Why Is It Hard When Friends Disapprove of Our Relationships?
New research explores the health implications of relationship disapproval.
Posted Jun 07, 2019
Why do other people’s opinions about our romantic relationships matter to us? As much as we may like to think that we are autonomous adults who make our own decisions about whom to date and whom to love, research suggests that the extent to which our friends and family support (or approve) of our romantic relationships goes a long way in determining whether those relationships work out or end in a fiery blaze. In a recent article published in Personal Relationships, my colleagues and I attempted to determine whether the source of relationship approval matters. In other words, whose opinion about our relationship matters more to us: those of our friends or those of our family members?
Although the majority of research in this area has focused exclusively on the experiences of individuals in mixed-sex relationships, we thought it was important to also include same-sex relationships. Indeed, past research has reported that, in general, individuals in same-sex relationships perceive less overall support for their relationships—especially from their family members. The results of the study indicated that individuals who perceive more support for their romantic relationships report better relationship well-being, which, in turn, is associated with fewer mental and physical health challenges. Furthermore, even though individuals in same-sex relationships perceive less support for their relationships overall, when they do receive support, they appear to benefit from it in the same ways that individuals in mixed-sex relationships benefit. Thus, the support we receive from our friends and family with respect to our romantic relationships really does matter!
But whose opinion of our relationship mattered more: opinions from friends or opinions from family? When support from family and friends is compared directly, only support from friends remains a significant predictor of relationship well-being and health outcomes.
Given what the literature has already shown about same-sex couples perceiving less support for their relationships, particularly from their family members, this finding that support for the relationship from friends appears to matter more suggests a potential path of recourse when familial support is low: finding more support from friends.
But surely the disapproval that individuals in same-sex relationships feel from their families must have some kind of detrimental effect? Unfortunately, yes. When an individual in a same-sex relationship perceived that their family did not support their relationship, they were more likely to also feel that the family failed to adequately support them as an individual, and, vice versa. In other words, for individuals in same-sex relationships, it is much more difficult to separate the notion of "support for their relationship" from "support for their own personal identity or self." Thus, even if reduced familial support for an individual's same-sex relationship may show weaker associations with mental and physical well-being, there may be additional consequences as a result of LGBTQ individuals feeling that they are not supported at all by their families when their families reject their relationships.
What does this all mean for you, your relationships, your family, and your friendships? If you are in a relationship, it means that your perceptions of whether your friends support that relationship may be playing an important role in your overall relationship well-being, and even your health. If your current friends disapprove of your relationship, it might be worth finding out why. See if you can change their minds. See if there’s something about your relationship that needs work, or perhaps even make a decision to spend more time with friends who are supportive of your relationship. Furthermore, if you find yourself in a position where you disapprove of someone else’s relationship, it’s important to consider how you communicate that disapproval. This is especially true if you happen to disapprove of a family member’s same-sex relationship: If not communicated carefully, your disapproval may be interpreted as disapproval of them as a person, not just of their relationship.
It may be that many of us do not think our opinions of loved one’s relationships really matter one way or another. But the general consensus from not only this study, but the area of research overall, is that our opinions truly do matter, and indeed they play an important role in contributing to the overall quality and trajectory of others’ romantic relationships—and even their mental and physical health. So the next time you feel ready to throw a few digs at your best friend's choice in partner, perhaps think twice—and consider whether your concerns really warrant the potential consequences that could follow.
Research in this area is ongoing. If you currently feel that someone disapproves of your relationship, or if you currently are disapproving of someone else's relationship, we'd love to hear from you. Visit www.insideoutstudy.com to learn more.
A version of this post first appeared on the SPSP Character and Context Blog.
Blair, K. L., & Pukall, C. F. (2015). Family matters, but sometimes chosen family matters more: Perceived social network influence in the dating decisions of same-and mixed-sex couples. The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 24(3), 257-270.
Blair, K.L., Holmberg, D. & Pukall, C.F. (2018). Support processes in same- and mixed-sex relationships: Type and source matters. Personal Relationships, 25(3), 374-393.
Holmberg, D., & Blair, K. L. (2016). Dynamics of perceived social network support for same‐sex versus mixed‐sex relationships. Personal Relationships, 23(1), 62-83.