One thing that relationship research has taught us is that good relationships are good for us. Many studies have demonstrated that solid relationships are associated with better health and longer life. In fact, having strong relationships is a better predictor of mortality than any other healthy lifestyle behavior1. But why are relationships so beneficial? A new review of the research by Brooke Feeney and Nancy Collins2 unlocks the secrets of how good relationships help us flourish.
According to Feeney and Collins, there are two ways for us to thrive in life: 1) successfully coping with adversity, and 2) pursuing personal goals and opportunities for growth. Strong relationships can help with both.
Coping with adversity
There are many ways that those we are closest to can help us cope with the stressors we face, like job loss, relationship break-up, or illness. Relationships can buffer us from the negative effects of these events by providing comfort, reassurance, or acceptance, or protecting us from some of the negative forces of the stressor. But in addition to that comfort and protection, our relationships can strengthen and fortify us against future adversity.
Close others can make us stronger by helping us recognize strengths that we have, or develop the skills we need to cope with a stressor. Feeney and Collins compare this process to rebuilding a home after a storm – Not only is the home rebuilt, but it is built sturdier, so that it can survive the next storm. For example, one may strengthen a friend who has difficulty in her marriage because of her lack of self-assurance by boosting her confidence and helping her find ways to be more assertive with her husband, and this new confidence could help her interact with other people too. Thus the support you receive not only helps you cope with that particular stressor, but also makes you stronger by teaching you new skills that can help in other, similar situations.
Our close others can also help us use those new strengths to come back from adversity in a constructive way, such as finding a new relationship after a break-up or making a positive career change. This can sometimes be accomplished by helping people reframe a negative experience, like giving a friend perspective on a setback at work and reminding her that it’s a common occurrence and not a sign of her incompetence.
Relationships don’t just help us when we’re down. They can help us when we’re up, by encouraging us to thrive and helping us take advantage of opportunities for personal growth. Our close others can push us to take those chances and encourage us when we do.
This can happen when they encourage us to focus on the positive aspects of these opportunities or help us see opportunities that we missed. Relationship partners can also prepare us to better face these challenges. They can help us develop plans and skills needed to achieve our goals, or gather information that we need in order to tackle the tasks at hand. For example, a man might help research graduate programs or financial aid for his wife who is considering going back to school.
Close others can also serve a “launching function” for us as we pursue our goals. Effective supporters provide encouragement and are available for help without interfering unnecessarily. They can also ensure that we don’t neglect other important life priorities, like spending time with our kids or taking care of our health. They can also support us through “capitalization” – that is, celebrating our successes along the way.
Why is this support so effective?
How exactly does this support enable us to thrive? Feeney and Collins propose that there are eight ways that support from our relationships helps us to flourish. It improves 1) our emotional state; 2) our resilience and our acceptance of ourselves; 3) how we interpret situations or events, so that we see them as more manageable; 4) our motivation to overcome adversity and strive toward our goals; 5) the adaptiveness of our responses to specific situations, such as our coping strategies and our ability to learn from experience; 6) our relationships themselves in terms of closeness, trust, and feeling loved; 7) our physiological functioning, such as improved immune response; and 8) behaviors that comprise a healthier lifestyle, like better eating habits and self-care and less substance abuse.
How can we make our relationships more supportive?
Given that support from significant others is so important to our overall well-being, how can we cultivate it? According to Feeney and Collins, both provider and recipient are responsible for creating a supportive environment.
There are three key factors that can make you a more effective support provider:
1) Skills: First, you must have the skills to provide effective support. You must know how to provide support, be able to take another person’s perspective, and be able to interpret others’ emotions and control your own.
2) Resources: Skills alone will not make you a good support-provider. You must also have the resources to use those skills. These resources can be tangible, such as material resources like money, or social resources like having your own support system. These resources can also be emotional or cognitive. A lack of resources can be chronic – For example, if you are chronically burnt out because you’re overanxious or depressed, you may not have the emotional energy to be an effective supporter of others. Or a lack of resources could be temporary and situation-specific – For example, you had a tough day at work, you’re going through a personal crisis of your own, or you have competing pulls on your resources.
3) Motivation: In order to provide effective support, you must be motivated to do so. First, you must feel responsible for helping your close others. You need to see it as your job to help them through the hard times and encourage them through the good times. You’ll also be more effective if you’re motivated by altruism, a genuine desire to improve the other person’s welfare, rather than more selfish motives.
The recipient doesn’t need to be passive in this process. It is also possible to be a better recipient of support, and there are several ways to accomplish that:
1) Make your needs known: If you want support from others, you need to reach out to them and clearly express your needs. And when you see others trying to help you, be open to those attempts.
2) Ensure that support is available: Make sure you do not overtax any one person, particularly someone who has many competing demands and won’t be able to give you adequate attention. That also means you can’t rely on only one or two people to provide all the support need. It is important to build up a strong network of close others whom you can turn to.
3) Reciprocate support: Remember that a healthy, supportive relationship is not one-sided. You must make yourself available to provide aid to others when they need it, if you expect them to do the same for you.
According to Feeney and Collins, the behaviors that create a supportive environment involve “mutual responsiveness” to need - Being able to accept help when you need it and being willing and able to help others in return. Thus, if you want to reap the benefits of strong relationships, you and your loved ones must support each other in both good times and bad.
Gwendolyn Seidman, Ph.D. is an associate professor of psychology at Albright College, who studies relationships and cyberpsychology. Follow her on Twitter for updates about social psychology, relationships, and online behavior.
1 Holt-Lunstad, J., & Smith, T. B. (2012). Social relationships and mortality. Social & Personality Psychology Compass, 6, 41-53. doi: 10.1111/j.1751-9004.2011.00406.x
2 Feeney, B. C., & Collins, N. L. (2014). A new look at social support: A theoretical perspective on thriving through relationships. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. doi: 10.1177/1088868314544222. Published online before print August 14, 2014, http://psr.sagepub.com/content/early/2014/08/15/1088868314544222