Affect in Couple and Family Therapy
Name of Concept
Affect, mood, and emotion are often used interchangeably. However, important distinctions exist. Within modern psychology, affect is usually represented as one of three interconnected domains: affect, behavior, and cognition (Duncan and Barrett 2007). Some theorists believe that affect is a type of instinctual reaction to stimuli that occurs before cognition, while others believe that affective reactions happen both pre- and post-cognition. Although both emotions and moods are generally considered affective states, moods are distinguished by being more diffused, unfocused, and lasting much longer, whereas emotions are typically elicited by something and include the individual assignment meaning to that reaction (Batson et al. 1992).
Theoretical Context for Concept
Despite being one of three interconnected domains (affect, behavior, and cognition), the prominence placed on the role of affect varies by theory. Theories who view affect as central to the change process (e.g., emotionally focused therapy) see affect as the window to change and intervene accordingly. Their belief is that behaviors and cognitions change as emotional experiences are reprocessed and reexperienced. Other theories (i.e., behavioral, CBT) may see affect as a supporting cast; something that changes as professionals intervene to alter behaviors and cognitions. Irrespective of whether it is the primary focus of intervention or not, most couple and family theories see affect as one of the three domains that must change for individuals to improve.
Affect (both moods and emotions) is generally divided into either positive or negative experiences – positive affect being reserved for emotions such as happy, excited, and enthusiastic and negative affect for feelings such as anger, sadness, or nervous. Because affect is a latent variable (an intrapsychic experience), many people rely on emotions (the outward display of affect) in order to understand another person’s affective experience. This outward display of emotion is often described by the range, fluctuation, intensity, appropriateness, and quality of the affect. When attempting to measure affect, care should be taken when choosing an assessment. There are many self-report questionnaires that can be used to measure affect, mood, and emotion (Ekkekakis, 2013). However, since they are not exactly synonymous, researchers and clinicians should be careful to choose a measure that theoretically fits with the concept being measured.
If a researcher chooses an instrument designed to measure a specific state/emotion, then global inferences about a person’s mood would not be appropriate. It is important to match the instrument with what is being assessed. For example, the Differential Emotions Scale (DES) could be used reliably to divide an individual’s description of specific emotional experiences into discrete categories like enjoyment and interest, while the Profile of Mood States (POMS) might be used to assess more general mood states like anger/hostility, tension/anxiety, and friendliness. The most widely used scale for measuring individual affect is the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule Expanded (PANAS-X). These scales ask participants to mark any of the feelings they have experienced in the last few weeks and are aimed at measuring affective states.
Application of Concept in Couple and Family Therapy
Because affect is an important part of human relationships, most couple and family therapy approaches are either centered upon or place strong emphasis on increasing positive affect while simultaneously decreasing negative affect. Some professionals would go to the extent of arguing that this is a common factor that is unique to couple and family therapy (Sprenkle et al. 2009). In fact, the literature on marital distress would suggest that distress is not a result of negative affect/conflict but rather the abatement of positive. As a result, clinicians should consider more interventions that help increase the positive affect of individuals within couples and families.
Joe and Sidney sought out therapy because they felt disconnected. Working from an emotionally focused approach, the therapist asked Sidney to describe feeling “disconnected.” She explained that she felt “alone” and “unsupported” when Joe was gone for long hours. The therapist then asked Sidney to turn and tell Joe directly of her feelings. Sidney turned to Joe and said I feel “alone,” and “like a single parent.” Seeing Joe tense, the therapist asked Joe to describe what emotions were elicited as Sidney talked. Looking down, Joe explained that he knew Sidney felt alone and as such he “felt like a failure.” He began to cry and said, “I’m sorry…I wish I could have been there for you, but I just couldn’t.” Noticing Sidney’s softened facial expression (an emotional manifestation of inner affect), the therapist then asked Sidney to tell Joe how that changed her experience. Sidney responded that hearing Joe’s feelings helped her feel needed and important, something she typically doesn’t feel (mood).
In this scenario, the therapist was able to create an environment that helped change the couple’s overall affect. Sidney moved from feeling disconnected and unimportant to feeling closer to Joe. Joe moved from feeling like a failure to feeling more supported. Learning to read affective displays (i.e., voice changes, facial cues, etc.) helps therapists know how to intervene when working with both positive and negative affect.
- Batson, C. D., Shaw, L. L., & Oleson, K. C. (1992). Differentiating affect, mood, and emotion: Toward functionally based conceptual distinctions. In M. S. Clark (Ed.), Emotion (pp. 294–326). Thousand Oaks: Sage.Google Scholar
- Sprenkle, D. H., Davis, S. D., & Lebow, J. L. (2009). Common factors in couple and family therapy: The overlooked foundation for effective practice. New York: Guilford Press.Google Scholar