Purdue University Graduate School
dissertation CEM formatted 220928.pdf (3.53 MB)

The Role of Active Engagement in the Context of Conflict Withdrawal: A Study on the Experiences of Military Couples Following a Deployment

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posted on 2022-09-29, 15:16 authored by Christine E McCallChristine E McCall


The overarching goal of this dissertation was to understand how between-partner feedback loops facilitate adjustment in the year following a military deployment (i.e., reintegration). Reintegration encompasses a period of family transitions and can be a challenging and turbulent time for couples as they attempt to reconnect and reorganize household dynamics. Couples may experience changes in how they interact, and partners may be able to act as a catalyst for promoting positive change in each other. Guided by Family Systems and Interdependence Theories, this study tested a specific feedback loop of a between-partner mechanism across a period of family stress and transitions. Whereas the demand/withdraw dynamic is one example of a feedback loop that is consequential for relationship well-being, the present study examined an alternative feedback loop where partners may respond to individuals’ withdrawal with a type of constructive partner support that encourages discussions and facilitates effective collaboration (i.e., active engagement). Relationship happiness, an indicator for relationship climate, was considered as a moderator in this proposed feedback loop as it intersects with individuals’ tendencies to withdraw, partners’ attempts at support provision, and global relationship functioning during periods of stress and transition. 

This study utilized longitudinal dyadic data from 124 couples at three time points in the year following service members’ return from deployment to examine the 1) longitudinal interpersonal dynamics of individuals’ tendencies to withdraw, 2) mediating role of partners’ active engagement in the change in individuals’ withdrawal, and 3) moderating role of relationship happiness in the interpersonal dynamics. Study aims were evaluated with a series of actor-partner interdependence models and path models in a structural equation modeling framework. Results suggest three interpretations. First, whereas this study sought to examine change in individuals’ tendencies to withdraw, the data indicate high levels of within-person stability. Second, this study modeled a possible feedback loop where partners’ attempts at active engagement would result in less individual withdrawal. While I did not find evidence of this feedback loop as proposed, it appeared that (female) significant others’ withdrawal was salient for reductions in (male) service members’ active engagement. Finally, I sought to understand how relationship climate (operationalized by a dyad-level indicator of relationship happiness) was associated with the interpersonal dynamics. Couples defined by a happier relationship climate had a stronger negative association between significant others’ withdrawal and service members’ active engagement. This finding may be evidence of happier couples being more apt to shift between levels of independence and interdependence, which may be especially useful for postdeployment transitions. Taken together, findings from this study suggest that individuals’ tendencies to withdraw are relatively robust to the perturbations of deployment and the utility of flexibility and adaptability in couples’ patterns across reintegration. This dissertation concludes with a discussion of the theoretical implications, avenues for future research, and potential applications of these findings.  


Purdue Center for Families McAllister Fellowship

Defense Health Program [Award W81XWH-14-1-0325, PI: MacDermid Wadsworth]

Lilly Endowment


Degree Type

  • Doctor of Philosophy


  • Human Development and Family Studies

Campus location

  • West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Shelley M. MacDermid Wadsworth

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee co-chair

Melissa M. Franks

Additional Committee Member 2

Sharon L. Christ

Additional Committee Member 3

Christopher R. Agnew