report measures ask
respondents about their cognitions regarding marriages in general as well as their own marriages (Eidelson & Epstein, 1982).
Asking about both types of relationships is appropriate, but

items have typically been combined into a single score, although the two foci may yield very different information. For
example, clinical experience suggests that many distressed couples hold different standards for their own marriage than for
marriages in general. To combine these two pieces of information into a single score could result in misleading or confusing
results.
The extent to which the assessment strategy mirrors cognitions in day-to-day living is also influenced by the specific stimuli, behaviors, or events with which the individual is presented.
Attributional assessment strategies can be divided according to
whether they ask couples to consider hypothetical or real events
in their relationships (e.g., Madden & Janoff-Bulman, 1981;
Orvis, Kelley, & Butler, 1976). Hypothetical events have the asset that all couples will be responding to the same set of stimuli,
which allows for easier comparison across couples; the liability
is that the events may not be representative of the couples' own
behavior. Using actual events from the couples' lives ensures
that the events have relevance to them; however, comparison
across couples becomes more complex. Findings to date have
been similar when attributions for both actual and hypothetical
marital events have been considered; yet, only one study has
compared the equivalence of hypothetical versus actual events,
and then only for wives (Fincham & Beach, in press). Their
findings revealed that similar attributions were provided for the
two types of stimuli. Whether to use real or hypothetical events
must also be addressed when the other classes of cognitions are
operationalized.
As stated previously, one major reason for using hypothetical
marital events is that all spouses are thus providing cognitions
about the same set of stimuli. To maximize the representativeness of the stimuli and yet provide a set of questions or statements to which all couples can respond, some investigators have
taken a different approach. They have constructed statements
that ask about the relationship in a very general way (e.g., Burns
& Volpicelli, 1987; Pretzer el al., 1985). Thus, in assessing expectancies, a respondent might be asked the extent to which he
or she agrees with the following statement, "No matter what I
do, my partner will not change." Such global expectancies
might be an important part of marital adjustment. However,
marital discord also seems to involve cognitions about very specific situations and aspects of the relationship, and the spouses'
thoughts about these specific components of the marriage also
need to be assessed.
In part, the relevance of obtaining cognitions about global
aspects or specific content areas of the relationship depends on
whether or not individuals have global cognitive styles that involve thinking about many aspects of the relationship in the
same way. For example, if a spouse makes similar attributions
for marital events regardless of the specific content under consideration (i.e., has a strong attributional style), then the content
provided is of less importance. Some marital investigators have
apparently assumed that spouses have an attributional style regarding their marriage (e.g., Doherty, 1982). However, Baucom,
Sayers, and Duhe (in press) found that, whereas some spouses
do provide consistent attributions across marital situations,
other spouses offer attributions that appear to be situation-specific.

SPECIAL SERIES: COGNITIONS AND MARRIAGE


Persons with individual psychopathology often have distorted
and extreme cognitions that should alert marital investigators

to be versus (b) how the relationship should be in this content


area might be a source of distress to the couple.

from a methodological perspective. For example, ample evi-

Thus, attempts to operationalize cognitions and to deal with

dence exists that depressed individuals have negativistic attribu-

the methodological and conceptual complexities inherent in assessing couples' cognitions relevant to their marriages are only
beginning. However, even as these issues become resolved, theo-

tions, expectancies, and so forth. Therefore, when investigating


the cognitions of maritally distressed couples, researchers must
also evaluate whether the individuals are depressed. Then, factorial designs can be used or the level of depression can be covaried to insure that extreme or distorted cognitions are a function of the marital distress per se rather than a function of the
individual's depression. Whereas depression is one variable that

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35

reticians and investigators must continue to focus on an even


broader issue: how these cognitive variables are to be used in
building a model of marital functioning.

Building Models of Marital Functioning

should be considered in evaluating spouses' cognitions, marital


researchers must also take into account any other disorder or

Whereas new research might be pursued based on the defini-

phenomenon that is likely to confound the relationship between

tional and methodological issues already discussed, clear and

marital functioning and cognitions.


