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The origin of the oscillatory interlayer exchange coupling in [Co/Pt] /NiO/ [Co/Pt] multilayers is investigated using advanced microscopy and spectroscopy techniques and micromagnetic modeling. X-ray magnetic circular dichroism (XMCD) measurements show the presence of the canting of Ni spins in the NiO film being greater for antiferromagnetically coupled multilayers than for ferromagnetically coupled ones. This behavior is consistent with the model, which assumes a different sign of the exchange coupling at the two interfaces and the antiferromagnetic layer-by-layer coupling in the NiO film. An unexpectedly short attenuation length of 4 Å for secondary electrons in NiO is measured, which has implications for the interpretation of XMCD data. Domain images obtained using XMCD-photoemission electron microscopy at the Co and Ni resonances indicate that the canting of the Ni spins occurs on both a microscopic and macroscopic scale. The average size of the domains is shown to increase with exchange coupling strength. In antiferromagnetically coupled samples, the competition between magnetostatic and interlayer exchange effects gives rise to a region of overlapping domains. The size of this region scales inversely with coupling strength. Finally, the temperature dependence of the interlayer coupling shows both reversible and irreversible effects. The irreversible effects stem from oxidation/reduction reactions at the Co/NiO interface. The reversible effects stem from the temperature dependences of the many factors that play a role in the interlayer coupling and exhibit nonmonotonic temperature dependence.