BY SADIA LATIFI
Knight Ridder Newspapers
WASHINGTON - If you can't decide whether your partner is a frog or a prince, the problem may be with you.
Having "love-hate relationships" with people is a sign of low self-esteem, according to a prize-winning series of studies appearing in this month's issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The findings could help couples and families in relationships in which attitudes toward loved ones swing wildly, said Yale psychologist Margaret Clark, the lead researcher in the study.
Love-hate relationships, she said, are "likely to be very disconcerting for partners. They can do a small thing, good or bad, perhaps, and produce large swings in a partner's views, and they're probably baffled as to why. It could lead to partner insecurity."
To investigate love-hate relationships, Clark and her research team asked participants to take a widely used psychological measure called the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale. Some time later, participants were asked to answer some structured questions about their feelings toward people they were close to - lovers, friends or parents.
For example, participants had to pick between these two statements: "When I'm mad at my partner, I can't think of anything good about him/her." And: "Even when my partner does something to hurt me, it is easy to remind myself of his or her positive attributes."
Participants who scored low in self-esteem tended to hold more polarized opinions of their intimates, researchers found, whether of lovers, friends or parents. The subjects included married couples, engaged couples and college students.
Clark theorized that people with higher self-esteem were better at integrating positive and negative feelings about people in their minds. People with lower self-esteem, she thought, were more likely to store positive and negative feelings separately in their heads and more likely to get caught in the love-hate trap.
To explore that theory, Clark and Steven Graham, a Ph.D. candidate at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, came up with a test. They asked subjects to answer yes or no, as quickly as they could, to whether each of 10 adjectives applied to the intimate in question. Among the adjectives were choices such as forgiving, obnoxious, loyal, self-centered, greedy, understanding and cruel.
The trick was that half the subjects were given a list in which the adjectives alternated between positive and negative attributes. (Forgiving-greedy-loyal, etc.) The other half chose from adjectives separated into positive and negative categories. (Forgiving, loyal, understanding in one list; greedy, cruel, obnoxious in the other.)
The finding: People with low self-esteem took more time than people with high self-esteem to sort through the adjectives in the list in which positive and negative attributes alternated. The two groups worked their way through the second list at the same pace.
"It wasn't that people (with low self-esteem) had more negative views of partners - they didn't - but when the adjectives alternated good, bad, good, bad, people lower in self-esteem took a longer time to respond because they had to switch stores," Clark said.
Lisa Daily, author of the popular advice book "Stop Getting Dumped!" put it another way.
"Anything that's all bad or all good is probably coming from a skewed perspective," she said. "Relationships in life are not black and white."
Clark said she didn't think "all-or-nothing" thinking was the sole factor in poor relationships.
"Low trust in others' acceptance in the first place gives rise to other behaviors that are not good for relationships," she said. "So I wouldn't want to characterize (the love-hate tendency) as the thing driving bad relationships."
Daily said her experience suggested that women get into love-hate relationships more often than men do.
"Women tend to define themselves more by their relationships. Men tend to define themselves more by their accomplishments," she said.
She also said she thinks people attract others who are at similar levels of mental health, which means partners low in self-esteem reinforce each other's behavior.
"It's so clear when they write stuff like, `It was so perfect and then we had this terrible breakup,'" she said. "Both partners had a twisted sense of the relationship."
The National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation sponsored the first studies of the love-hate phenomenon, subtitled "The Jekyll and Hyde-ing of Relationship Partners."
Graham won a prize from the International Association of Relationship Researchers for his work. It's awarded each year to the best Ph.D. dissertation on relationships.