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  1. 1. Longitudinal Effect of Defensive Denial on Relationship Instability Daniel G. Lannin, Karen E. Bittner, and Frederick O. Lorenz Iowa State University Maladaptive communication may often undermine the long-term stability of romantic relationships. We hypothesized that defensive denial may be a salient type of maladaptive communication that erodes relationship stability over time because it may lead to more caustic conflict-escalating behaviors. Additionally, we hypothesized that defensive denial observed in romantic relationships could be linked back to defensive denial observed in the family of origin. Using data from the Family Transitions Project, we specified longitudinal models in which observed defensive denial in romantic relationships affected self-reported and partner-reported relationship instability both directly and indirectly through self- reported and partner-reported conflict-escalating behaviors. Models also traced defensive denial observed in romantic relationships back to defensive denial observed in the family of origin nearly 10 years earlier, while participants were in late adolescence. Results from structural equation models supported the first two hypotheses. For both men and women, defensive denial was mediated by conflict-escalating behaviors to cause greater relationship instability over time. Additionally, there was evidence that the expressions of defensive denial in romantic relationships may have been learned in the family of origin for women, but not for men. Keywords: relationships, relationship instability, denial, defensiveness, longitudinal Longitudinal research on marriages and romantic relationships has produced a substantial literature that addresses why these relationships often destabilize and deteriorate (Karney & Brad- bury, 1995). Behavioral models of marriages and romantic rela- tionships have identified maladaptive communication patterns as important predictors of divorce (e.g., Buehlman, Gottman, & Katz, 1992; Gottman & Krokoff, 1989; Gottman & Levenson, 1999, 2000), and intergenerational transmission studies have examined how enduring vulnerabilities emerge from the family of origin to predict dissolution of marriage and romantic relationships (e.g., Ehrensaft, Knouse-Westfall, & Cohen, 2011; Cui, Durtschi, Don- nellan, Lorenz, & Conger, 2010). The present study used a behav- ioral model to study the effect of defensive denial on the stability of romantic relationships, and traced that defensive denial back to previous defensive denial that occurred years earlier in the family of origin. For the present study, defensive denial1 was conceived as a subset of defensive behaviors that fail to acknowledge the reality of a situation or fail to acknowledge personal responsibility for a situation in ways that may or may not include misattribution to other external causes (American Psychiatric Association, 2000; Melby et al., 1990; Melby & Conger, 2001). Defensiveness and Defensive Denial in Romantic Relationships Defensiveness refers to communication that functions to protect the self from perceived attack by deflecting responsibility or blame (Coan & Gottman, 2007), and has been found to provoke further defensiveness in others (Gibb, 1961). Two prominent microana- lytic relational coding systems use the category of defensiveness in describing behaviors that function to protect the self from per- ceived attack: the Specific Affect Coding System (Coan & Gott- man, 2007) and the Rapid Couples Interaction Scoring Systems (Krokoff, Gottman, & Hass, 1989). Indicators of defensiveness in the Specific Affect Coding System include “yes–but” statements, meeting complaints with countercomplaints, minimizing the de- gree of a problem, making excuses to reduce personal responsi- bility for a problem, and aggressive denials of personal responsi- bility. Indicators of defensiveness in the Rapid Couples Interaction Scoring System include the sum of excuse, deny responsibility, negative solution, and negative mind-reading behaviors. Using these coding systems, defensiveness has been identified as an important predictor of marital instability, divorce, and relevant factors associated with marriage dissolution such as marital prob- lems that require therapy, self-described chaotic lives, lack of fondness and “we-ness,” conflict-avoidant behaviors, and consis- tent use of negatively coded interpersonal behaviors (Alexander, 1 It should be noted that the term “defense” or “defense mechanism” refers to an automatic psychological process (Cramer, 2000), whereas “defensiveness” in the romantic relationship literature refers to observable behaviors (e.g., Coan & Gottman, 2007). Thus, to clarify this distinction between internal psychological processes and observable behaviors, we have chosen to use the term “denial” when referring to the associated automatic psychological process, and “defensive denial” when referring to observable interpersonal behaviors. This article was published Online First November 4, 2013. Daniel G. Lannin and Karen E. Bittner, Department of Psychology, Iowa State University; Frederick O. Lorenz, Departments of Psychology and Statistics, Iowa State University. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Daniel G. Lannin, Department of Psychology, Iowa State University, Lagomarcino W112, Ames, IA 50011. E-mail: dglannin@iastate.edu ThisdocumentiscopyrightedbytheAmericanPsychologicalAssociationoroneofitsalliedpublishers. Thisarticleisintendedsolelyforthepersonaluseoftheindividualuserandisnottobedisseminatedbroadly. Journal of Family Psychology © 2013 American Psychological Association 2013, Vol. 27, No. 6, 968–977 0893-3200/13/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/a0034694 968
