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Where Does It Hurt?

November 17, 2002

Oh, good, another unexpected wrinkle from scientific observations of our society's most fundamental optional relationship: marriage. Some German scientists -- weren't they the ones who gifted us with the rocket? -- have figured out that spouses being solicitous of a partner in chronic pain actually increase the suffering. By expressing concern and talking about the problem, the "helper" can triple the pain. They have the proof right there in little electric brain squiggles.

Now, we're all for openness and more knowledge; humanity's perpetual march toward greater wisdom and all, "Jackass: the Movie" notwithstanding. And it's no shock to those who've been married at least once that pain can be associated with marital bliss.

But, frankly, this counterintuitive research on pain is itself a large pain. Think about it. If you're in a, shall we say, less than loving marital partnership, this research suggests an ideal way for one partner to wreak satisfying revenge on the other: Just act kind and concerned. "You poor thing! This is awful!" The kinder and more prolonged the concern, the greater the suffering. It's perfect. You'll appear saintly while the target of concern writhes in mounting agony.

What they did at Heidelberg University was detect heightened activity in the anterior cingulate vortex, the pain processor, when a spouse was solicitous about a partner's pain. Just the spouse's presence could amplify anguish.

These findings are also a caution for those in abiding relationships. It's bad enough to have chronic pain. It's no picnic to witness the suffering of a beloved or even one occasionally ranking slightly lower on the USA (Universal Scale of Affection). You feel helpless. You want to aid, to offer a gentle, caring word, a soothing liquid or touch, even a chance for the sufferer to vent anger at a handy, safe target. Ah, ah, ah! No, no, no! You can't do that now. Only makes things worse.

Better to provide a distraction, change the subject, initiate a new activity. Really. That is what the Germans say. This is actually an approach adopted at the very start of the TV age by the hairier half of America's marrieds. Now, that male response apparently has official sanction from German scientists who, to be candid, do not sound very married. The next time she enters the family room wincing and complaining of pain, the study seems to suggest that any caring husband should immediately say: "Hon, did you see that catch?" Or, "I see where Dusty Baker left the Giants." Better yet, "Sweetheart, grab your glove. We'll play some catch and get your mind off this silly pain talk."

One theory suggests that such statements could cause a sudden transfer of pain from the wife to the helpful husband. But that is, for now, merely anecdotal.

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