Cancer conversations in context: Naturalistic observation of couples coping with breast cancer

Megan L. Robbins, Ana María López, Karen L. Weihs, Matthias R. Mehl

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

81 Scopus citations


This study explored the feasibility and potentials of a naturalistic observation approach to studying dyadic coping in everyday life. Specifically, it examined the natural context and content of the spontaneous cancer conversations of couples coping with cancer, and how they relate to patients' and spouses' psychological adjustment. Women with breast cancer (N = 56) and their spouses wore the electronically activated recorder (EAR), an unobtrusive observation method that periodically records snippets of ambient sounds, over one weekend to observe the couples' cancer conversations in their natural context. Both patients and spouses completed self-reported measures of psychological adjustment at baseline and at a 2-month follow-up. Cancer was a topic of approximately 5% of couples' conversations. Cancer conversations occurred more often within the couple than with friends and family, and they were more often informational than emotional or supportive. Consistent with research on the social cognitive processing model (Lepore & Revenson, 2007), spouses' engagement in emotional disclosure and informational conversation with patients predicted better patient adjustment. This first naturalistic observation study of dyadic coping revealed that the EAR method can be implemented with high compliance and relatively low obtrusiveness within the sensitive context of couples coping with cancer, and having a spouse who discussed cancer in an emotional or informational way predicted better patient adjustment. As a complement to in-lab and other momentary assessment methods, a naturalistic observation approach with a method such as the EAR can contribute to a more comprehensive understanding of the role that communication processes play in coping with cancer.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)380-390
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Family Psychology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 2014


  • Ambulatory assessment
  • Breast cancer
  • Coping
  • Couples
  • Disclosure
  • Ecological momentary assessment
  • Electronically activated recorder (EAR)
  • Support

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Psychology


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