Scientists Study Social Stress, Romance & Bad Behavior In College-Age Relationships

Illustration for article titled Scientists Study Social Stress, Romance & Bad Behavior In College-Age Relationships

We all know the stereotype of The Nag: the woman who is always mean to her significant other regardless of how nice he is to her. The stereotype says she's the one with a big ego: science suggests otherwise.


A group of scientists led by J. Gayle Beck decided to test how women with high and low levels of anxiety when dealing with others handled stressful situations when also dealing with their significant others. The college-age women (who did not have a diagnosed anxiety disorders) were given 5 minutes to, with the help of their boyfriends, prepare a 5 minute speech to be videotaped for school, and their interactions with their significant others were videotaped. The scientists then scored the interactions on three scales for both the women and their boyfriends.

* Positive: Specific analysis of the problem, statement of feelings, asking for help, positive response to helper
* Negative: Demanding help, criticizing, blaming, accusing, rejecting helper, whining, complaining
* On Task: Staying focused on the assignment.

They also asked the women whether they were satisfied or unsatisfied with their relationships.

What they found, unsurprisingly, is that women with low social anxiety — since they were less anxious about the assignment — didn't have particularly negative interactions with their boyfriends when satisfied in their relationships, and on average, they didn't have particularly different interactions than high-anxiety women who were less satisfied in their relationships or who had "bad" boyfriends.

But they also found that high-anxiety women in self-described happy relationships were more negative in their interactions than anyone — and when their boyfriends acted in a positive manner, the highly anxious women became more negative in their interactions. In other words: the nicer the boyfriend, and the more happy these women said they were with the relationship, the more critical, blaming, rejecting and accusatory the female subjects behaved.

The scientists speculated that the highly anxious women in good relationships felt freer to treat their boyfriends badly when they weren't stressed about the relationship than when they were, since they weren't concerned with the boyfriend leaving.


I might also suggest that women with deep-seated anxieties can't resolve them just because they're content in a relationship or have partners who treat them well. If a person is so anxious about public perception that he/she is classified highly socially anxious, then simply having a supportive boyfriend isn't going to resolve those issues. What's interesting is that women who have such anxieties who also have negative boyfriends or are in unhappy relationships often (from the outside) appear to be treating their partners better in one-on-one interactions.

When Are Highly-Anxious Women Most Anxious? When You Least Expect It [Cognitive Daily]


I wonder how much of the boyfriend interaction (in the high anxiety/"supportive response") scenario falls under enabling. My anecdote on this that I have a highly critical mother. The more I call her out on it (exactly the opposite of what my father does) the less blaming/shaming she acts.