Asymmetric partner pronoun use and demand-withdraw interaction in couples coping with health problems

Kelly E. Rentscher, Michael J. Rohrbaugh, Varda Shoham, Matthias R. Mehl

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

27 Scopus citations


Recent research links first-person plural pronoun use (we-talk) by individual romantic partners to adaptive relationship functioning and individual health outcomes. To examine a possible boundary condition of adaptive we-talk in couples coping with health problems, we correlated asymmetric couple-level we/I-ratios (more we-talk relative to I-talk by the spouse than the patient) with a concurrent pattern of directional demand-withdraw (D-W) interaction in which the spouse demands change while the patient withdraws. Couples in which a partner who abused alcohol (n = 65), smoked cigarettes despite having heart or lung disease (n = 24), or had congestive heart failure (n = 58) discussed a health-related disagreement during a video-recorded interaction task. Transcripts of these conversations provided measures of pronoun use for each partner, and trained observers coded D-W patterns from the recordings. As expected, partner asymmetry in we/I-ratio scores predicted directional demand-withdraw, such that spouses who used more we-talk (relative to I-talk) than patients tended to assume the demand role in concurrent D-W interaction. Asymmetric I-talk rather than we-talk accounted for this association, and asymmetric you-talk contributed independently as well. In contrast to previous studies of we-talk by individual partners, the present results identify dyad-level pronoun patterns that clearly do not mark beneficent processes: asymmetric partner we/I-ratios and you-talk reflect problematic demand-withdraw interaction.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)691-701
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Family Psychology
Issue number5
StatePublished - Oct 2013


  • Close relationships
  • Demand-withdraw
  • Health problems
  • Pronouns
  • Text analysis

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Psychology


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