10. Social Information Processing - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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10. Social Information Processing

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Conflict Control-Cple

Conflict, Control, and Out of Control in Couples and Couple Therapy

Attachment and anxiety along with other causes affect how an individual conceptualizes what is happening or has happened.  What the individual thinks or interprets can lead to calm or further emotional distress and potential anger.  As such what the individual thinks can reduce or increase relationship conflict and domestic violence.  Reducing aggressive thinking may result in less abuse.  If the thinking is based on stereotypes, prejudices, or misconceptions, the therapist or partner may be able to clarify the false premises for the aggressive thoughts.  As a result, ensuing aggressive behavior may be reduced.  On the other hand, the individual may be correct that his or her partner is angry and purposefully being hurtful.  In that case, "cognitive restructuring might still be useful. For example, learning not to catastrophize should be helpful even in very negative marriages (e.g., learning to think 'I can deal with this situation, even though it is unpleasant' should help prevent violent behavior).  Indeed, in their discussion of treating abusive partners, Murphy and Eckhardt (2005) suggest that while therapists may be tempted to focus on challenging the accuracy of their client's perceptions, clients may be more willing to explore the utility of their attitudes, whether accurate or not.  Thus, it may be more fruitful to begin by challenging the practical or functional aspects of a client's assumptions rather than the accuracy versus inaccuracy of those beliefs.  For example, consider a client who becomes angry when he believes that his partner is trying to be manipulative (generally assumed to be a hostile attributional 'bias'; e.g., Holtzworth-Munroe & Hutchinson, 1993).  Consistent with the present study findings, Murphy and Eckhardt acknowledge that the client's perceptions of his partner's behaviors may, in fact, be accurate (i.e., the client's wife may actually do things to be manipulative); in such cases, challenging the accuracy of the clients' assumptions would not be an appropriate.  Instead, they suggest that it may be beneficial to assist the client in understanding how his angry reaction can lead to further distress.  For example, the therapist might challenge the reasons why the wife's behavior is upsetting to the client or brainstorm more appropriate reactions for the client to try in such situations" (Clements and Holtzworth-Monroe, 2008, page 366-67).

Asking Dirk or Madeline "What does that mean to you?" and "How does that make you feel or think?" can lead to or precede to a second line of therapy.  Each partner can be asked, "What do you do then?  And how does that work?  Does it make things better or make things worse?"  Who is morally in the right or in the wrong is sidestepped to focus the partners on the utility of their responses.  The therapist asserts that as far as Dirk is concerned what he chooses to do in response is more important than what Madeline has subjectively done.  The therapist directs Dirk away from obsessing on whether or not Madeline is in some cosmic sense morally in the right or corrupt, to what he does next to influence their interaction.  The therapist challenges Madeline to take responsibility for her choices rather than self-righteously absolving herself of negative reactions because Dirk is difficult or upsetting.  "After Dirk came home late, what did you choose to do then?  How well did that work to stabilize or intensify getting re-connected?  Or, get you what you wanted?  Did it make things better or worse?"  The therapist may point out to one or both partners, "So, you felt justified in making a lousy choice that made things worse?  How does feeling that you are the more righteous person do for your intimacy?"  The challenges may be more specific.  "Since you thought she was such a bitch, you shut her down by intimidating her with your rage.  Yes, she shut up.  Does that also make her trust you more?  Love you more?  Be sweeter to you?"  A partner may self-righteously or smugly assert that the partner "won't do it again very soon!" which is indicative of control needs.  The therapist may ask, "So, intimidation works for you when intimacy doesn't?  That's good enough for you?" to reveal the relationship damage of choices or behavior.

It may be beneficial for identifying and understanding domestic violence by examining social information processing.  "Although the causes of male violence are undoubtedly complex and multilevel (e.g., societal, interpersonal, individual differences), our research has focused on individual correlates of violence and has utilized McFall's (1982) social information processing model to identify the social skills deficits of violent husbands (Holtzworth-Munroe, 2000).  McFall posits that three sequential stages are needed to process information and respond competently in any social situation: (a) decoding (perception, attention, and interpretation of the situation), (b) decision making (generating and evaluating possible responses and selecting a response), and (c) enactment (engaging in a chosen response and monitoring its impact on the situation).  As applied to intimate partner violence, the model posits that incompetent social responses, such as physical aggression, can result from skills deficits at any stage of social information processing, particularly in relationship conflict situations" (Clements et al., 2007, page 369-70).  Dirk can be assessed using these stages for social information processing.  How does he interpret Madeline's words and actions?  How he makes subsequent choices? And, what he does and how it affects the two of them?

