To examine the effects of depressive symptoms and spouse empathic responding on patient disability and marital quality over time and to identify factors that contribute to patients perceiving their spouses as responding empathically to their rheumatoid arthritis (RA).


Patients diagnosed with RA and their spouses (n = 133 couples) independently completed mailed questionnaires at baseline and 1 year later. Patients completed measures of functional impairment, marital quality, depressive symptoms, and perceived empathic responding from their spouse. Spouses reported their own depressive symptoms and empathic responding behavior.


Perceived empathic responding was found to interact with spouse depressive symptoms, contributing significantly to the prediction of patient functional impairment at followup. Only when spouse empathic responding was low was spouse depression associated with greater patient functional impairment 1 year later. Similarly, in the model predicting patient marital quality at followup, there were significant 2-way interactions between perceived empathic responding and both spouse depressive symptoms and patient depressive symptoms. Only when spouse empathic responding was low did patient or spouse depression significantly predict poorer marital quality at followup. Patient perceptions of spouse empathic responding were found to depend on spouse reports of their own empathic responding, patient marital satisfaction, and the interaction of patient depressive symptoms and marital satisfaction.


Empathic responding from the spouse was found to buffer against the negative effects of spouse depression on functional and marital outcomes for patients with RA. In developing couple-oriented RA treatments, increasing perceived empathic responding could serve as a useful target for intervention.