Help my husband be more in tune with other people.
June 23, 2011 7:38 AM   Subscribe

Are there good sources for a scientist to improve emotional intelligence - in particular, to be able to read others' emotions and ape appropriate emotions as needed socially?

Are there good sources for a scientist to improve emotional intelligence - in particular, to be able to read others' emotions and ape appropriate emotions as needed socially? My husband of ten years is brilliant, funny and charming in many ways, and generally a happy and loving person. He tells me almost daily, for instance, that he loves me and that I am the best wife for him. He has a number of long-term friends (20+ years.) He, however, still finds it remarkably difficult to negotiate tricky emotional waters. I know that is a stereotypical male trait, and particularly so with techy guys, but this goes well beyond what I see with most others. Over the years I have often noted that he can be speaking with someone face-to-face and yet not see subtle non-verbal negative responses (that he is mildly annoying or offending them, for instance) which I can read from across the room. As result I have to smooth things over for him with some regularity. He is also a terrible liar, which has good and bad implications for those around him. For the past couple of years he has been less happy with life in general and this has increased the frequency with which he has difficulty with others, especially at work but also with friends and even me. I think his general cheerfulness previously caused people to overlook the occasional blunder. For instance, last night I was stressed about the state of our house (we are remodeling) and he said something like, "Yes, the house is a disaster. I'm sorry you're stuck dealing with this." He said it with such a complete absence of sympathy, though, that I initially started to become angry - then I paused and said, "Wait? Were you actually trying to be nice?" The truth is that he doesn't really understand why piles of random stuff in every single room bother me - and that's fine, we're different people. But when he tried to fake it because he wanted me to feel better (and not talk about stuff he didn't want to talk about) he wasn't able to do it convincingly and actually made matters worse.

The information I found on this on-line all seems to have to do with Aspergers/autistic children, and while he has a few of those traits, very little of it rings true. Are you aware of any more general resources? I have suggested a therapist to him in the past, primarily to deal with his general ennui, but beyond that I think he would be comfortable with something more skill-based. I looked into a couple of Dale Carnegie things but would love to find something less sales-oriented (as well as something that doesn't cost quite so much, ideally, though we'll happily pay if it's worthwhile.
posted by juliewhite to Human Relations (16 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Does he want to change, or do you want him to change? That's not completely clear to me from your question.
posted by LizzyBee at 7:44 AM on June 23, 2011

posted by juliewhite at 7:45 AM on June 23, 2011

I know you said the Aspie stuff didn't ring true, but you may find good resources through those searches. My Aspie nephew has done lots of exercises with pictures of faces, actively learning the emotions being displayed, starting from simple smileyfaces and moving to more complex pictures. He's gotten much better at it (not that he's usually looking at someone's face in a social situation, but he's better at doing so), and sometimes will practice with family now - his mom will ask if she looks like she's joking (to reinforce that she is).

So there are definitely therapists and exercises for getting better at picking up on social cues, and he may find that helpful either on his own, or working with you or with a therapist. I don't have any specific recommendations, but searching for "social cue activities" brought up activities for young people that could be modified.
posted by ldthomps at 7:55 AM on June 23, 2011

A lot of what is out there is sort of pitched to folks on the spectrum, but still sounds like it might be useful for your husband. The book The Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships by Temple Grandin and Sean Barron might be of interest. Ms. Grandin is autistic, and is an incredibly intelligent and analytic thinker about just these issues. In her portion of the book, she writes about how she's learned to pick up some of these signals by observing, analyzing and creating rules for herself to follow. She's described herself as "an anthropologist on Mars," in this respect, which is where the essay and book by Oliver Sacks get their title. The other half of the book is written by Sean Barron, who is a journalist who considers himself to have "recovered" from autism, talking about his perspective on the same kinds of social interaction.

Simon Barron-Cohen's work might also be of interest. His research is focused on folks with autism spectrum disorders, but touches on these traits that may be present in a wider array of folks. He has a DVD "Mind Reading" that is geared toward learning to recognize these emotional social cues in others.

I know that you say that he does not seem to fit a diagnosis for an autism spectrum diagnosis, but what you're describing does ring a few bells for me. IANYPsychologist, but spectrum traits can sometimes be pretty subtle, particularly in really smart folks, like scientists. Your husband (and you) might find it useful to look into at least being evaluated to see if the diagnosis makes sense for him. That may give you both a model to better understand some of these puzzling behaviors.
posted by goggie at 8:13 AM on June 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

There Are four branches of emotional intelligence--(1) perceive what other people are feeling, (2) legibly express their own emotions, (3) understand why they feel a particular way at a particular moment, and (4) understand why other people feel how they do-- all of which can most likely be improved with training and practice. It sounds like your husband has lower than average abilities when it comes to the branches of perceiving and expressing emotions, but is not severely deficient. Most of the research on changing emotional intelligence, however, has focused on children with clinical deficits, not adults who are on the low end of the normal spectrum (much as most research on depression focuses on depression, not sadness).

Looking at the literature on emotional intelligence, I recommend acting classes for people who want to improve their expression and recognition of emotions. In addition to being more fun than therapy, there are acting classes that can train you to clearly express your emotions. This expression training may also increase your husband's ability to detect socially expressed emotions because these two skills are empirically linked. If he learns and practices emotional displays, he should also get better at interpretation. There is, however, no evidence that this or any other sort of training will improve his spontaneous expression or recognition of emotions.
posted by eisenkr at 8:33 AM on June 23, 2011 [4 favorites]

One suggestion would be to look into research that comes out of communication*, especially interpersonal and intercultural communication (and also group communication, probably). A lot of what we consider to be straightforward, common-sense interactions are not common sense at all, so getting into the actual theories and analyses of how we convey and interpret information is good way of actually improving your ability to interact with others and figuring out why offense and misunderstandings sometimes occur. As a bonus, much of the research grounded in interpersonal communication is very social sciencey, which may be a more appealing read to your husband. Charles Berger, Julia T. Wood, Gregory Bateson, Leslie Baxter, and William Rawlins (as well as all the academics they have mentored) might provide a starting place for getting into the research.