  2. 2. 1973; Barton, Alexander, & Turner, 1988; Buehlman et al., 1992; Carstensen, Gottman, & Levenson, 1995; Gottman & Krokoff, 1989; Gottman & Levenson, 1992, 1999, 2000; Wright & Fichten, 1976). Despite the success and prominence of microanalytic coding systems as tools for investigating behavior interactions in romantic relationships, they have also drawn criticism for using behavioral categories that include too broad an array of behaviors (King, 2001). Specifically, defensiveness has been criticized for including behaviors not directly related to the theoretical conceptions of defensive communication. Indeed, it could be argued that numer- ous negative interpersonal processes such as criticism, contempt, stonewalling, and hostility also provide defensive functions, inso- far as they are enacted to protect an individual from perceived attacks. Even though the broad operationalization of defensiveness may increase its ability to predict relational outcome variables, this broadness also decreases its theoretical precision (King, 2001). Thus, identifying relevant dimensions of defensiveness may illu- minate relevant interpersonal factors that influence romantic rela- tionships. The Defensive Functioning Scale may give some insight into the relevant dimensions of defensiveness, as it categorizes defenses empirically and conceptually according to the degree to which they are adaptive (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disor- ders, fourth edition, text revision [DSM–IV–TR]; American Psy- chiatric Association, 2000). Defensive functioning ranges from high adaptive level defenses, which result in optimal handling of stressors to defenses on the level of dysfunctional dysregulation, which are so maladaptive that they can lead to objective breaks with reality. The Defensive Functioning Scale may thus give some insight into the salient dimensions of defensiveness by providing a theoretical guide for delineating the degrees of adaptive and mal- adaptive responses to stressors. One potential dimension of defensiveness that we were able to address in the present study was defensive denial. Denial involves “refusing to acknowledge some painful aspect of external reality or subjective experience that would be apparent to others,” and is categorized as a defense on the disavowal level along with other defenses such as projection and rationalization that are character- ized by keeping aversive stressors, impulses, affects, or responsi- bility from awareness (p. 811; American Psychiatric Association, 2000). Denial has been associated with behaviors such as mini- mizing, disputing, or rejecting the implications of threatening information, discounting negative feedback, and acting as though one were personally invulnerable (Baumeister, Dale, & Sommer, 1998; Cramer, 2000, 2006, 2008; Lazarus, 1983). In the present study, defensive denial was operationalized to capture a subset of defensiveness that is specifically associated with disavowal, that is, behaviors that fail to acknowledge the reality of or personal responsibility for situations (Iowa Family Interaction Rating Scales; Melby et al., 1990; Melby & Conger, 2001). Thus, although the function of defensive denial may be similar to defensiveness, it represents a narrower construct because it taps distinct disavowing strategies. Additionally, defensive de- nial is distinguished from the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (Gottman, 1993, 1994) because defensive denial is marked by disavowal, and does not overtly function to attack character (crit- icism), communicate disgust (contempt), or engage in nonrespon- siveness (stonewalling). There is good reason to expect that defensive denial may be detrimental to romantic relationships (Knee, Patrick, Vietor, Nanayakkara, & Neighbors, 2002; Lazarus, 1983). A factor anal- yses of the Iowa Family Interaction Rating Scales found that defensive denial loads onto a larger negativity factor along with other observed behaviors such as hostility, disruptive processes, contempt, angry coercion, dominance, verbal attacks, interroga- tion, and externalized negativity (Williamson, Bradbury, Trail, & Karney, 2011). It is likely that defensive denial may harm rela- tionship stability because it fails to acknowledge and address conflict. For example, we operationalize defensive denial as ob- served behaviors where individuals explicitly or implicitly denied the existence of a problem, denied personal responsibility for a problem, claimed that everything was okay, avoided blame by not recognizing the problem, or provided excuses for their behavior (Iowa Family Interaction Rating Scales; Melby et al., 1990; Melby & Conger, 2001). It is likely that couples who overuse strategies such as defensive denial are not constructively engaging their relationship difficulties, but are attempting to avoid conflict (Pe- terson, 2002). Insofar as defensive denial averts constructively engaging relationship problems, it may indirectly exacerbate rela- tionship difficulties. Defensive Denial and Overt Conflict-Escalating Behaviors In addition to failing to address conflict, it is likely that defen- sive denial also elicits negative interpersonal reactions such as irritability, tension, and persistence of the problem—that ulti- mately may find expression in more overt conflict-escalating be- haviors (Deutsch, 1973, 1990). We operationalize conflict- escalating behaviors to include more explicitly damaging interpersonal communication, for example, refusing to work out solutions to problems, criticizing one’s partner, blaming one’s partner for one’s problems, and insisting that one’s partner agree to one’s own solution to a problem (Conger, Elder, Lorenz, Simons, & Whitbeck, 1994). It is important to distinguish the notable conceptual and operational differences between defensive denial and conflict-escalating behaviors in the present study. Whereas defensive denial may correspond to disavowing and diverting behaviors that occur during the early avoidance versus engage- ment stage of conflict, overt conflict-escalating behaviors are rep- resentative of hostile fighting that occurs during the later escala- tion versus negotiation stage of conflict (Peterson, 2002). That is, defensive denial captures behaviors that attempt to avoid conflict and blame through disavowal, whereas conflict-escalating behav- iors are intended to be adversarial attacks, thereby marking a more serious degree of relationship dysfunction. Transmission of Defensive Denial From Family of Origin to Future Romantic Relationships As Karney and Bradbury (1995) noted, behavioral models of marriage and romantic relationships may benefit from accounting for enduring vulnerabilities, which are experiences or traits that exist before romantic relationships occur. Intergenerational re- search has often involved linking adverse traits, behaviors, and outcomes in the family of origin and matching them to the traits, behaviors, and outcomes in families of destination. This body of ThisdocumentiscopyrightedbytheAmericanPsychologicalAssociationoroneofitsalliedpublishers. Thisarticleisintendedsolelyforthepersonaluseoftheindividualuserandisnottobedisseminatedbroadly. 969DEFENSIVE DENIAL AND RELATIONSHIP INSTABILITY
