The mystery behind love-hate relationships

New Haven, Conn. -- People who see their relationships as either all good or all bad tend to have low self-esteem, according to a series of seven studies by Yale researchers published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

In two of the studies participants were asked to indicate as quickly as possible whether each of 10 adjectives applied to their relationship partner, adjectives such as caring and warm or greedy and dishonest. Partners in this study included college roommates and mothers.

Individuals low in self-esteem were considerably slower to respond when negative and positive adjectives were alternated than when similar adjectives appeared in blocks. Those high in self-esteem were equally quick to respond to the adjectives no matter how they were presented.

"This suggests it was hard for them to think of their partners as a mix of positive and negative characteristics at a given point in time," said Margaret Clark, a professor in the Department of Psychology and senior faculty author of the study. "We do not think these results are limited to any one type of relationship. We think they apply to any close relationship."

Clark said the effects were obtained only when people judged relationship partners. There was no delayed response when judging an object, in this case, their computer.

The researchers first measured self-esteem by asking participants to fill out the Rosenberg self-esteem inventory, a self-report measure of self-esteem. The reaction time task was administered weeks later by an experimenter who did not know their evaluation results.

"Those low in self-esteem are chronically concerned about whether or not their close relationship partners will or will not accept them," Clark said. "In good times, those low in self-esteem tend to idealize partners, rendering those partners safe for approach and likely to reflect positively upon them. At the first sign of a partner not being perfect, however, they switch to focusing on all possible negatives about the partner so as to justify withdrawing from that partner and not risking vulnerability."

Based on their research, Clark and Steven Graham, first author of the study, developed a way to measure the extent to which people segregate thoughts about partners into "all good" and "all bad" qualities. Their new scale is called the I-TAPS (Integration of Thoughts About Partners Scale).

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The work was supported by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. Graham received a dissertation prize for his part in the research from the International Association of Relationship Researchers. The prize is for the best Ph.D. dissertation of the year dealing with relationships.

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 90: 652-665 (May 2006)


Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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