The importance of social connection and emotional support
Because human beings are by nature social animals, the quality and quantity of relationships with other people is a critical factor in overall well-being. Relationships that provide connection and support have a protective quality. Research consistently demonstrates that social and emotional support have positive impacts on many areas of life and health. Research also yields considerable evidence that social and emotional support are significant factors in determining how well someone with a chronic illness is likely to do in the future.
Social support is defined as the experience of being cared about, esteemed, loved, and part of a relationship or network of relationships with mutual obligations related to giving and receiving. Strong social connections improve your health. A lack of social connection and support is associated with higher inflammation levels, higher blood pressure, and larger waistlines.[i] Higher levels of social and emotional support are generally associated with better overall health and wellness.[ii]
Social and emotional support greatly decrease the chances that adults with adverse childhood experiences (ACE) will experience depression. ACEs are defined as incidents of verbal, physical, or sexual abuse, as well as household dysfunction such as a substance-abusing, mentally ill, or incarcerated family member, parental divorce/separation, or witnessing domestic violence, prior to eighteen years of age.[iii] Social and emotional support even helps people recover from mental illness.[iv]
As social beings, humans are hardwired for relationships—to be connected with other people. There are numerous types of relationships: social, familial, work, intimate, and romantic. From family to acquaintances to friendships to romances, relationships have the potential to enrich our lives.
As valuable as they are, relationships are incredibly complex entities. No relationship is perfect—no matter how perfect it may seem to those who aren’t in it. All relationships have challenges and conflicts. Most every relationship is some combination of healthy and less healthy qualities. In order to continue, relationships need to be maintained and this maintenance requires attention and effort. In this way, being in an ongoing relationship forces people to grow—often by pushing them at least slightly outside of their comfort zone and stretching their capacities to tolerate and accept individual differences.
The quality of our relationships with others is a reflection of our overall state of mental and emotional health, but our relationships also affect our mental and emotional well-being. This is one of the reasons why the relationships we choose are so important.
What makes a relationship healthy?
In healthy relationships there is reciprocity wherein people take turns giving and receiving. While this doesn’t need to be equal (as in 50/50) all time, in general, over time healthy relationships will be fairly equal. All parties to the relationship give certain things—including time and energy—to it and get certain things from it. This applies to all relationships; work relationships, friendships, family, and romantic relationships.
Importantly, such reciprocity is one of the primary distinctions between the relationships involving children and those between adults. For children—particularly young children—relationships are appropriately characterized more by taking than by giving. At certain stages of development, children are naturally self-centered. And, most adults are familiar with the impressive self-centeredness of teenagers. Moreover, children (including teenagers) are dependent upon adults to get many of their needs met. In contrast, while adults in healthy relationships may depend upon each other for certain things, these relationships are based on fundamental reciprocity.
When a relationship is consistently unequal in terms of this give and take, either, for whatever reasons, one person is willing to continue to give without getting much in return while the other is willing to take advantage of that, or it tends to not last very long. In a healthy relationship two people develop a connection based on affinity, mutual respect, communication, emotional support, availability, honesty, and trust.
Healthy intimate romantic relationships allow both partners to feel connected and supported, yet independent. Such relationships balance the needs of the couple with the individual needs of each partner. There is space for the couple—activities and time spent together—as well as for each partner to pursue his or her more individual needs and interests. The proper balance between the needs of the couple and those of individual partners is different for each relationship and needs to be negotiated through communication and boundaries. Ultimately, the two people in the relationship decide what is acceptable for them and what is not.
Relationship patterns are established early in life. The relationships you observe and have with your parents, role models, friends, etc., influence how you view yourself and others, and have an emotional impact and leave a lasting imprint throughout your life. For example, the way you treat others is influenced by the way your parents treated each other, as well as how they treated you.
If you never examine these patterns—and make a conscious effort to change them as appropriate—you will tend to continue to repeat them, no matter how unhealthy they may be. Perhaps you can identify unhealthy patterns in the relationships of other people you know. Identifying your own relationship patterns is a significant step in helping you to evaluate the quality of your current relationships and choose relationships that are healthy and mutually supportive.
Copyright 2017 Dan Mager, MSW
[i] Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2016 Jan 19; 113(3): 578–583. Published online 2016 Jan 4. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1511085112 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4725506/
[ii] Current Opinion in Psychiatry. Curr Opin Psychiatry. 2008 Mar; 21(2): 201–205. doi: 10.1097/YCO.0b013e3282f3ad89
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2729718/ (accessed 2/23/17).
[iii] Preventive Medicine Reports. Prev Med Rep. 2017 Mar; 5: 127–133. Published online 2016 Nov 25. doi: 10.1016/j.pmedr.2016.11.018 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5156603/ (accessed 2/23/17).
[iv] The Journal of Behavioral Health Services & Research. J Behav Health Serv Res. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2010 Jul 1. Published in final edited form as: J Behav Health Serv Res. 2009 Jul; 36(3): 320–329.
Published online 2008 Nov 15. doi: 10.1007/s11414-008-9151-1
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2682629/ (accessed 2/23/17).