Disruptions to Physiological Coregulation Exacerbates Conflict in Couples with Personality Pathology

Restricted (Penn State Only)
Schreiber, Alison
Graduate Program:
Master of Science
Document Type:
Master Thesis
Date of Defense:
June 15, 2018
Committee Members:
  • Michael Nelson Hallquist, Thesis Advisor
  • Aaron Lee Pincus, Committee Member
  • Zita Oravecz, Committee Member
  • physiological coregulation
  • personality disorders
  • social relationships
Strong social relationships, particularly with romantic partners, support health and wellbeing. Mental illness is associated with weaker social relationships, but little is known about how psychopathology affects behavioral and physiological dynamics in close relationships. We were particularly interested in characterizing the role of physiological attunement between romantic partners in exacerbating or attenuating discord during a conflict in couples affected by personality pathology, a group of mental disorders where interpersonal problems are part and parcel of the disorders themselves. Physiological coregulation — the synchronization of cardiovascular and autonomic function between persons — has been linked with attunement and positive interactions in relationships. We hypothesized that physiological coregulation in romantic relationships would be disrupted in populations with personality pathology, and that disruptions to coregulation would exacerbate discord. 123 romantic couples, in which one member of each couple was selected as a psychiatric outpatient (proband), completed a ten-minute discussion in the laboratory about an area of disagreement in their relationship. To characterize physiological coregulation style, we estimated a dynamical model of physiological self- and co-regulation using stochastic differential equations in a state space framework (based on (Steele, Ferrer, & Nesselroade, 2014a). Using actor-partner interdependence models (APIMs), we tested how coregulation style contributed to discord over the course of the interaction. We further tested whether certain indices of personality pathology characterized the coregulation style participants adopted during the interaction. Results suggest a contrarian coregulation style, marked by weaker cross-coupling, exacerbated discord in couples. Furthermore, probands who reported that they tend to be too nurturant or had more interpersonal problems broadly tended to exhibit a contrarian coregulation style. Thus, a contrarian coregulation style during this task seems to be an indicator of pervasive dysfunctional interpersonal relationships in probands. Importantly, probands who perceived their partner as cold and who reported greater negative affect after the interaction—indices of a discordant interactions—reported greater anxiety about the state of the relationships and less satisfaction in their relationships. Thus, the probands’ physiological attunement to their partners plays a central role in exacerbating interpersonal dynamics that contributed to worse relationship health. These findings provide a novel account of the role of physiological coregulation in interpersonal discord in populations with psychopathology.