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'Refrigerator Rights' Can Fix a Lot of Wrongs

They're the cornerstones of nourishing relationships, new book says

SUNDAY, Nov. 10, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- "Refrigerator Rights."

They're the cornerstones of warm, nourishing relationships, a new book contends, and they're becoming an endangered touchstone of American life.

Authors Glenn Sparks, a Purdue University professor of communication, and Will Miller, pastor of counseling at Purdue University Church, coined the expression "refrigerator rights." It also serves as the title of their just-published book.

The writers use the term to describe the type of friendships where people are so relaxed in each others' company and homes, they feel comfortable helping themselves to the contents of one another's refrigerators.

This kind of human contact is disappearing from people's everyday lives, to the detriment of us all, Sparks and Miller say.

"The idea of having 'refrigerator rights' in another person's home is sort of the barometer of the closeness of the connection," Sparks explains. "And it is our observation, based on our study of the research literature, that we've lost these kind of relationships."

The authors blame three features of American life for the problem: geographic mobility; a preoccupation with the mass media, especially television; and a culture that prizes individualism.

Transient lifestyles have become commonplace, making close relationships hard to maintain, both men say. The 2000 U.S. Census reported there were about 290 million Americans, and more than 43 million moved that same year.

"That doesn't sound like too many, but what you really need to consider is that this is happening every year," says Miller. "In the last decade, 15 to 17 percent of our population has moved every year. That number is even higher in the 20- to 40-year-old bracket."

When people do move away from family and friends, they often turn to TV to fill the void, says Sparks. They get overly involved in the lives of soap opera or sitcom characters and less involved with real people.

"There's no question we're spending an increasing amount of time looking at our TV screen rather than at other human beings," Sparks says.

America's emphasis on individualism -- the third theme raised in the book -- also breeds a "go-it-alone" mentality, Sparks says.

"This is a problem because there's a great deal of empirical evidence that supports the fact that we need close relationships in our lives. It's important for our physical as well as our mental health," he says.

Isolation, he adds, can contribute to depression and "there's an epidemic of depression in America today. We think it's related to the inability to establish close relationships."

Sparks believes there's no simple way to ease someone's isolation because each case is unique.

However, the book offers some suggestions on how people can transform their isolation into social connections. One way, says Sparks, is through joint activities like jogging -- people who love jogging, for example, should join a running club rather than jog alone.

"The solution we try to map out is not a one-size-fits-all approach," he says. "We encourage people to analyze their own situation and see what it is they can do and see in what areas they can make changes."

What To Do

For more on loneliness and depression, visit the University of Michigan or Abilene Christian University.

SOURCES: Glenn Sparks, Ph.D., professor, communication, and assistant department head, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind.; Will Miller, Ph.D., psychologist and ordained minister, West Lafayette, Ind.
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