  3. 3. work has established that adverse experiences in the family of origin are often carried forward into the next generation to nega- tively affect functioning in future romantic relationships (Cui et al., 2010; Ehrensaft et al., 2011). Previous research has found that negative interpersonal processes may be a prominent enduring vulnerability from the family of origin that people bring into their future romantic relationships (Story, Karney, Lawrence, & Brad- bury, 2004). It is conceivable, then, that defensive denial may be one such negative interpersonal process that individuals use in the family of origin, and bring into future romantic relationships. Overview Our purpose in this study was to closely consider the effects of defensive denial on relationship stability in a cohort of young couples. The model we developed looked forward to the mediating mechanisms linking defensive denial to relationship stability, and looked back to experiences in the family of origin for insight into the persistent patterns of behavior that may perpetuate this form of harmful interaction. Specifically, we hypothesized that defensive denial would exacerbate relationship instability because it would engender more relationally damaging conflict-escalating behav- iors. Additionally, we hypothesized that defensive denial in ro- mantic relationships and its influence on relationship instability could be traced back to learned behaviors that occurred nearly 10 years earlier in the family of origin. Figure 1 shows the hypothe- sized associations between variables. We tested these hypotheses with longitudinal data over a 14-year period from the Family Transitions Project, and used a combination of observational data, self-report, and partner-report data from both romantic partners. Method Participants In 1989, Conger et al. (1994) began the Iowa Youth and Fam- ilies Project to study the effects of the 1980s farm crisis on rural Iowa families. They contacted schools in rural Iowa and invited 7th grade target students to participate in the study. Students were eligible if they were living with their biological parents and had a sibling within four years of age. Participants were compensated according to the number of tasks and questionnaires they com- pleted. In 1991, Simons (1996) initiated a parallel study, the Iowa Single Parent Project, which focused on recently divorced single mothers. Participants in the Iowa Single Parent Project were ninth graders in 1991 who were living with their biological mothers and had a sibling within four years of age. In 1994, the two projects were combined to create The Family Transitions Project, leading to a total number of 525 targets. The sample used for the current study included 748 participants (383 women, 51.2%) who were either the targets or the romantic partners of targets from the Family Transitions Project (women: age2007, M ϭ 31.1 year, SD ϭ 2.1, range ϭ 23.1–43.8 years, Hispanic ϭ 0.8%; Non-Hispanic ϭ 93.2%; European American ϭ 97.0%, Black/African American ϭ 1.1%, Asian ϭ 0.3%, Native American/Alaskan Native ϭ 0.3%, Other ϭ 0.8%; men: age2007, M ϭ 33.0 years, SD ϭ 3.7, range ϭ 22.7–54.6 years; Hispanic ϭ 1.1%; Non-Hispanic ϭ 93.2%, European American ϭ 98.1%, Asian ϭ 0.3%, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander ϭ 0.3%, Native American/Alaskan Native ϭ 0.3%, Other ϭ 1.1%). Of this sample, the majority (women: n ϭ 320, 83.6%; men: n ϭ 319, 82.5%) originated from the Iowa Youth and Families Project and the remainder were from the Iowa Single Parent Project. Participants were in heterosexual relationships, and were either married (wom- en: n ϭ 248, 64.7%; men: n ϭ 234, 64.2%) or cohabiting full-time or part-time; those who were not married or cohabiting were excluded from these analyses. Of the 365 couples who completed outcome data in 2007, 323 (88%) couples had the same partner in 2005, 281 (77%) had the same partner in 2003, 242 (66%) of couples had the same partner in 2001, and 190 (52%) had the same partner in 1999. Procedure Data collection included in-home interviews for participants who consented to an observational discussion task with their families of origin in 1999, and with their romantic partners in 1999, 2001, and 2003. Before an interviewer visit, participants were mailed a packet of “homework” questionnaires. After partic- ipants completed the homework questionnaires, trained interview- ers traveled to their homes, video-recorded interaction tasks, and administered additional questionnaires. Relationship instability Denial in RR Denial in FOO Conflict- escalating Figure 1. Theoretical model of proposed relationships between defensive denial, conflict-escalating behaviors, and relationship instability. FOO ϭ family of origin; RR ϭ romantic relationship; Denial ϭ defensive denial; Conflict-escalating ϭ conflict-escalating behaviors. ThisdocumentiscopyrightedbytheAmericanPsychologicalAssociationoroneofitsalliedpublishers. Thisarticleisintendedsolelyforthepersonaluseoftheindividualuserandisnottobedisseminatedbroadly. 970 LANNIN, BITTNER, AND LORENZ
