Couples observation has been used in over 200 studies to obtain an independent assessment of couple behavior in analogue situations perceived to be important in understanding relationship functioning (see Heyman, 2001 for a comprehensive review).



Coercive Family Process Theory (Coercion Theory; Patterson, 1982) is one of the most highly developed and influential interpersonal models of dyadic family conflict (Dishion & Snyder, 2016). Coercion Theory builds off of Social Learning Theory, the foremost cognitive-behavioral approach to behavior. Coercion Theory explains how, despite their unpleasant and destructive qualities, hostile escalation sequences are reinforced for both persons. Patterson posited that people learn coercive behavior through the ways in which conflicts are resolved. Over time, if Person A responds to Person B’s escalating aversive behavior by giving in (thus ceasing his/her own aversive behavior), B learns to escalate to get his/her way. Importantly, both persons’ behaviors are maintained through reinforcement. B is negatively reinforced for escalating (via A shutting up) and may be positively reinforced as well (via A doing what B was asking for in the argument). A is negatively reinforced for giving in (via the termination of B’s aversive behavior). Over time, these conflicts serve as learning trials. Of course, B does not always win. Sometimes, B backs down in response to the A’s aversive escalation. Thus, once a coercive process takes hold, both members of the dyad are faced with an unfortunate choice: (a) give in and lose the battle, or (b) win via out-escalating the other. This process leads to ever darker, bitter battles. In Patterson’s (1976, p. 1) exquisite phrasing, each person is both “victim and architect of a coercive system.”
The Couples Conflict Task allows for observation and coding of couple relationship behaviors, such as hostility. As noted in a meta-analysis of 126 published empirical articles investigating relationship quality and physical health by Robles, Slatcher, Trombello, and McGinn (2014), a sizable literature links hostile couple relationships to (a) problems with social-cognitive and affective processes, such as self-regulation of emotion and behavior; (b) physiological stress reactivity processes, especially in the neuroendocrine axes and in immune functioning; and (c) poor health outcomes. As such, the couple relationship behaviors observed in the Couple Conflict Task might be a mechanism of change.


Text Citation: Robles, T. F., Slatcher, R. B., Trombello, J. M., & McGinn, M. M. (2014). Marital quality and health: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 140, 140. doi:10.1037/a0031859

Text Citation: Patterson, G. R. (1982). Coercive family processes. Eugene, OR: Castilla Press.

Text Citation: Dishion, T. J., & Snyder, J. J. (Eds.). (2016). The Oxford handbook of coercive relationship dynamics. Oxford University Press.


The external validity of the standard couples observational paradigm has been established in several ways. First, Gottman (1979) compared home and laboratory observations of couples and found substantial similarities, with lab discussions overall being less negative. Lab-home behavioral similarities were later replicated for husbands but not for wives (Gottman & Krokoff, 1989). Second, Foster, Caplan, and Howe (1997) had couples rate the typicality of their partners’ behavior following a 15-min conflict videotaped at home. About half of the time, the partner was judged to be acting typically. When not acting typically, partners were far more likely to be judged as being more supportive and less undermining than usual. Thus, if anything, laboratory observations understate the differences between couples by reducing the variability of negativity. Third, spouses’ self-consciousness and reactivity while being observed are relatively low (Christensen & Hazzard, 1983; Jacob, Tennenbaum, Seilhamer, Bargiel, & Sharon, 1994). Finally, Vincent, Friedman, Nugent, and Messerly (1979) demonstrated that even when couples are instructed by the researcher to “fake good” or “fake bad,” observers can still reliably discern happy from unhappy couples, suggesting that unhappy couples "leak" negative affect even when they are trying to behave as if they were happy. To summarize, even if typical interaction samples researchers have collected are not quite as negative as they are at home, they still reveal detectable differences in affect, behavior, physiology, and interactional patterns and processes (Gottman, 1979; 1994; 1999).
A few studies have examined stability of laboratory assessments of top couple conflicts across time. Wieder & Weiss (1980) assessed couples at a 1-week interval, and found that reassessment accounted for only 1% of the variance, and that substantial percentages of variance were attributable to differences across in couples. However, since the Reassessment X Couple facet did account for large percentages of variance in observed behaviors, we know that couples do behave somewhat differently on different occasions while discussing different topics.