The "risk of relationship aggression is argued to be substantially higher if men have deficits in their ability to regulate negative affect and to manage conflict in intimate relationships.  Markham (1991), Gottman (1994), and O'Leary (1988) suggested that learning to manage conflict is a fundamental developmental task required to sustain satisfying intimate adult relationships" (Halford et al., 2000, page 220).  Compatible with and overlapping with a social information processing perspective regarding domestic violence is the general aggression model (GAM).  It is "a framework to understand the link between individual, situational, cognitive, affective, and arousal factors and aggression… GAM underscores the role of associated cognitions, affect, and arousal that are related to aggression and their potential to prime knowledge structures in semantic memory that are related to aggression.  According to GAM, the likelihood that a person will respond to an aversive situation with aggression is mediated by cognition, affect, and arousal.  For example, priming hostile thoughts increases the likelihood of an aggressive response.  Arousal may facilitate aggression, for example by energizing the 'dominant action tendency,' which may be aggression.  In addition, GAM posits that negative affect, such as pain or anger, is related to hostility and influences aggressive responses. Anger may facilitate aggression by reducing inhibitions against aggression, increasing the cognitive processing of the anger inducing event, facilitating hostile interpretations of ambiguous situations, priming aggressive cognitions, and increasing arousal" (Clements and Holtzworth-Monroe, 2008, page 352-53).

When individuals have fundamental problems decoding the communication, behavior, and situation or context, they may see their partners and the relationship in a false light.  The range of inaccurate perception can be fantastically positive leading to an illusionary relationship, or it can be horribly negative leading to antagonistic relationships.  When the individual infers the motivation and intent of the partner incorrectly, whether positively or negatively or in some other fashion, at best the partner feels misunderstood.  The individual may have expectations that will be disappointed and resent the partner.  The partner, who may expect the individual to in sync with him or her, may also be disappointed, if not hurt and betrayed.  Misinterpretations abound in dysfunctional couples.  They fuel increased emotional arousal- increased anger and pain the more the partners insist on their inaccurate decoding of words and deeds.  Dirk and Madeline speak of the other's motivation and intent as it "must" mean something disrespectful, manipulative, exploitive, or worse.  Their negative expectations of the other bode poorly of their relationship and the potential for domestic violence.

"Marital positivity and spousal violence appear to be theoretically interrelated.  For example, husband-to-wife aggression has been proposed to result from the husband's disturbed attachment to his partner.  Maritally violent men may be overly dependent on their wives, and as a result they may become excessively fearful of rejection and/or abandonment (e.g., Murphy et al, 1994; Dutton et al, 1994).  Consequently, these men may be more sensitive to expressions of care and affection from their spouses than are either happily married or distressed but nonaggressive men (Dutton, 1988).  Similarly, a functional model of marital aggression posits that violence is a means of titrating intimacy (e.g., closeness, commitment, time spent together; Fruzzetti et al, 1995).  This model also posits that positive and intimate interactions may be more closely monitored by physically aggressive than nonaggressive men" (Langhinrichsen-Rohling et al., 1998, page 198).  The partners closely scrutinize positive and intimate interactions not necessarily for their fulfilling meanings, but in anticipation of negativity.  This often becomes a negative self-confirming prophecy finding ulterior motives and secret putdowns.  This suspicious process often unfortunately culminates in abusive aggression.