  4. 4. Measures Defensive denial. The current study used observed defensive denial wherein interpersonal interactions were scored by coders who were trained to assess a number of behaviors in the video- taped discussion task. Coders were required to pass written tests at 90% accuracy and were required to pass viewing tests at 80% accuracy before coding tapes. Coders also participated in 1.5 hours of group training meetings each week during the coding process. Trained observers coded defensive denial using the Iowa Family Interaction Rating Scales (Melby et al., 1990; Melby & Conger, 2001). Defensive denial was operationalized as a subset of defensive behaviors that fail to acknowledge the reality of a situation or fail to acknowledge personal responsibility for a situation in ways that may or may not include misattribution to other external causes. That is to say, defensive denial was marked by the degree to which individuals explicitly or implicitly denied the existence of a prob- lem, denied personal responsibility for a problem, or provided excuses for their behavior during the discussion task. Behaviors coded as defensive denial could be verbal, such as denying that the situation raised by the partner exists, claiming that everything is okay, changing the subject of discussion suddenly, excusing one’s own behavior by saying “just kidding,” or projecting fault onto someone or something else. Behaviors coded as defensive denial could also be nonverbal, such as physically turning away from the partner or shaking one’s head. Participants’ defensive denial dur- ing the discussion task was scored on a 9-point Likert scale, where 1 ϭ not at all characteristic and 9 ϭ mainly characteristic. The current analyses included two defensive denial factors, each coded by trained observers at different points in time. The first defensive denial factor assessed observed defensive denial in the family of origin (1994), when targets were adolescents, and com- prised observed ratings of each family member’s behavior toward the other family members. This factor included three observed ratings of defensive denial: father’s defensive denial, mother’s defensive denial, and target’s defensive denial. These scores were combined to create a latent factor of defensive denial in the family of origin. The second factor of defensive denial assessed observed defensive denial in the romantic relationship, when targets were in early adulthood. This factor comprised three observed ratings over time (1999, 2001, and 2003) that consisted of either men’s defen- sive denial behaviors toward their romantic partners or women’s defensive denial behaviors toward their romantic partners. The reliability coefficient for observed ratings of defensive denial is a single-item intraclass correlation coefficient (ICC) based on a one-way random effects ANOVA model (McGraw & Wong, 1996; Shrout & Fleiss, 1979). The Family Transitions Project reported the single-item because individual coders’ ratings, and not the mean of both coders’ ratings, were used in further analyses. Both coders were drawn randomly from the same pop- ulation of coders. Intraclass correlations were calculated for the three years of observational tasks (1999, 2001, and 2003), and ranged from .60 to .83, with an average of .69 (Choukalas, Melby, & Lorenz, 2000). Twenty-five percent of the total interactions were randomly selected to be independently rated by a second observer, meaning that 25% of all interactions were independently coded by two people. Differences between the original ratings were then reconciled by the two coders. Conflict-escalating behaviors. Conflict-escalating behaviors were assessed by the negative problem solving scale, which was created for the Iowa Youth and Family Project (Conger et al., 1994). The 4-item scale assesses the degree to which participants engage in conflict-escalating behaviors that may negatively impact their ability to adequately solve relational problems. Items such as, “How often do you refuse, even after discussion, to work out a solution to the problem?”, “How often do you criticize your partner or his or her ideas for solving the problem?”, and “How often do you blame your partner for the problem?” were rated on a 7-point Likert scale, where 1 ϭ never and 7 ϭ always. Conflict- escalating behaviors were assessed in 2005. Participants reported the frequency of their own behaviors and the behaviors of their romantic partners, resulting in four measures of conflict-escalating behavior per couple: a self-report and partner-report for men, and a self-report and partner-report for women. Cronbach’s alpha scores for these four measures ranged from .79 to .91. Responses from men and women were aggregated as manifest variables of a latent factor representing the degree to which each gender engaged in conflict-escalating behaviors. The latent factor of women’s conflict-escalating behaviors included two indicators: women’s self-reported ratings of their own behaviors and their romantic partner’s ratings of women’s behaviors. The latent factor of men’s conflict-escalating behaviors included two indicators: men’s self- reported ratings of their own behaviors and their romantic part- ners’ ratings of men’s behaviors. Relationship instability. The five-item relationship instabil- ity scale was created by Booth, Johnson, and Edwards (1983) to assess how recently thoughts and behaviors associated with ending the relationship had occurred. Items such as, “Even people who get along quite well with their partner sometimes wonder whether their relationship is working out. Have you thought your relation- ship might be in trouble?” and “Have you or your partner talked [about consulting an attorney/with other people]2 about a possible separation or divorce?” were assessed on a 4-point Likert scale, where 1 ϭ not in the last year and 4 ϭ yes, within the last 3 months. Relationship instability was assessed in 2007 with higher numbers corresponding to greater relationship instability. Re- sponses from men and women were aggregated to create manifest variables for a latent factor of relationship instability. Cronbach’s alpha scores were good for both women and men (␣women ϭ .88; ␣men ϭ .86). Avoidance. The current study used avoidance in the romantic relationship to provide evidence for the validity of defensive denial and conflict-escalating behaviors. Couples’ interactions were scored by coders who were trained to assess a number of behaviors in the videotaped discussion task. Trained observers coded avoidance using the Iowa Family Interaction Rating Scales (Melby et al., 1990; Melby & Conger, 2001). Avoidance measured the degree to which the participant avoided physical interaction with the other participant by averting their gaze or orienting their body away from the other participant. Participants’ avoidance during the discussion task was scored on a 9-point Likert scale, where 1 ϭ not at all characteristic 2 Married couples were asked, “Have you or your partner talked about consulting an attorney about a possible separation or divorce?” Cohabiting couples were asked, “Have you or your partner talked with other people about a possible separation or divorce?” ThisdocumentiscopyrightedbytheAmericanPsychologicalAssociationoroneofitsalliedpublishers. Thisarticleisintendedsolelyforthepersonaluseoftheindividualuserandisnottobedisseminatedbroadly. 971DEFENSIVE DENIAL AND RELATIONSHIP INSTABILITY
