Lessons in Personal Relationships

Times Staff Writer

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."

Overprotective Spouses

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.

Those who are offered advice often are put on the defensive, Caplan said. "I might be afraid that if I accept your advice, then I'm going to owe you something, and if I have very low self-esteem, I may not feel that I can repay it," he said. "Furthermore, if I accept your advice, it may communicate to you that I'm not very competent to solve my own problems."

Ironically, people offer advice because "they want to show that they understand a problem," Caplan said.

His advice on advice, based on a study he is conducting, was to "preface your advice with the following statement: 'Feel free to reject my advice, if you don't find it helpful. After all, I could be wrong.' " The point, Caplan said, is to "give others the opportunity to reject your advice but not you."

Camille Wortman, another social psychologist from the University of Michigan, was critical of the mountains of research "suggesting that social support protects people under stress from mental or physical problems." Many of these studies are so general that "we know very little about the specific kinds of behaviors that are regarded as supportive," she said.

Psychologists also know that people under stress have complained that friends and family fail to meet their needs, Wortman said. "Cancer patients report being avoided and feeling misunderstood. People who have lost a loved one often complain that others are insensitive and uncaring. Again, we don't know why."

In a step toward filling in the gap, Wortman and a colleague interviewed about 100 bereaved individuals who had lost a spouse or child several years before they were questioned. In reflecting on their experience, the individuals generally agreed that contact with another bereaved individual was helpful. They also listed chances to express their feelings to friends and family and expressions of concern from others as welcome gestures of support.

Echoing Caplan, Wortman said that to the grieving advice "was almost always regarded as unhelpful, whether it was good or bad, and some of the advice seemed quite reasonable."

Bereaved people also resented attempts to "minimize the problem or identifying with their feelings. Saying, 'I know how you feel,' drove bereaved people up the wall," Wortman said.

Antonia Abbey, a social psychologist at Pennsylvania State University, summed up the group's argument: "Social relations have the opportunity to provide us with a sense of purpose and joy, but they also have the opportunity to cause frustration and pain. Researchers must pay attention to both of these in their studies so that we can have a better understanding of the whole range of emotional interaction."

And Caplan voiced the hope that "perhaps someday we'll see our children learning such things" in school.

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