The University Record, June 11, 1997

Research shows unconscious fear of intimacy linked to early parental loss

By Diane Swanbrow
News and Information Services

People who have suffered an emotional loss or trauma may be less happy than others but not know it, with an unconscious fear of intimate relationships and positive moods secretly sabotaging their chances for happiness in life.

That is one of the implications of a U-M study presented May 25 at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Society in Washington, D.C. The study was part of a symposium exploring unconscious emotions and motivations, chaired by psychologist Howard Shevrin.

Conducted by researcher Scott Bunce, the study uses subliminal perception to investigate the existence of unconscious emotions. When exposed to words like "loving" and "excited," flashed at speeds outside of conscious awareness, people who have lost their parents early in life have greater tension in the muscle that contracts the eyebrows into a frown than subjects who have not experienced an early loss.

"Previous research has demonstrated that traumatized individuals, including people with early parental loss, can have ambivalent or less satisfactory intimate relationships in adult life," notes Bunce, the

U-M Hospitals researcher who conducted the study with graduate student Ed Bernat and Shevrin. "This research suggests that people who suffer early parental loss are often unaware of having ambivalent or aversive reactions to what they themselves consider to be positive, intimate feelings."

According to Shevrin, who heads a research program on unconscious processes at the U-M Hunt Laboratory, the study by Bunce and others represents a veritable explosion of experimental studies of the unconscious.

"Psychology may once again be ready to incorporate a concept of the unconscious that has relevance to the deepest wellsprings of our emotions and motivations," Shevrin says.