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Hum Brain Mapp. 2015 Oct;36(10):4164-83. doi: 10.1002/hbm.22909. Epub 2015 Jul 28.

Neural activity patterns evoked by a spouse's incongruent emotional reactions when recalling marriage-relevant experiences.

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Rotman Research Institute, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
Department of Psychology, York University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
Department of Psychology And Psychiatry, University Of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.


Resonance with the inner states of another social actor is regarded as a hallmark of emotional closeness. Nevertheless, sensitivity to potential incongruities between one's own and an intimate partner's subjective experience is reportedly also important for close relationship quality. Here, we tested whether perceivers show greater neurobehavioral responsiveness to a spouse's positive (rather than negative) context-incongruent emotions, and whether this effect is influenced by the perceiver's satisfaction with the relationship. Thus, we used fMRI to scan older long-term married female perceivers while they judged either their spouse's or a stranger's affect, based on incongruent nonverbal and verbal cues. The verbal cues were selected to evoke strongly polarized affective responses. Higher perceiver marital satisfaction predicted greater neural processing of the spouse's (rather than the strangers) nonverbal cues. Nevertheless, across all perceivers, greater neural processing of a spouse's (rather than a stranger's) nonverbal behavior was reliably observed only when the behavior was positive and the context was negative. The spouse's positive (rather than negative) nonverbal behavior evoked greater activity in putative mirror neuron areas, such as the bilateral inferior parietal lobule (IPL). This effect was related to a stronger inhibitory influence of cognitive control areas on mirror system activity in response to a spouse's negative nonverbal cues, an effect that strengthened with increasing perceiver marital satisfaction. Our valence-asymmetric findings imply that neurobehavioral responsiveness to a close other's emotions may depend, at least partly, on cognitive control resources, which are used to support the perceiver's interpersonal goals (here, goals that are relevant to relationship stability).


emotion; married couples; social-cognitive conflict

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