  5. 5. and 9 ϭ mainly characteristic. The current analyses included rela- tional avoidance in the romantic relationship, when targets were in early adulthood. This factor comprised three observed ratings over time (1999, 2001, and 2003) that consisted of either men’s observed relational avoidance toward their romantic partners or women’s avoidance toward their romantic partners. Twenty-five percent of the total interactions were randomly selected to be independently rated by a second observer, meaning that 25% of all interactions were inde- pendently coded by two people, with differences between the original ratings reconciled by the two observers or in a group meeting format. For the present study, the ICC ranged from .51 to .72, with an average ICC equal to .60. Hostility. The current study used hostility in the romantic rela- tionship to provide evidence for the validity of defensive denial and conflict-escalating behaviors. Hostility in the romantic relationship was measured by the 9-item moderate hostility subscale of the 22- item Behavioral Affect Rating Scale (BARS; Conger et al., 1994), created for the Family Transitions Project to assess interpersonal hostility and warmth. All items were assessed on a 7-point Likert scale, where 1 ϭ never and 7 ϭ always. Moderate hostility assessed behaviors with items such as, “How often did your partner get angry at you?” and “How often did your partner ignore you when you tried to talk to him/her?” For women, Cronbach’s alpha ranged from .91 to .92 across the three waves (1999, 2001, and 2003), with an average ␣ of .91. For men, Cronbach’s alpha ranged from .93 to .94 across the three waves, with an average ␣ equal to .93. Covariates. Covariates included the dichotomized education variable (whether participants had a bachelor’s degree or not), relationship status (i.e., married or not), and a measure of house- hold income. Per capita household income was log transformed to approximate a normal distribution (range ϭ $0 - $905,888; M ϭ $23,828; Median ϭ $20,000). Results Descriptive Results In 1999, women ranged from 18 to 28 years of age (M ϭ 23.4), and men ranged from 19 to 44 years of age (M ϭ 25.0). The analyses dichotomized education to represent whether participants had earned a bachelor’s degree or higher (e.g., Master’s or other professional degree). Half of the women (50.2%) and 42.9% of men had a bachelor’s degree or higher. There was limited vari- ability in ethnicity (Ͻ1% Hispanic targets; 2.4% Hispanic part- ners) and race (99.4% Caucasian targets; 94.8% Caucasian partners), and thus neither variable was included as a covariate. Descriptive statistics for all model variables are included in Table 1. Analytic Approach Our analytic approach included two main steps. First, to estab- lish evidence for construct and criterion validity for defensive denial and conflict-escalating behaviors, we calculated intercorre- lations between defensive denial, conflict-escalating behaviors, and theoretically related variables. Second, to assess associations between defensive denial, conflict-escalating behaviors, and rela- tionship instability, we evaluated the hypotheses using structural equation modeling (SEM) with full information maximum likeli- hood (FIML). Rather than imputing specific values for couples, FIML uses all available data to create a comprehensive covariance matrix. This is beneficial in a longitudinal panel study such as this because of the reality that some participants may not participate in a specific wave of data, but may later return to the study. FIML in Mplus excludes cases that contain a high proportion of missing values. All participants who fit initial inclusion standards, as outlined above, had sufficient data to qualify for inclusion in the current analyses. Models were run separately for men and women to determine existing gender differences. All female participants (targets and romantic partners) were combined into the model for women, and all male participants (targets and romantic partners) were com- bined into the model for men. As presented in Figure 1, there were three steps within the SEM analysis. First, we evaluated the total effect of defensive denial in the romantic relationship on relation- ship instability. Second, we included a latent factor of conflict- escalating behaviors in romantic relationships as a mediator be- tween defensive denial in the romantic relationship and Table 1 Descriptive Statistics M SD 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 M 2.91 1.76 1.94 2.90 3.78 3.18 2.11 2.11 1.26 SD 1.89 1.17 1.13 1.72 2.03 1.86 1.03 .88 .56 1. FOO DE: Target 2.91 1.89 — .40‫ءء‬ .34‫ءء‬ .07 .14‫ء‬ .21‫ءء‬ .02 .06 .07 .01 2. FOO DE: Mother 1.76 1.17 .41‫ءء‬ — .34‫ءء‬ .02 Ϫ.03 .12‫ء‬ .03 .09 .12‫ء‬ .07 3. FOO DE: Father 1.94 1.13 .34‫ءء‬ .34‫ءء‬ — .08 .18‫ءء‬ .14‫ء‬ .12† .02 .05 .07 4. RR DE: 1999 2.81 1.94 .11† .13‫ء‬ .19‫ءء‬ .43‫ءءء‬ .32‫ءء‬ .30‫ءء‬ .14‫ء‬ .04 .11† .06 5. RR DE: 2001 3.12 1.82 .12‫ء‬ .08 .12† .28‫ءء‬ .53‫ءء‬ .47‫ءء‬ .19‫ءء‬ .12† .15‫ءء‬ .21‫ءء‬ 6. RR DE: 2003 2.92 1.65 .15‫ء‬ .22‫ءء‬ .14‫ء‬ .17‫ءء‬ .38‫ءء‬ .53‫ءء‬ .18‫ءء‬ .15‫ءء‬ .22‫ءء‬ .21‫ءء‬ 7. CEB: Women 1.96 .78 .04 .07 .14‫ء‬ .10 .24‫ءء‬ .13‫ء‬ .65‫ءء‬ .38‫ءء‬ .30‫ءء‬ .25‫ءء‬ 8. CEB: Men 2.36 .98 .09 .14‫ء‬ .09 .07 .19‫ءء‬ .15‫ء‬ .40‫ءء‬ .69‫ءء‬ .15‫ءء‬ .28‫ءء‬ 9. RI: Women 1.39 .69 .07 .12‫ء‬ .05 Ϫ.04 .15‫ء‬ .16‫ء‬ .29‫ءء‬ .16‫ءء‬ — .66‫ءء‬ 10. RI: Men .01 .07 .07 Ϫ.05 .11 .15‫ء‬ .20‫ءء‬ .32‫ءء‬ .66‫ءء‬ — Note. Women’s descriptive statistics and correlations are shown below the diagonal (n ϭ 365). Men’s descriptive statistics and correlations are shown above the diagonal (n ϭ 365). Available correlations between men are women are italicized and on the diagonal. FOO DE ϭ observed defensive denial in the family of origin; RR DE ϭ observed defensive denial in the romantic relationship; CEB: Women ϭ women’s report of participant’s conflict- escalating behaviors; CEB: Men ϭ men’s report of participant’s conflict-escalating behaviors RI: Women ϭ women’s self-report of relationship instability; RI: Men ϭ men’s self-report of relationship instability. † .05 Ͻ p Ͻ .10. ‫ء‬ p Ͻ .05. ‫ءء‬ p Ͻ .01. ThisdocumentiscopyrightedbytheAmericanPsychologicalAssociationoroneofitsalliedpublishers. Thisarticleisintendedsolelyforthepersonaluseoftheindividualuserandisnottobedisseminatedbroadly. 972 LANNIN, BITTNER, AND LORENZ