Clements et al found that "violent husbands were significantly less accurate at inferring their female partner's thoughts and feelings than were nonviolent– nondistressed men.  This group difference does not appear to be due to differences in the clarity of violent female partners' expression of their thoughts and feelings, relative to women in the nonviolent comparison groups, as there were no group differences in the male objective observer's empathic accuracy for the female partners' thoughts and feelings across the three groups.  Indeed, violent men were the only partners who tended to be less accurate than objective observers at inferring their own partner's thoughts and feeling.  Exploratory analyses showed that violent men had lower empathic accuracy for their female partner than nonviolent–nondistressed men even when controlling for both perceiver (i.e., men's empathic accuracy for female strangers) and target (i.e., male objective observers' empathic accuracy for female partners) effects" (Clements et al., 2007, page 384).  Inaccurate inference of the partner's fealty, respect, empathy, and so forth would increase abandonment anxiety, anger, and a secure sense of self.  These attachment and other injuries can be seen as instigating aggression and abuse.  On the other hand, aggressive actions and abuse may be otherwise motivated and it is possible that after the fact, inferring the partner's negative intent is justification for the misdeeds.

Winstok (2006, page 466) discussed the effect of how differences in how partners perceive the motive versus and the subject of a conflict.  When the partners disagree, aggression tends to increase.  However, differences in perceiving the personal motives behind the conflict have a greater effect increasing aggression than differences in perception of the subject of the conflict. The disagreements increase the partners' aggression toward each other.  "The discrepancy between accounts of conflict motive and subject, as expressed by the divergence in perceptions, does not represent disagreement between the partners but rather the absence of mutual understanding about an issue... The relationship between divergence in the perception of motive and in the perception of subject gives added strength to the suggestion that a common factor, misunderstanding and miscommunication, is affecting both."  Conflict motive is held abstractly unseen and often unannounced within each person.  On the other hand, subject of conflict is normally clear to both partners.  Madeline and Dirk for example would agree that the subject of a particular conflict is Dirk being away from home so much.  However, they disagree on each other's motives beneath the conflict.  "Understanding conflict motive has a greater effect on aggression than understanding the subject of the conflict. The motive constitutes the conflict's aim, while the subject is only the means of propelling the conflict forward."

If both Madeline and Dirk agree that her motive in the conflict is valuing him, missing him, and wanting more time together, then there probably would not be a conflict in the first place.  If both of them agree that Dirk's motive is to avoid spending time with Madeline who he no longer cares for, the conflict would change dramatically for the worse.  While it may still be impassioned, misunderstanding per se will not feed the anger.  Projecting or interpreting negative motivations feeds conflict.  Madeline believes Dirk's motive is to avoid, while Dirk holds his motive is to serve the family.  Simultaneously, Dirk believes Madeline's motive is to control him, while Madeline holds her motive is to gain more intimacy.  Misconstruing each other's motives lead to greater hurt, anger, and aggression.  However, there is also the possibility "that the aggression itself contributes to the misunderstanding of conflict subject and motive, given that escalatory conflicts reduce the ability of the parties to see, grasp, and understand an event.  Another possibility is that the two explanations complement each other: misunderstanding makes conflict worse, and severe conflicts reduce misunderstanding (Eisikovits & Buchbinder, 2000)" (Winstok, 2006, page 466).  The therapist may find that like the chicken or the egg, the origins are lost in time.  It remains, however a cycle that the therapist would attempt to break by checking on motives and guesses of motives with both partners.

Male perpetrators of domestic violence have lesser skills than non-abusers empathizing or identifying the female partner's thoughts and feelings.  "Increasing levels of male violence predicted decreased levels of men's empathic accuracy for a female partner… male partners' level of physical violence, but not their level of relationship satisfaction, was a significant predictor of men's empathic accuracy for their female partner's thoughts and feelings" (Clements et al., 2007, page 384).  "Therapists working with violent couples may wish to include empathy training in their interventions.  For example, as part of teaching couples effective problem-solving skills, it may be beneficial to focus specifically on improving men's perceptions of their partner's thoughts and feelings" (Clements et al., 2007, page 387).  This can be problematic if an individual has difficulty or is unable to be empathetic.  Or, if the individual is accurate in assessing the emotional state of his or her partner but does not care.  This would be characteristic of someone with antisocial personality disorder.

