How Emotions Spread
Through And Poison Families
By Claudine Chamberlain
When Joan Comeau's husband got home from work that night, neither she nor her 15-year-old daughter knew what a terrible day he'd had at work, that a big check he'd been expecting didn't come through. All they noticed was his foul mood.
He sat down to dinner and immediately started complaining about the food. While Comeau admits it wasn't a fancy meal, she still got upset. When she defended herself, her husband retorted, "I didn't realize you expected to be praised for 10 minutes of work."
Stung by his words, Comeau did all she could to stay calm. "I just said, 'Thanks a lot,'" she recalls. "I made a decision not to react wildly and hit him over the head with the frying pan like I wanted to." Meanwhile, their daughter quietly escaped to her bedroom.
Blame It on Dad
All families know the damage done by these kinds of hand-me-down emotions. One person's depression, anxiety or anger can infect everyone else like a nasty flu bug. Now researchers have attempted to 'map' the flow of emotions between family members, to better understand who's most vulnerable and how those emotions evolve.
Just as in the Comeaus' case, fathers carry the lion's share of emotional influence, says David Almeida, a family researcher at the University of Arizona. "Fathers are quicker to reach an emotional threshold," he says. "And once they get upset, they're more likely to blow up than mothers are."
The typical chain reaction, he says, is father to mother to children. And the father usually brings the bad vibes home from work. "If mothers have a bad day at work, they're not as likely to spread it around," according to Almeida. "That might be because mothers are traditionally the caregivers and nurturers and it's tough to be a nurturer when you're spreading negative emotions around."
Where's the Joy?
Almeida and other researchers followed about 400 families for three to six weeks, asking each family member to record their thoughts and emotions with daily journals and questionnaires. They published their findings recently in the Journal of Marriage and the Family.
A dad's emotional contagion has more to do with his gender than his status as primary breadwinner, says Almeida. Even in single-parent households headed by working moms, the mother is still less likely to transmit her emotions to her children.
Sadly, the researchers found that negative emotions like anger and depression were much easier to pass along to other people. None of the studies, Almeida says, showed any sign of contagious joy. He cautions, however, that that's probably because happiness is harder to track. Contentment is the status quo.
How to Stop the Insanity
Although all of the families studied were considered normal and healthy, Almeida hopes that such research will lead to better treatment for troubled families in therapy. David Seaburn, director of the family therapy training program at the University of Rochester, suspects it could.
But fathers are often reluctant to participate in family therapy, Seaburn says. "Usually moms are much more willing," he says. "It's more work for the therapist to convince the father to come." If fathers did get involved in therapy, they might find that they would better understand their influence on their family's emotional well-being.
Joan Comeau, who works with family educators at the Minneapolis-based Family Information Services, says just being aware of where negative emotions come from helps family members make an effort to control them.
Empathy Effect
Another important point uncovered in the latest research is that families are less likely to pick up one another's negative vibes if they know what's causing them.
A study of mothers with chronic pain, for example, showed that their bad moods didn't infect their kids or husbands. And a study of couples found that when one was studying for the bar exam, the other partner didn't pick up the stress.
That proved true in Comeau's case, too. The next day, her husband resolved his problem at work, then came home and explained to her why he had been so crabby the day before. That night's meal was much more pleasant.