  6. 6. relationship instability. Third, we included defensive denial in the family of origin as a spurious predictor of both defensive denial in the romantic relationship and relationship instability. Validity of Defensive Denial and Conflict-Escalating Behaviors To establish the construct validity of defensive denial and conflict-escalating behaviors, we examined the correlations be- tween both measures along with measures avoidance and hostility. The results supported the construct validity of both measures. Defensive denial was strongly associated with avoidance (rwomen ϭ .44, p Ͻ .01, rmen ϭ .50, p Ͻ .01), but less strongly associated with hostility (rwomen ϭ .25, p Ͻ .01, rmen ϭ .30, p Ͻ .01). In contrast, conflict-escalating behaviors was strongly associated with hostility (rwomen ϭ .55, p Ͻ .01, rmen ϭ .55, p Ͻ .01), but less strongly associated with avoidance (rwomen ϭ .14, p ϭ .02, rmen ϭ .18, p Ͻ .01). Additionally, defensive denial was only weakly correlated with conflict-escalating behaviors (rwomen ϭ .19, p ϭ .02, rmen ϭ .22, p Ͻ .01), indicating that the two constructs respectively shared 4% and 5% of the common variance for women and men. For criterion validity, we explored the relationship between defensive denial and conflict-escalating behaviors with relationship instabil- ity. As expected, conflict-escalating behaviors evidenced a stron- ger association with relationship instability (rwomen ϭ .28, p Ͻ .01, rmen ϭ .32, p Ͻ .01) than did defensive denial (rwomen ϭ .12, p ϭ .04, rmen ϭ .18, p Ͻ .01). Structural Equation Modeling Analysis We conducted a confirmatory factor analyses (CFA) with the model variables. Table 2 shows the standardized factor loadings for the CFA model; estimates were similar across all models. Next, we followed a three-step SEM analyses. First, we tested the total effects of defensive denial in the romantic relationship on relation- ship instability. Second, we explored the mediating effects of conflict-escalating behaviors on the association between defensive denial in the romantic relationship and relationship instability. Last, we included defensive denial in the family of origin as a spurious predictor of defensive denial in the romantic relationship and relationship instability. Total effect of defensive denial on relationship instability. First, we estimated the total effects of defensive denial in romantic relationships on relationship instability for men and women. Con- sistent with our hypothesis, women (b ϭ .30, p ϭ .02) and men (b ϭ .36, p Ͻ .01) who were observed demonstrating more defensive denial in their romantic relationships had significantly higher relationship instability. Figures 2 and 3 present models for women and men, respectively, with total effects shown in brack- ets.3 Mediating effects of conflict-escalating behaviors. The sec- ond step in the model series determined the mediating, or indirect, effects of defensive denial in romantic relationships on relation- ship instability through conflict-escalating behaviors. In both mod- els, the path from defensive denial to conflict-escalating behaviors remained significant with the addition of the path from conflict- escalating behaviors to relationship instability, although it declined in magnitude for both women (b ϭ .48, p Ͻ .01) and men (b ϭ .38, p Ͻ .01). These results suggest that defensive denial was associ- ated with a significant increase in the frequency of future conflict- escalating behaviors. There was also a significant path from conflict-escalating behaviors to subsequent relationship instability for women (b ϭ .44, p Ͻ .01) and men (b ϭ .38, p Ͻ .01), suggesting that more frequent conflict-escalating behaviors were associated with greater relationship instability. When the factor of conflict-escalating behaviors was added into the model, the effect of defensive denial in romantic relationships was no longer significant for either women (b ϭ Ϫ.14, p ϭ .38) or men (b ϭ .11, p ϭ .27). These results provide evidence (Baron & Kenny, 1986) that conflict-escalating behaviors mediated the as- sociation between defensive denial and relationship instability both for women (Indirect Effect ϭ .21, p ϭ .02; see Figure 2) and for men (IE ϭ .15, p ϭ .02; see Figure 3). Spurious influence of family of origin defensive denial on defensive denial in romantic relationships. To provide a more thorough explanation of the mechanism by which defensive denial in romantic relationships influences later relationship instability, the third and last step was to add defensive denial in the family of origin as a spurious predictor of defensive denial in romantic relationships and relationship instability (see Figures 2 and 3). After the addition of family of origin defensive denial, the mag- nitude of the influence of defensive denial in romantic relation- ships on conflict-escalating behaviors remained consistent for men and women, as did the magnitude of conflict-escalating behaviors on relationship instability. However, family of origin defensive denial did not have a spurious effect on the instability of future romantic relationships for women (b ϭ .05, p ϭ .65) or men (b ϭ .08, p ϭ .34). The models indicated that family of origin defensive denial had differential spurious influences on defensive denial in subsequent 