How High-Maintenance Relationships Affect Your Psyche

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By David Sbarra, Ph.D. For YouBeauty

In the spirit of the upcoming 'Twilight' movie, I would like to talk about the undead: vampires. More precisely, emotional vampires. Are there people in your life who just sap your emotional energy once they walk in the door? Do you feel totally spent after interacting with some people? There are vampires among us, and I am actually more frightened about sitting next to one at a dinner party than meeting Count Dracula himself.

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My colleague Eli Finkel at Northwestern University conducted a very important series of studies on what he calls high-maintenance interactions. In essence, these studies are about social coordination, and how the lack of social coordination can deplete our ability to exert self-control.

Self-control is critical to everyday life. With high self-control, we can limit food temptations, complete difficult tasks at work, and, resist the urge to smack a co-worker when he/she is being a bit too condescending.

The problem with self-control is that it’s a limited capacity system. Like our muscles, our ability to exert self-control can be depleted when taxed too much. In these situations, we ruin the diet, give up on difficult chores, and let our co-workers (or partners) have it! Self-control is so important to everyday life that I bet you can think of one example of a self-control failure from your own life within the past hour!

According to the results of Finkel’s studies, high-maintenance interactions put a lot of pressure on our capacity for self-control. Consider this awesome example: Finkel and colleagues asked research assistants to subtly mimic research participants (or be misaligned with them -- that is, rather than getting in-synch with someone, make sure you’re out of synch) when engaged in a joint picture description task. Later, the participants were asked to play the game Operation. The key outcome variable was how efficient the participants were in removing “body parts” during the game. This makes perfect sense -- Operation is a game that requires attention and fine motor control, and if you’re energy is sapped from a high-maintenance interaction, your play will likely suffer.

Sure enough, Finkel and colleagues observed that when the research assistant mimicked participants behaviors closely, the participants scored better in Operation; similarly, when the research assistants were misaligned (out of synch), the participants were significantly worse at Operation! These researchers show that you can vary both the high-maintenance interaction (e.g., get two people to enter data together but have the instructor make many errors, which is maddening for the person entering the data) and the outcome (e.g., persistence on standardized test problems) and the results look essentially the same as in the Operation experiment: The more burdensome the interaction, the more our self-control is depleted in the end.

What does this have to do with the undead? I hope it’s obvious by now that this research suggests that some people -- and, more accurately, some interactions -- can sap our self-control and therefore make it much harder to effectively regulate our emotions.

What can you do about this? First, be aware of high-maintenance interactions in your day-to-day life. Is it harder to concentrate after a phone call from a narcissistic friend? Do you hate Thanksgiving because your brother-in-law interrupts every time you open your mouth?

These are high-maintenance interactions, and I’d encourage you to reflect on how many of these types of exchanges you can reasonably cut out of your life.

I recognize that it’s impossible to get rid of all the high-maintenance interactions (and high-maintenance people, for that matter… Yes, I’ve said it: Some people create many more high-maintenance interactions than others.) Therefore, my second piece of advice is to make sure you have many sources for low-maintenance interaction. Finkel’s data suggests that low-maintenance interactions (e.g., the behavioral mimicry condition) don’t enhance our self-control per se but can be effective in preventing the hits to self-control that we see in high-maintenance interactions.

It may be the case that we can energize ourselves by interacting with low-maintenance partners. By extension, perhaps this is why our pets are so important for our health? I’ve known some vampire dogs in my day, but, in general, pets and supportive friends are good ways to restore our self-control after a day of working (and maybe living) with the undead.

 
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