A final important issue in operationalizing cognitive vari-

concise theoretical models of marital adjustment are needed to

ables relevant to marriage is whether to focus on the actual content of cognitions, on broader dimensions presumed to be important within certain categories of cognitions, or on some integration of the two. For example, in assessing attributions within
marriage, almost no investigators have focused on the actual
content of the attributions (see Pretzer et al., 1985, for an exception). Respondents are typically asked to offer attributions for
why some marital event occurred. Next, the respondent or outside raters evaluate the attribution on several dimensions such
as locus of control, globality, and stability. Almost invariably,
these dimensions become the foci of the investigation. Thus,
the content (e.g., whether the respondent believes that problems
result because the partner is stupid or lazy, etc.) is lost. Other
investigators have focused on content but have not been as careful in delineating the categories of cognitions under consider-

embrace cognitive constructs and to provide direction for this


research. If models of marital adjustment are to be constructed
that include cognitions, the relations among the various categories of cognitions must be made explicit. In addition, relations
among cognitions and other variables such as behavior and
affect must be integrated into a model of marital functioning,
and theoreticians must be explicit about the causal relations
that are hypothesized to exist among these constructs.
A potential source of confusion regarding causal models concerns the general statement by investigators that cognitions,
affect, and behavior interact in influencing the couple. Although
the meaning of this statement seems to be self-evident, a difficulty arises concerning the potentially different connotations
for the term interact. Buss (1977) described these different
meanings in his discussion of the trait-situation controversy in
predicting and understanding behavior. In the first meaning,

ation. For example, Burns and Volpicelli's scale (1987) assesses

two variables such as environment (E) and person (P) are used

a broad range of content areas that cognitive theorists believe

to predict and explain a third variable, such as behavior (B);


these relations can be characterized by the function, B = f(E,

are relevant to marital distress (e.g., partner is unwilling or unable to change). Whereas some of these areas are assessed with
questions focusing on assumptions and expectancies, other content areas are assessed by asking about standards and assump-

P). This has been labeled the analysis of variance (ANOVA)


model because, conceptually, E and P variables are used as fac-

tions. At times, it is unclear why a given content area is assessed

tors or as independent variables whose interaction is used to


predict B, the dependent variable. Quite appropriately, ANOVA

in terms of certain categories of cognitions.

statistical techniques have been used to test this model. (In con-

In future attempts to investigate couples' cognitions and


marital functioning, a consideration of both content and type

sidering marital functioning, other variables, including cogni-

of cognition could be a fruitful strategy. That is, investigators


might select what appear to be the important varieties of content in couples' cognitions and might then systematically ask
questions about the couples' perceptions, attributions, assump-

tions, can be substituted for E, P, and B.) This is generally regarded as a mechanistic model in that it embodies unidirectional causality from environment and person to behavior. The
model allows for investigating whether two or more variables

tions, expectancies, and standards in each particular content

are additively or interactively related to a dependent variable.


Interaction in this model means that the independent variables

area. Such systematic exploration would allow for a determination of how these different types of cognitive variables, such as

their relation to the dependent variable.

need to be considered simultaneously in order to understand

attributions and expectancies, interrelate in a given content

Jacobson et al. (1985) utilized this meaning when examining

area. Certain patterns across cognitive variables might well be


related to marital distress. For example, a spouse might (a) have

the effects of negative behavior and level of marital distress on

a clear set of assumptions about a content area, make attributions about past behavior consistent with these assumptions,
and similarly provide expectancies about future behavior in
light of these assumptions and attributions but (b) have standards as to how the relationship should be that are in conflict
with these assumptions, attributions, and expectancies. As a result, this conflict between (a) how the relationship is perceived

the types of attributions made by couples. The investigators


asked spouses to participate in a conflict resolution task with
their partners. Before the task, the experimenter privately instructed one spouse to behave either positively or negatively.
Both distressed and nondistressed couples were included in this
procedure, yielding a 2 X 2 (Behavior X Couple Type) design.
The results indicated an interaction effect such that distressed
spouses were more internal in their attributions concerning the