*Disclaimer: I may be gung-ho for this approach because this is my area of study^

^I fall into the critical-cultural camp, so I have some opinionated opinions about some people on that list, and others may feel I left important peeps out, but they seem to be a decent sample of where to start reading into this particular spot in the field

posted by vivid postcard at 10:53 AM on June 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

You are my ex-wife and I am your husband. Except she was the one who made messes all over the house. I would always speak from my heart but I would never do it the way she wanted me to.

She would never trust my judgment and always felt the need to jump in and smooth things over. She never realized that I actually could see the mild annoyance or offense but I had a point or point of view that I really wanted to explain to them regardless of how it made them feel.

I don't know how long you have been married but I too was a very fun, happy and loving person and over the course of 8 years of near constant pre-judging, judging and rejudging of everything about me and the way I interfaced with the world I slowly became more withdrawn, depressed and unhappy.

Please let him be himself without pushing him in any particular direction.

If he has told you that he wants to change _after_ you indicated to him that some change was needed he is probably just saying it to make you happy.

"Yes, the house is a disaster. I'm sorry you're stuck dealing with this."

Just because he said this in a flat manner does mean that he doesn't mean what he said. It just means he is not highly emotional about it. It is not resonating with him on an emotional level but he does see that it's an issue for you. And I'm guessing that there are aspects of your life together that do bug him on an emotional level and you less so.

I'm not dismissing your concerns. If you have told him how you feel, and I'm guessing you have many times before, than it is up to him to carry the remainder of the burden of "improving" himself, if that's what he wants to do.
posted by dgeiser13 at 11:33 AM on June 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

To piggyback on dgeiser13, I'd also point out something that came to mind after posting: you would probably benefit from reading communication literature, too. (everyone would, really.)
posted by vivid postcard at 11:37 AM on June 23, 2011

This book is intended for adults with ADHD, but you and your husband may find it helpful:
What Does Everybody Else Know That I Don't?: Social Skills Help for Adults with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder by Michele Novotni PhD
posted by islandeady at 1:36 PM on June 23, 2011

A note from my husband...

dgeiser13, no, sorry - that is not it. My wife is not a harpy; I just *totally* don't understand people.
posted by juliewhite at 1:55 PM on June 23, 2011

This is an odd suggestion, but you and your husband might try to find/start a roleplaying group, especially one that promotes character interaction. Focus on developing and portraying the character's personality. Play a weaker, flawed character often forces one to work to cooperate with the rest of the party. Be a bad character. Be a good character. Talk about the character interactions together afterwards. It's like improv class for nerds, if you can find a good group. (The hard part is finding a good group.)

You can also get a similar effect through writing character based fiction and discussing it. Or watch TV together and pause after a scene to dissect the characters and what went on. Dexter might be a very good one to watch, since Dexter has trouble with personal interactions.
posted by griselda at 2:28 PM on June 23, 2011

I actually wrote the initial question but had my husband post it as he is on Metafilter much more than me, and subsequent replies have been from him, as this is my first chance to see the thread. First, I really want to thank you for the many wonderful suggestions. I have always found that Metafilter folks provide thoughtful and thought-provoking analysis, and this is no exception. I also should clarify that I wrote this because I offered to do some research for him on this issue during our conversation the other night - whether I am researching good restaurants for our vacation or something like this, it just tends to be one of my specialties within the relationship. He sometimes calls me his "truffle pig" because I hunt out good things for him - and no, that nickname doesn't bother me.

Lizzybee asked if he wanted to change or if I wanted him to change, and [husband] answered "Both." (Succinct and to the point, unlike me!) In truth, I am not all that concerned with him changing as far as my own comfort goes. I have known him for 13 years and think he is terrific - yes, there are occasional annoyances but we have figured one another out pretty well and as he says, "You knew who I was when you married me." I am, though, quite concerned that these communication problems with other people seem to be a major, and growing, problem for him lately. This is particularly true at work, but also with friends, and he is baffled and increasingly unhappy. I don't expect or want him to become a SNAG but I would like him to be happier. I think the increasing problems at work are likely due in part to increased responsibility and visibility - an expectation that he will act as a leader. I don't have a good theory as to why it seems to be more of an issue with friends, other than, as I previously posited, that his unhappiness is reducing the number of sunny interactions, and it was those which used to mitigate the bad moments.
posted by juliewhite at 2:53 PM on June 23, 2011

An interesting tidbit on the autism spectrum issue, especially goggie's speculation that his intelligence may be masking some symptoms: we just took this autism spectrum test The average score is a control group is apparently 16.4 - mine was 12, and his was 24. Obviously a quick test like that can only mean so much, but I was honestly surprised that he scored that high.
posted by juliewhite at 3:04 PM on June 23, 2011

besides acting classes, improv comedy classes is another option. In terms of readings in this area, Paul Ekman is a well-known psychologist who studies facial expression, emotion and deception. He has published a number of works, it might help your husband in better reading people's facial expressions.
posted by wcmf at 4:21 PM on June 23, 2011

"Yes, the house is a disaster. I'm sorry you're stuck dealing with this."

Renovation is very stressful. It can drive calm people crazy. Please be patient.
posted by ovvl at 5:59 PM on June 23, 2011

My wife wasn't a harpy. But she was more concerned with appearances and the "right" way of being in the world rather than my feelings.
posted by dgeiser13 at 11:10 AM on June 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

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