Background and aims
Pain is not merely an isolated experience occurring within the person. It takes place in a wider social context, including the immediate social relationships that the person is a part of. The aim of this paper is to provide an overview of how intercouple interactions might influence pain coping in couples coping with chronic pain.
Four different approaches to understanding the influence of intercouple interactions have been proposed in the literature. In this review, we present and discuss the empirical support for each of these models. A literature search on all studies published up until May 2017 (PubMed and PsycINFO) was performed. The search string consisted of 3 steps: Chronic pain AND couple interaction*/partner validation/marital interaction/chronic pain couple*/spouse response* AND coping/adjustment/disability/function/work participation/sick leave/sickness absence/work disability.
The operant model views partner responses from the perspective of conditioned learning and focuses on how such responses might increase or decrease the occurrence of pain behaviour. The notion that partner responses can reinforce pain behaviour generally finds support in the literature. However, when it comes to negative partner responses results are mixed, and the model paints a limited picture of the range of interactions that takes place in a couple. The communal coping model focuses on one specific type of coping (i.e. catastrophizing), and emphasizes the interpersonal aspect of pain coping. There is some evidence that a tendency to catastrophize is related both to couple interactions and pain coping, but it has proved difficult to test this model empirically. The interpersonal process model of intimacy is concerned with patient disclosures of distress and subsequent validating and invalidating partner responses. There is some preliminary support that such mechanisms of validation and invalidation can be linked to pain coping. A dyadic approach focuses on processes where the couple negotiates a shared meaning of events and participates in mutual coping of a shared stressor. This approach has not been investigated explicitly, but preliminary support can be derived from studies conducted within other frameworks.
Each of the four approaches find some support in the research literature, yet none of them can explain the full range of couple interactions. We argue that the different approaches are complementary and that several of the approaches can be integrated in a dyadic understanding of pain coping.
All the models indicate that couple interactions can affect pain coping and that this should be taken into account when developing treatment programmes for chronic pain patients.
Ethical issues: The study is a review of already published studies, and no ethical approval was therefore deemed necessary to obtain.
Conflicts of interest: None.
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