Move over, common sense and intuition. It may soon be time to put a little hard-nosed science into personal relationships.
Yes, like it or not, we may be traveling toward a day when courses on "a science and technology of helping" are absolute necessities for dealing with spouses, families and friends.
This is the prediction of psychologists who believe they are on the verge of uncovering "principles that could be taught like history or math in order to improve the quality of social relationships."
Furthermore, they contend, much of what people now do to support or console loved ones may deepen depression, create distrust or add to the distance between individuals.
These assertions emerged earlier this week during the American Psychological Assn.'s convention in Los Angeles. The call for a new world of scientific human understanding took place at a gathering where more familiar kinds of old and new technology were evident--computers; psychedelic-like videotapes; futuristic, egg-shaped stress-reduction systems and even an attention-getting helmet used in the 19th-Century pseudoscience of phrenology, which attempted to interpret personality through the protuberances of the skull.
The five psychologists who called for the development of a new science or technology cited a growing body of research that they maintain is beginning to explore the overlooked, negative aspects of love and caring.
"In coping with stress, our relationship with our family, our spouses, is one of the most important support resources we have," said James Coyne, a clinical psychologist at the University of Michigan. "But I think what tends to be neglected is how fallible a resource marriage and the family are and how vulnerable they are to deterioration when we call on them for help."
For instance, when someone is recovering from a heart attack, Coyne said, the people closest to the patient may "become emotionally overinvolved, intrusive, critical and hostile to the stressed person, and the people we turn to for support and reassurance can ultimately become the major source of stress."
Quoting from one study on the aftermath of heart attacks, Coyne said, " 'The wives in particular tended to be overprotective. . . . They felt guilty about somehow having been instrumental in causing the heart attack and were frustrated at being unable to express their grievances and anger lest their actions bring on another heart attack. This solicitousness often took on a punitive quality which was thought to represent an indirect expression of suppressed anger.' "
Even a spouse's decision to lose weight can create problems, Coyne said. Another study found that 91% of the husbands surveyed expressed support for their wives' weight-loss effort. But when their actual support was measured, critical comments outweighed favorable remarks 12 to 1, he said. The husbands were also "seven times more likely to offer food to their spouses than vice versa," he said.
Coyne concluded that "relationships do deteriorate under predictable conditions--namely when a couple does not have a style of communication that allows them to air their differences and for the helpful spouse to acknowledge that they have a selfish interest (in the well-being of the other). The irony of all this is that we are often most unable to help the people we care most about, precisely because we care too much."
Karen Rook, a social psychologist at UC Irvine, said research seems to indicate that insults and other negative forms of communication "may do more to lower well-being than positive things do to raise well-being," adding that "negative things seem to be especially potent."
She offered three possible explanations for this:
First, people may take positive support "for granted or may become habituated to it" so that "when something negative does happen, it stands out and grabs our attention, we focus on it more."
Second, negative events such as insults or rejection are "less ambiguous" than supportive actions. "If you help me with a problem and that's something positive you're doing, is that because you like me and you care about me, or is it because you feel obligated to help?" she said.
Third, Rook said, people may be more watchful for threatening behavior. "It's possible that people have a general predisposition to be especially alert to or vigilant to negatives because in some sense that may have aided our adaptation through the eons. If you think about it from an evolutionary standpoint, it may have been more adaptive for people to be alert to and vigilant to possible threats than to pleasant sorts of things."
One of the most common mistakes people make with each other is to offer advice, said Robert Caplan, a social psychologist at the University of Michigan. People often offer advice in areas where a problem isn't perceived or admitted, such as telling someone they ought to cut down on their drinking, he said.