Even if a man such as Dirk were unhappy in the relationship, but non-violent, he would be likely to be just as accurate in guessing his partner's feelings as another non-violent but happy male partner.  Male abusers tended to be less accurate guessing the emotional experience of their partners, while being more accurate for female strangers.  In contrast, "nonviolent–nondistressed men showed the opposite pattern, having significantly higher empathic accuracy for their female partner than for female strangers… suggests that violent men are particularly inaccurate in intimate relationship situations" (page 385).  When husbands whether violent or non-violent are angered, they tend to have more cognitive distortions.  This suggests "that violent husbands hold negative schemas that lead them to believe their wives have hostile intentions and to perceive wife negativity without fully processing their wife's social cues during ongoing marital discussions" (page 386).  It is possible that abusive men have the intrinsic ability to be more accurate assessing their partners' feelings, but  "they lack the motivation to understand their own wife's thoughts and feelings.  Or perhaps, they do not engage their skills when interacting with their wife, as their goals and objectives in marital interactions may be different from that of other men (e.g., to control their wife rather than to maintain a healthy relationship)" (Clements et al., 2007, page 386).  The greater the preset expectation that they will be or are criticized and rejected, the more verbally aggressive they are.  "Maritally violent men expressed more aggressive cognitive biases and irrational beliefs than both groups of nonviolent men.  In sum, the existing data support a link between male perpetrated IPV and increased levels of male anger, hostility, and aggressive cognitions" (Clements and Holtzworth-Monroe, 2008, page 354).

"Interestingly, violent women did not exhibit the same empathic accuracy difficulty as their male partner did.  In the present study, no significant group differences in empathic accuracy were found across the violent and nonviolent groups of female partners or between violent women and objective female observers.  In addition, the exploratory analyses demonstrated that women's level of relationship violence and satisfaction were not significant predictors of women's empathic accuracy for their male partner's thoughts and feelings" (Clements et al., 2007, page 386).  The therapist should take care not to assume that overall findings are not automatically applied to a specific individual- male or female.  There will be nonviolent and violent women who have difficulty empathizing with others due to considerations that the therapist may or may not be able to ascertain.  However, it is intuitively logical that a male partner who is not psychological abusive or violent and is positive about his female partner would be highly interested and invested in her.  He would naturally be highly desirous of knowing her feelings.  It is also logical that his ability to be empathetically in tune with her would benefit their intimacy and the progression and stability of the relationship.  Rather than descend quickly into paranoia, he would tend to question negative thoughts about the partner's faithfulness, respect, and so on.  The lack of care or investment along with or causing a lack of decoding or empathetic awareness skills…or a lack of interest in accurate decoding or empathy would conversely be negative on the relationship.  An inability or difficulty to stop negative thoughts from spiraling down into personal or relationship despair further intensifies subsequent decoding.  It is not clear what may be the causal relationship between decoding and empathetic inaccuracies and psychological or physical violence.  Nevertheless, it is clear there is an association that the therapist should be alert to.

The therapist should assess the individual for his or her level of intransigence or openness to alternative interpretation.  It would be a major paradigm shift that offers potential for change in the relationship if the individual can shift from "It must mean…" to "It might mean…"  Getting both partners but especially the abusive partner to consider that the partner may have alternative intentions, meanings, or motivations other than the negative assumption is a seismic shift.  Individuals who refuse to consider different perspectives may be stuck in a dangerous cycle of escalation.  "…interpretations and deliberate appraisals of a situation may moderate an individual's behavior.  Thus, aggressive cognitions may increase the likelihood of aggression while nonaggressive appraisals (e.g., recognition of mitigating factors that caused the angering event, appraisals highlighting the consequences of aggression, personal values that oppose aggression) may suppress aggressive behaviors" (Clements and Holtzworth-Monroe, 2008, page 352).  Findings suggest "violent individuals (whether male or female) are more likely than nonviolent individuals to have aggressive cognitions, which may put them at risk for further conflict and violence perpetration" (page 365).  Therapy can seek to identify and curtail aggressive cognitions.  The therapist can directly prompt the individual to look for another way to look at the same circumstances.  "What if that's not why he or she did it?" introduces that the individual's perception is not absolute.  "What would be another way to interpret what happened?" Or, "That's the negative reason. How about a positive reason?" The therapist can take a further therapeutic step and present alternative motivations and interpretations to the couple.

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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