Text Citation: Gottman, J. M. (1979). Marital interaction: Experimental investigations. New York: Academic Press.

PubMed ID: 2487031

Text Citation: Foster DA, Caplan RD, Howe GW. Representativeness of observed couple interaction: Couples can tell, and it does make a difference. Psychological Assessment. 1997;9:285–294.

Text Citation: Christensen A, Hazzard A. Reactive effects during naturalistic observation of families. Behavioral Assessment. 1983;5:349–362.

Text Citation: Jacob T, Tennenbaum D, Seilhamer RA, Bargiel K, Sharon T. Reactivity effects during naturalistic observation of distressed and nondistressed families. Journal of Family Psychology. 1994;8:354–363.

PubMed ID: 528723

Text Citation: Gottman, J. M. (1994). What predicts divorce? Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Text Citation: Gottman, J. M. (1999). The marriage clinic: A scientifically-based marital therapy. New York: Norton.

Text Citation: Wieder, G. B., & Weiss, R. L. (1980). Generalizability theory and the coding of marital interactions. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 48, 469-477.

[+] Demographics

Couples observation has been used in over 200 studies to obtain an independent assessment of couple behavior in analogue situations perceived to be important in understanding relationship functioning (see Heyman, 2001 for a comprehensive review).


This measure has not been influenced yet.


This measure has not been validated yet.

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Additional Resources

Rapid Marital Interaction Coding System Download File

Additional Comments

The Rapid Marital Interaction Coding System (more information available within Measures) is an event-based system designed to code observed dyadic behavior, like the Couples Conflict Task.

SOBC Validation Process

The Science of Behavior Change (SOBC) program seeks to promote basic research on the initiation, personalization and maintenance of behavior change. By integrating work across disciplines, this effort will lead to an improved understanding of the underlying principles of behavior change. The SOBC program aims to implement a mechanisms-focused, experimental medicine approach to behavior change research and to develop the tools required to implement such an approach. The experimental medicine approach involves: identifying an intervention target, developing measures to permit verification of the target, engaging the target through experimentation or intervention, and testing the degree to which target engagement produces the desired behavior change.

Within the SOBC Measures Repository, researchers have access to measures of mechanistic targets that have been (or are in the processing of being) validated by SOBC Research Network Members and other experts in the field. The SOBC Validation Process includes three important stages of evaluation for each proposed measure: Identification, Measurement, and Influence.

The first stage of validation requires a measure to be Identified within the field; there must be theoretical support for the specific measure of the proposed mechanistic target or potential mechanism of behavior change. This evidence may include references for the proposed measure, or theoretical support for the construct that the proposed measure is intended to assess. The second stage of validation requires demonstration that the level and change in level of the chosen mechanistic target can be Measured with the proposed measure (assay). For example, if the proposed measure is a questionnaire, the score on the measure should indicate the activity of the target process, and it must have strong psychometric properties. The third stage of validation requires demonstration that the measure can be Influenced; there must be evidence that the measured target is malleable and responsive to manipulation. Evidence relating to each stage includes at least one peer-reviewed publication or original data presentation (if no peer-reviewed research is available to support the claim) and is evaluated by SOBC Research Network Members and experts in the field.

Once a measure has gone through these three stages, it will then either be Validated or Not validated according to SOBC Research Network standards. If a measure is Validated, then change in the measured target was reliably associated with Behavior Change. If a measure is Not validated, then change in the measured target was not reliably associated with Behavior Change. Why would we share measures that are not validated? The SOBC Research Network values open, rigorous, and transparent research. Our goal is to make meaningful progress and develop replicable and effective interventions in behavior change science. Therefore, the SOBC sees value in providing other researchers in the field with information regarding measures that work and measures that fall short for specific targets. Further, a measure that is not validated for one target in one population may be validated in another target or population.

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Has the mechanism been identified as a potential target for behavior change? This section summarizes theoretical support for the mechanism.


Have the psychometric properties of this measure been assessed? This section includes information such as content validity, internal consistency, and test-retest reliability.


Has a study manipulation led to change in the mechanism? This section addresses evidence that this measure is modifiable by experimental manipulation or clinical intervention.

Not Validated

Has a change in this mechanism been associated with behavior change? This section addresses empirical evidence that causing change in the measure reliably produces subsequent behavior change.