Research at the Nexus of Clinical and Developmental Psychology
By Barbara Spector
It's not surprising that the media have been devoting attention to the Bryn Mawr Family Research Center. Director Marc Schulz's goal is one that resonates with many people: gleaning insights that can help make marriages happier and children emotionally healthier.
"I am interested in children's well-being and child development," says Schulz, a licensed psychologist and associate professor of psychology at Bryn Mawr College, who is married with two children. "The relationships in the family — including the relationship between mom and dad — play an important role in how children develop."
The center is home base for 10 undergraduate and graduate students in Bryn Mawr's psychology program who are working on research projects with Schulz. Schulz is engaged in other research projects with colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley (where he received his Ph.D.) and Harvard University (where he did postdoctoral work). Schulz is also a staff psychologist at Bryn Mawr's Child Study Institute, where he counsels children, adolescents and couples in addition to supervising students in Bryn Mawr's clinical developmental Ph.D. program. "I have an interest in promoting healthy marriages," he says, "and in identifying which couples are most at risk by watching carefully how they handle certain emotions. The more conflict there is in couple relationships, the more at risk the children are for a host of problems."
One "nifty" recent finding, Schulz notes, is that marital satisfaction, quality and stability can be predicted by untrained observers who watch couples interact — trained clinicians are not required. In the study, which Schulz conducted with colleagues at Harvard, the University of Virginia and the State University of New York at Stony Brook, six undergraduate coders were asked to watch videotapes of couples' interactions and rate them according to four types of emotional expression: hostility, distress, empathy and affection. When their assessments were pooled, they could predict with 85 percent accuracy which couples would still be together after five years. While most observational research on couples is conducted by coders who rate emotions based on a comprehensive manual, "Our approach was to unhinge the constraints that come with using a manual and take advantage of people's natural ability to recognize emotions," Schulz says.
A study Schulz conducted with colleagues at Berkeley and Harvard on the spillover of workday experience into couples' interactions was picked up by the national press. The study found gender differences in the reaction to a tough workday. Women were more likely to criticize or show anger toward their husbands, while men tended to withdraw from their wives. Interestingly, women who reported having satisfying marriages were more likely than dissatisfied wives to behave angrily toward their husbands (for example, by shouting). The researchers surmised that women in satisfying marriages may feel more comfortable in venting their frustrations.
Although on average men and women displayed the same amount of withdrawal and angry behavior, the gender differences became apparent after a stressful day. "What surprised me was how pronounced the differences were," Schulz recalls. "The research is consistent with other work that suggests that gender differences are enhanced when people are under stress."
Schulz and Robert Waldinger of Harvard have been assessing a new group of couples that includes some with a recent history of domestic violence. The study focuses on what they call "high-affect moments (HAMs)" — interactions that participants themselves identify as the most emotionally negative or positive. Subjects watch a videotape of a marital discussion and rate how their feelings changed during the interaction. "We ask them to talk about a time when they got upset with their spouse," Schulz says. The researchers also collect physiological data on heart rate, respiration and sweat.
The room where this research is conducted "is made to look as unlike a lab as it can — it looks a little like a living room," Schulz explains. The couples' interactions are videotaped through a one-way mirror. "It's interesting how quickly the couples begin to ignore the cameras and the setting, and begin to interact the way they do at home. When they begin to show emotions, whatever stage fright they have, they quickly get over it." Schulz and colleagues have found that feelings identified during these HAMs are related to the couples' satisfaction with their marriage.
In a longitudinal study, Schulz and his Berkeley colleagues randomly assigned couples expecting their first child to groups that met weekly. "Instead of teaching just relaxation techniques to use during the birth, they discussed their excitement and their fears," he says. Although past studies have indicated a decline in marital satisfaction around the birth of the first child, the researchers found that spouses participating in the intervention experienced significantly less decline than the control group. They have continued to follow participants through the children's toddler years.
Schulz says he enjoys teaching undergraduates about families and marriage. "They are learning what adult relationships are like," he says. "The natural model they think about is their parents." But the conflict-resolution techniques studied in class can help improve the students' own relationships with their roommates or sweethearts, he points out. "The teaching challenge for me is helping them recognize how this relates to their own lives."
Barbara Spector writes on science and technology as well as business topics. She is the editor-in-chief of Family Business magazine and former editor of The Scientist.