3 Models also included a path from denial to conflict-escalating behav- iors; to avoid estimation problems, the conflict-escalating behaviors factor only had two indicators, and could not be included in the model unless it was associated with another factor. These paths from denial to conflict- escalating behaviors were also significant for women (b ϭ .66, p Ͻ .01) and men (b ϭ .47, p Ͻ .01). Table 2 Standardized Factor Loadings Women (n ϭ 383) Men (n ϭ 383) Family of origin defensive denial (1994) Father .55‫ءء‬ .55‫ءء‬ Mother .69‫ءء‬ .66‫ءء‬ Target .56‫ءء‬ .58‫ءء‬ Romantic relationship defensive denial Participant to partner (1999) .51‫ءء‬ .59‫ءء‬ Participant to partner (2001) .51‫ءء‬ .56‫ءء‬ Participant to partner (2003) .56‫ءء‬ .64‫ءء‬ Conflict-escalating behaviors (2005) Self-report .72‫ءء‬ .49‫ءء‬ Partner-report .56‫ءء‬ .75‫ءء‬ Relationship instability (2007) Women’s report .89‫ءء‬ .84‫ءء‬ Men’s report .75‫ءء‬ .80‫ءء‬ Note. Factor loadings were from confirmatory factor analysis models. Factor loadings for latent factors were of a similar or greater magnitude across all models. ‫ءء‬ p Ͻ .01. ThisdocumentiscopyrightedbytheAmericanPsychologicalAssociationoroneofitsalliedpublishers. Thisarticleisintendedsolelyforthepersonaluseoftheindividualuserandisnottobedisseminatedbroadly. 973DEFENSIVE DENIAL AND RELATIONSHIP INSTABILITY
  7. 7. romantic relationships for women and men. Specifically, there was a significant path from family of origin defensive denial to defen- sive denial in romantic relationships for women (b ϭ .40, p Ͻ .01) but not for men (b ϭ .13, p ϭ .22). Therefore, for women there was an additional significant indirect effect (IE ϭ .08, p ϭ .04) by which defensive denial in the family of origin influenced relation- ship instability through defensive denial and conflict-escalating behaviors in romantic relationships. This effect was not significant for men (IE ϭ .02, p ϭ .29). Overall, the results suggest that female adolescents growing up in families with more defensive denial tended to utilize more defensive denial years later in their own adult romantic relationships. Discussion We hypothesized that over time defensive denial would lead to conflict-escalating behaviors in romantic relationships, which in turn would engender greater relationship instability. We also hy- .40** .44** [.48** ] .47** [.30* ] -.14 .05 Relationship instability R2 = .24 Denial in RR R2 = .30 Denial in FOO Conflict- escalating R2 = .21 Men’s report Women’s report 1999 2001 2003 M F T Men’s RI Women’s RI Figure 2. Women’s model predicting relationship instability from conflict-escalating behaviors in the romantic relationship, defensive denial in the romantic relationship, and defensive denial in the family of origin. Denial ϭ defensive denial; FOO ϭ family of origin; M ϭ mother; F ϭ father; T ϭ target; RR ϭ romantic relationship; Conflict-escalating ϭ conflict-escalating behaviors. Total effect paths are in brackets, followed by direct paths. n ϭ 383, ␹52 2 ϭ 95.444, RMSEA ϭ .047, CFI ϭ .917. ‫ء‬ p Ͻ .05; ‫ءء‬ p Ͻ .01. .13 .38** [.47** ] .38** [.36** ] .11 .08 Relationship instability R2 = .27 Denial in RR R2 = .13 Denial in FOO Conflict- escalating R2 = .17 Men’s report Women’s report 1999 2001 2003 M F T Men’s RI Women’s RI Figure 3. Men’s model predicting relationship instability from conflict-escalating behaviors in the romantic relationship, defensive denial in the romantic relationship, and defensive denial in the family of origin. Denial ϭ defensive denial; FOO ϭ family of origin; M ϭ mother; F ϭ father; T ϭ target; RR ϭ romantic relationship; Conflict-escalating ϭ conflict-escalating behaviors. Total effect paths are in brackets, followed by direct paths. n ϭ 365, ␹52 2 ϭ 125.972, RMSEA ϭ .062, CFI ϭ .864. ‫ءء‬ p Ͻ .01. ThisdocumentiscopyrightedbytheAmericanPsychologicalAssociationoroneofitsalliedpublishers. Thisarticleisintendedsolelyforthepersonaluseoftheindividualuserandisnottobedisseminatedbroadly. 974 LANNIN, BITTNER, AND LORENZ
  8. 8. pothesized that defensive denial and its influence on relationship instability could be traced back to learned behaviors that occurred in the family of origin. Using longitudinal data over a 14-year period from the Family Transitions Project that included a com- bination of observational, self-report, and partner-report data, we examined the effects of defensive denial on relationship instability when participants were in their late twenties, and traced those effects back to defensive denial that occurred in the family of origin more than a decade earlier, when participants were adoles- cents. The findings support our initial hypotheses. The current study provided evidence that defensive denial observed in roman- tic relationships is linked to future relationship instability because defensive denial elicits more overtly damaging conflict-escalating behaviors such as criticism, refusing to solve problems, and blam- ing partners for problems. Additionally, there was evidence that the tendency to use defensive denial in the family of origin continued forth to subsequent romantic relationships for women, but not for men. The present study expanded previous relationship research on defensive communication in important ways. First, in addressing previous criticisms of defensiveness, the current study examined the effects of a specific type of defensive communication—defen- sive denial—rather than using an operationalization that has elic- ited criticism for lacking theoretical precision (King, 2001). This narrowing of the construct of defensiveness may constitute an important initial step in identifying other salient elements of de- fensive communication that merit further study. The results sug- gest that defensive denial may exacerbate relationship instability because it inadequately addresses relational problems (Karney & Bradbury, 1995), and because it elicits negative interpersonal reactions that may later find expression through more caustic conflict-escalating behaviors (Deutsch, 1973, 1990; Gibb, 1961; Peterson, 2002). Second, although previous research has explored the longitudi- nal emergence of denial and its associated personality traits (Cra- mer, 1999, 2000, 