The lump-versus-split dilemma in couple observational coding: A multisite analysis of rapid marital interaction coding system data.

Richard E. Heyman, Amy K. Otto, Maija Reblin, Alexandra K. Wojda, Shu Xu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Historically, observational couple communication researchers have oscillated between splitting behaviors into narrowly defined discrete codes and grouping behaviors into broader codes—sometimes within the same study. We label this the “lump-versus-split dilemma.” Coding across a decade and 11 investigators were used to recommend the most meaningful number of codes to use when observing couples’ conflict. We combined data from 14 studies that used the Rapid Marital Interaction Coding System (RMICS) to score communication behavior during different-sex couples’ conflict interactions. In each study, couples completed at least one 10-min, video-recorded conflict discussion. Communication during these interactions was coded by trained research staff using RMICS; all codes were compiled into a single data set for descriptive analysis and exploratory factor analyses (EFAs). The final sample comprised N = 2,011 couples. Several RMICS codes were extremely infrequent—specifically, distress-maintaining attributions, psychological abuse, withdrawal, dysphoric affect, and relationship-enhancing attributions. By far, the most frequent code was constructive problem discussion. EFAs yielded two factors for both women and men. Factor 1 (Negative) contained two items: distress-maintaining attributions and hostility. Factor 2 (Nonnegative) contained constructive problem discussion and humor (and, for women only, acceptance). Results side heavily with the “lump” camp in the lump-versus-split dilemma in couple observational coding. These RMICS factor analysis results converge with those from other systems and imply that the microanalytic “splitting” era in couples coding should draw to a close, with future studies instead focused on negative, neutral, and positive codes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of Family Psychology
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2020


  • conflict
  • couples
  • factor analysis
  • observational coding
  • partner communication
  • Marriage/psychology
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Humans
  • Middle Aged
  • Male
  • Factor Analysis, Statistical
  • Social Perception
  • Adult
  • Female
  • Hostility
  • Interpersonal Relations
  • Research Design
  • Communication

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Psychology


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