Thursday, June 15, 2006

`Love-hate relationships' may be a sign of low self-esteem

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.


  1. oh, no you ditn't!Friday, June 16, 2006 2:21:00 AM

    I have yet to read on, but two things: women score higher on these tests (the love/hate) and so this then absolves them from low self-esteem candidacy because relationships mean something to them?? right at this point the data becomes skewed. because we're now determining two things: self-esteem and relationship worthiness. this has obviously not been broken down. once gender becomes a major issue, than the veracity of test data needs to be reexamined.

    also, women with low self-esteem generally (drumroll, please...) date SHIT. shit initially makes you feel superior (someone of a lower social class for instance) and promises to bring a sense of empowerment into a relationship, but shit quickly manifests its predatory nature. persons with lousy self-images, persons who are likely to see drama (love/hate) in relationships are particularly vulnerable. if you look at the track records of the worst of these characters, you can see how these behaviors pattern themselves.

    parenthetically, the shit relationship is a nice, comfortable reminder of (all that was bad about) home, while providing the temporary delusion that this beast in one's past can ultimately be conquered.

    the problem with these studies is they lack a longitudinal function. what are people doing over the course of decades? how does their behavior evolve over time? how many of these relationships may actually have a mental-illness function? don't get me started.


    of course, we will be reading about these studies on msn's home page and the new york times and the local section of your hometown paper.


  2. Wow...Heather just summed me up in a nutshell. What am I paying a therapist for??

  3. Sorry for the late response. I’ve been really busy.

    Heather: Thank you for the insight on what is obviously a skewed survey. Women always seem to get short shrift when it comes to emoptional research.

    Carrie; You see the pattern, but there's always tomorrow. You can evolve; you've already started ;-)

  4. really? I have been blogging for sometime and I dont remember seeing your posts. lol! well, I sent this link to my webdate friend who has a dilemna whether she should break up with her "love-hate relationship" (as you call it) or not... My webdate friends heard her story and she's probably undergoing this now... I believe your blog will help you and hopefully through us her webdate friends she'd be able to decide whatever is best for her.. Thanks for this information. Peace!