Crying isn't just for babies any more. It can signify submission in a fight, bring people closer together and, in some cases, manipulate both enemies and loved ones, according to a new article by an Israeli biologist and marriage therapist.
Because they blur your vision, tears signal vulnerability, a good evolutionary strategy to bind people to you emotionally, argues Oren Hasson, who makes use of some of his evolutionary psychology teachings at Tel Aviv University's zoology department with his clients at couples' counselling.
Dr. Hasson's research, published last month in the journal Evolutionary Psychology, explores the different kinds of tears people shed - tears of grief, empathy, joy and pride - what purpose they serve, and their sincerity.
"Human emotional tears are a riddle. We all feel we learn something about a person in tears, but the nature of this information has been poorly studied," he writes in the article Emotional Tears as Biological Signals.
Tears can elicit mercy from an enemy - or a husband. They can signal a need for attachment in times of grief.
They can also be used to display trust and validate emotions among family, friends and other tight-knit groups, all of which help social bonding, Dr. Hasson writes.
He cites another 2009 study published in the same journal that included an anecdote about a female graduate student who could not produce emotional tears. The woman felt a constant need to expose her emotions and explain them verbally, illustrating that tears have social currency, one she was trying to accrue in other ways.
Dr. Hasson also cites previous studies that showed respondents rating sadness as more intense when tears were shown in photographs of crying people.
"When emotions are real, when one benefits by showing them, and when excessive tearing is a reliable signal of such emotions, then tears are expected to validate the perception of these emotions," he wrote.
Dr. Hasson believes it's important to legitimize emotional tears in relationships because spouses often misinterpret the act. He observed that while crying wives often seek empathy from their husbands, the husbands tend to view the bawling as a profound failure on their own part.
"Sometimes he thinks if a woman cries, it means that she is in distress and he is responsible because he's supposed to defend her and doesn't know how to do that."
Bernie Golden, a Toronto-based couples therapist, said the misunderstanding of tears works both ways.
"With women, often there's a real discomfort with male tears."
Some women jump to "make it stop, or gloss it over" by changing the topic.
In general, the varying reactions have to do with past experiences and family of origin: "In some families, sadness is not okay. ... And in some families, that expression of sadness could have been manipulated," Mr. Golden said.
"Regardless of what the tears mean, the important thing is that the person tries to understand the other person's subjective experience.
"That's the key to building intimacy and getting back on track."