A recent longitudinal study involving married couples in China found that a higher quality of marriage could reduce signs of psychopathy in both partners. The quality of their verbal communication may play a crucial role in this. The study was published in the Journal of Personality.
Psychopathy refers to a set of undesirable personality characteristics that includes a lack of empathy, cold-heartedness, impulsivity, manipulativeness, and a tendency to engage in risky or antisocial behavior. People with psychopathic traits often have a reduced capacity for feeling deep emotions and forming strong emotional bonds with others. These traits exist on a continuum, with some individuals displaying mild psychopathic tendencies and others exhibiting more pronounced psychopathic traits.
Individuals high in psychopathy are prone to persistent and callous violent behaviors in daily life including intimate partner violence. Studies indicate that around 25% of women and 11% of men live under threat of intimate partner violence. That is the reason why researchers are very interested in identifying protective factors that could reduce the risk of this type of violence.
Study author Qiong He and her colleagues wanted to explore the effects of marital quality on psychopathy. They were also interested in exploring the psychological mechanism producing the effect. Marital quality refers to the overall satisfaction, happiness, and well-being experienced by individuals within a marriage or a romantic partnership. These researchers hypothesized that high marital quality might be able to reduce manifestations of psychopathy, but also that this effect might not be the same for both partners.
They conducted a study that included a series of assessments of married couples once a year during a period of 3 years. Initially, they recruited 378 mixed-sex married couples from the Beijing area of China. However, only 260 couples remained in the study after 3 years. At the start of the study, men averaged 29 years old, while women averaged 27. These couples had been married for a period ranging from 6 months to 7 years.
To gather data, participants rated their marital quality, communication quality, and both self- and partner-perceived levels of psychopathy. Each participant thus had two psychopathy assessments — one they completed and another from their partner’s perspective. Each participant was compensated with 300 yuan.
The results showed that higher marital quality at the start of the study was associated with better quality of both verbal and nonverbal communication between partners in the second year of the study and lower levels of psychopathy in the third year of the study. Assessments of psychopathy based on self-reports and on reports of the partner were associated at the start of the study and in the third year.
Higher marital quality at the start of the study was associated with lower levels of psychopathy in the third year in both men and women. Partner’s assessment of marital quality at the start of the study was associated with lower levels of psychopathy of the participant in year 3.
Better quality of verbal communication in the second year was associated with lower psychopathy in the third year. Researchers tested a statistical model proposing that verbal communication mediates the effects of marital quality on psychopathy. Results showed that such a structure of relationships between these factors is possible. However, the same analysis indicated that nonverbal communication is not a mediator of the link between marital quality and psychopathy.
“This study’s findings indicated that marital quality could influence the level of psychopathy in Chinese couples, with verbal communication as a potential mediator between the quality of marriage and partner reports of psychopathy. This highlights potential ways to develop intervention strategies for psychopathy, which could also benefit future research on interventions for family violence,” the study authors concluded.
The study makes an important contribution to the scientific understanding of intimate couple interactions. However, it should be noted that participants in the study mostly did not have clinical levels of psychopathy. Results on individuals with clinical levels of psychopathy might not be the same.
The paper, “Marital quality improves self- and partner-reported psychopathy among Chinese couples: A longitudinal study”, was authored by Qiong He, Wei Tong, Yue Yu, and Jianxin Zhang.