Coping is typically thought of in terms of individual-level strategies, such as active coping, planning, positive reframing, acceptance, and behavioral disengagement.1
But coping also has dyadic-level implications.2
Relationship-focused coping strategies are ways of coping designed to maintain, preserve, and protect social relationships during times of stress (e.g., a family coping in the aftermath of a destructive hurricane, a couple coping in the face of a woman’s breast cancer diagnosis and treatment).
In the present study, we focus on a particular relationship-focused coping strategy, that of protective buffering (PB). Originally conceived of with respect to couples dealing with a myocardial infarction,2
PB as applied to the cancer setting is defined as “hiding one’s concerns, denying one’s worries, concealing discouraging information, preventing the patient from thinking about the cancer, and yielding in order to avoid disagreement” (p. 275).3
Two hypothetical examples are as follows. A patient might be experiencing certain symptoms, perhaps worsening symptoms, but so as not to worry his/ her caregiving partner, hesitate to mention those symptoms. Alternatively, the caregiver might fear that his/ her ill partner will die but, so as not to further burden that individual, refrain from expressing those fears.
What are the consequences of PB? Does it in fact confer protective effects? In attempting to answer this question, we consider both intra- and inter-personal effects of PB and, in so doing, draw on nomenclature from social psychology and dyadic analysis.4
In any dyad, one member can be designated as the “actor”, who behaves in some way toward the other member of the dyad, designated the “partner”. Importantly, the designation is purely arbitrary, as both members of the dyad play both roles. Intrapersonal effects refer to the effects of an actor’s behavior on his or her own
outcomes, e.g., the effects of a husband’s behavior on his own affective state. Interpersonal effects refer to the effects of an actor’s behavior on outcomes in the partner and vice versa, e.g., the effects of a husband’s behavior on his wife’s affective state.
Research on PB has indeed yielded both intra- and inter-personal effects, i.e., effects on the one who engages in buffering (the actor) and effects on the one who is the object of such buffering (the partner). Regarding intrapersonal effects, buffering enacted by patients has been associated with negative outcomes among patients: increased distress5, 6
and decreased self-efficacy.7
Similarly, buffering enacted by partners has been associated with negative outcomes among partners: increased distress2, 6, 8
and decreased self-efficacy.9
Regarding interpersonal effects, buffering enacted by patients has been associated with increased distress among partners,2
and buffering enacted by partners has been associated with increased distress8, 9
and decreased relationship quality3
among patients; it has also been associated with a positive outcome among patients, namely, increased self-efficacy to recover from a myocardial infarction.7
Methodological approaches to the study of PB have differed to some extent. Researchers have administered slightly different versions of the scale originally constructed by Coyne & Smith,2
then modified by Suls et al.6
Only a subset of studies has assessed buffering as enacted by both
dyad members. An even smaller subset has assessed received
buffering – the extent to which an individual feels buffered by his/ her partner, and this has only been done with respect to patient perceptions.3, 9, 10
Analyses generally have not taken into account the interdependent nature of the dyadic data, with notable exceptions.8, 11
In addition, few study designs have afforded examination of either change in PB over time or the effects of PB at one point in time on outcomes at a later point in time, again with notable exceptions.6, 8, 12
Lastly, just one published study has employed a behavioral or objective measure of PB.13
In yet another methodological twist, Trost,14
in an unpublished dissertation, added two items to the PB scale. The items were designed to assess motivation
to protect. At first blush, PB appears to be a purely prosocial act, intended to shield one’s partner. However, buffering theoretically also affords self-protection. In withholding concerns and worries, and yielding during arguments, one minimizes negative emotional experience and avoids conflict. One also avoids the personal negative feelings of having upset the other. Using a sample of 60 myocardial infarction patients and spouses, Trost14
found increased distress among spouses when patients reported greater intentions to protect themselves relative to their spouses.