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36

BAUCOM, EPSTEIN, SAVERS, AND SHER

partner's behavior when that partner was instructed to behave


negatively and were more external when the partner was to behave positively. Conversely, nondistressed spouses were more
internal in their attributions for positive behavior and external
in their attributions for negative behavior. The investigators appropriately noted that this type of design does not examine
whether there are reciprocal causal relations among the variables.
In the second meaning of interaction, there is a reciprocal
relationship between person (F) and environment (E), which is
construed as bidirectional or cyclical between these two sets of
variables (E * f). Each variable is considered to be simultaneously both a dependent and independent variable, and this
is referred to as an organismic model. Thus, in considering a
married couple, a spouse's cognitions may influence that person's emotions toward the partner, and those emotions might
then influence future cognitions which that individual experiences. This example focuses on reciprocal causality within a
single individual; the model becomes much more complex
when attempting to explain reciprocal causality between two
persons in a relationship.
Thus, in the first instance, the concept of interaction focuses
on the manner in which two variables combine in a unique way
in relation to a third variable, and the causality is often viewed
as unidirectional. However, in the second case, causality is
clearly bidirectional, and interaction refers to the way in which
two (or more) variables mutually influence and change each
other. The difficulty arises when researchers espouse a model
that defines interaction from one perspective but then empirically investigate the concept using a methodology appropriate
for the other meaning of interaction.
Consequently, in building models of marital distress that give
a significant role to couples' cognitions, the theoretician must
be attuned to several issues. Cognitions must not be described
in a general way; instead, the various types of cognitions must
be differentiated, and the relations between these cognitive variables and marital distress must be made clear (e.g., Fincham &
Bradbury, 1988). The relations among various cognitions and
among cognitions and other important constructs such as emotions and behavior should also be specified. In doing so, the theoretician must go beyond the self-evident yet potentially confusing general statement that these variables interact. Instead, the
two meanings of interaction, from ANOVA and reciprocal influence perspectives, must be considered. At present, our efforts
in these directions have just begun. Investigators have established with some consistency that attributions are related to
level of marital discord, and the few studies that exist confirm
a relation between standards or beliefs and level of marital adjustment. If these findings are to have maximal impact on our
understanding of relationships, it is important that they be integrated into more complete models of marital functioning incorporating the guidelines outlined here.

models of marital functioning that incorporate cognitions are


at an early stage of development, it is not surprising that attempts to intervene with distressed couples' cognitions have
rarely been evaluated. Three investigations have implemented
cognitive restructuring alone without other interventions (Emmelkamp, 1985; Epstein, Pretzer, & Fleming, 1982; Huber &
Milstein, 1985), and two other investigations have explored
whether behavioral marital therapy (BMT) could be strengthened by adding a cognitive component (Baucom, 1985; Baucom & Lester, 1986). The results of these investigations have
indicated that cognitive restructuring with distressed couples
can produce meaningful cognitive changes, particularly in relationship standards, assumptions, and expectancies. Selective attention has rarely been investigated, and the potential for altering attributions is unclear. Cognitive restructuring has also altered couples' attitudes toward therapy itself. Huber and
Milstein (1985) found that brief cognitive therapy increased
couples' expectancies that marital therapy would benefit them
and increased their desire to improve their relationships. In addition, the treatments were effective in increasing marital adjustment. However, as is consistent with other outcome studies,
cognitive restructuring in isolation or in combination with
BMT appears to be no more effective than BMT alone when
couples are randomly assigned to treatment conditions (see
Baucom & Hoffman, 1986, for a review of marital outcome research).
Thus, the findings indicate that cognitive therapy can alter
distressed couples' cognitions and increase their levels of marital adjustment. Yet, to be maximally effective, these treatment
interventions must draw on basic research. At the least, this
means that the constructs must be operationalized and the
many methodological issues resolved. In addition, treatment
interventions involving cognitions can benefit from well-developed models of marital functioning that incorporate cognitions.
Such models can provide guidelines regarding which couples
will benefit most from cognitive restructuring and how to implement these interventions. Once these findings and theories
are available, there is an increased likelihood that cognitive interventions will maximally benefit distressed couples.

Intervening in Marital Discord

Baucom, D. H., Bell, W. G., & Dune, A. (1982, August). The measurement of couples' attributions for positive and negative dyadic interac-

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Received March 7,1988


Revision received March 21,1988
Accepted March 21,1988

Mineka Appointed Editor of Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 1990-1995


The Publications and Communications Board of the American Psychological Association announces the appointment of Susan Mineka, Northwestern University, as editor of the Journal
of Abnormal Psychology for a 6-year term beginning in 1990. As of January 1, 1989, manuscripts should be directed to
Susan Mineka
Northwestern University
Department of Psychology
102 Swift Hall
Evanston, Illinois 6Q208