2006), the present study was the first to trace the transmission of observed defensive denial in the family of origin into communication patterns and relationship outcomes of future romantic relationships. Defensive denial in the family of origin was significantly associated with defensive denial in the romantic relationship for women, but not for men. There is some evidence in the current study that women may have learned this behavior from observing their mothers, because the highest factor loading of family of origin defensive denial (for both women and men) was the defensive denial of the mother. Given the prevalent role of behavioral modeling in gender typing theories (e.g., Bandura, 1977; Bem, 1981), it makes sense that women might model their mothers’ behaviors rather than their father’s behaviors in future romantic relationships. Moreover, it is conceivable that denial is a learned coping strategy that allows some women to adapt psycho- logically to the decreased personal control they may encounter when entering into some types of marriages and romantic relation- ships (Cramer, 2000; Ross & Sastry, 1999). Limitations and Future Directions Despite numerous strengths, the present study also had limita- tions. Because the sample was collected in rural Iowa, the sample lacked ethnic and racial diversity. Nevertheless, the measurement instruments and observational coding scheme developed for this panel have been widely used with a variety of populations, and the strength of the relationships between study constructs have been replicated in other studies including African Americans (Conger & Conger, 2002), Mexican Americans (Solantaus, Leinonen, & Pna- maki, 2004), and participants in the Czech Republic (Lorenz, Hraba, & Pechacova, 2001). Future research could benefit from including a more diverse sample of individuals to further gener- alize the results of the current study. Additionally, even though the romantic relationship models’ inclusion of family of origin data in the present study may have been a strength in comparison to many other studies, the family of origin data was incomplete. Though observations of both target and partner were used in latent roman- tic relationship variables, only observations of the target and his or her family of origin were used in family of origin latent variables, meaning that correlations between family of origin and family of destination were likely attenuated because they were systemati- cally based on incomplete data. Relatedly, not all of the couples remained intact throughout the 14 years of the study. The results should be generalized cautiously in applying to specific intact romantic relationships. Nevertheless, the presence of robust em- pirical relationships between defensive denial, conflict-escalating behaviors, and relationship instability suggests that defensive de- nial and conflict-escalating behaviors may constitute pervasive maladaptive interpersonal patterns that destabilize relationships. There are also numerous other factors that the present study did not examine, which could have influenced both the use of defen- sive denial and its impact on other variables. Future research may want to continue to develop and validate assessments of defensive denial. One application of this may be to consider disentangling the components of defensive denial to examine how the content of that which is denied—for example, denying the existence of prob- lems versus denying blame for a problem—influences relationship outcomes. It is also imaginable that problem severity may moder- ate couples’ usage of defensive denial, the latter of which could impact conflict-escalating behaviors and relationship instability. Finally, although the current study examined separate models for women and men, it may be beneficial for future models to begin to incorporate alternative statistical models that explore the manner in which defensive denial behavior in one partner influences the other. Conclusion and Implications The present study contributes to the literature by investigating defensive denial’s effects on relationship stability in a longitudinal design that unfolded over 14 years and included multiple- informant data. Notably, the results point to a robust relationship between defensive denial and relationship instability, mediated by conflict-escalating behaviors. This finding has implications for committed romantic relationships. Relationship interventions that target defensive denial may consider attempting to increase aware- ness of internal psychological reactions, so that defensive denial is not an individual’s default response to relational stressors. For example, mindfulness-based interventions that heighten the aware- ness of internal psychological reactions may be one method to potentially decrease defensive denial (Carson, Carson, Gil, & Baucom, 2004; Lakey, Kernis, Heppner, & Lance, 2008). Addi- tionally, it is possible that interventions informed by self- ThisdocumentiscopyrightedbytheAmericanPsychologicalAssociationoroneofitsalliedpublishers. Thisarticleisintendedsolelyforthepersonaluseoftheindividualuserandisnottobedisseminatedbroadly. 975DEFENSIVE DENIAL AND RELATIONSHIP INSTABILITY
  9. 9. affirmation theory that bolster self-worth could potentially reduce the need to enact self-protective behaviors in relationships (Mur- ray, Holmes, MacDonald, & Ellsworth, 1998). Overall, the results indicate that defensive denial is a type of communication that destabilizes romantic relationships over time. The findings also underscore the possibility that families of origin with pervasive defensive denial may be linked to future romantic relationships where similar interpersonal dynamics might occur. Similar to the proverbial ostrich who puts his head in the sand, couples who deny important situations and responsibilities may find that while their “heads were in the sand,” their relationships may have deteriorated. Our study suggests that defensive denial is not a constructive manner of addressing relationship problems, and may ultimately be a maladaptive interpersonal process that ushers in more overtly damaging communication. 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