Relationships

The Key Ingredient that Can Make or Break Your Relationship

Relationships thrive when they are supported by friends and family.

Posted Dec 30, 2019

As much as we like to think of ourselves as independent beings who make our own decisions, especially when it comes to love, a large body of research tells us that romantic relationships are strongly impacted by the views that our friends and family hold about those relationships. In fact, individuals who feel that their relationship is supported or approved of by their friends and family not only report stronger, happier relationships, but their romantic relationships also stand the test of time better compared to those who perceive lower levels of support for their relationships.

The issue of social support for relationships can be further complicated when considering types of relationships that may generally meet with less societal approval. For example, individuals in same-sex relationships consistently report perceiving less support for their relationships than individuals in mixed-sex relationships. This is particularly true when looking at support from family versus friends, with those in same-sex relationships reporting consistently lower levels of support for their relationships from their family members compared to those in mixed-sex relationships.

If social support is so important to the well-being of a relationship, and if those in same-sex relationships consistently report lower levels of social support for their relationships, does this mean they are suffering greatly as a consequence? Luckily, research on this topic has shown that although individuals in same-sex relationships are not immune from the effects of reduced support for their relationships, they also do not appear to be quite as strongly impacted as those in mixed-sex relationships. In other words, those in same-sex relationships are resilient in the face of reduced social support.

One source of this resilience may come from discounting disapproval from some sources and relying more on approval from other sources. If you think of all the people who are aware of any given romantic relationship, it is unlikely that they will all hold the same opinion of that relationship. How then, do we determine whose opinion of the relationship matters most?

A study from 2015 approached this question directly by asking participants in same- and mixed-sex relationships whose approval of their relationship mattered the most to them. While individuals in mixed-sex relationships indicated that their mother’s approval, followed by other close family members’ approval, mattered the most to them, the opposite results were found among individuals in same-sex relationships. More than two-thirds of the individuals in same-sex relationships reported that the source of approval that mattered most to them was that of their close friends, and especially their close LGBTQ friends.

Thus, even though individuals in same-sex relationships may consistently receive reduced levels of support and approval for their relationships from their family members, they may be able to buffer the negative associations of this disapproval by relying more and placing greater value on the opinions of their more supportive friends.

New Research

There could, however, be an alternative explanation. What if we all just find the opinion of those with shared experiences to be more meaningful and relevant? In other words, perhaps those in same-sex relationships valued the opinions of their LGBTQ friends most simply because those were the people most likely to have the shared experience of being in a same-sex relationship.

To explore this possibility, a recent study examined perceived support for romantic relationships from fellow ingroup members (people with the same type of relationship or relationship experience) and outgroup members (those with a different kind of relationship experience).

The study sought to see whether a) those in same-sex and mixed-sex relationships would perceive different degrees of support from others who either shared a similar or dissimilar sexual orientation, and; b) whether support from ingroup vs. outgroup members would have a stronger association with relationship well-being.

The study examined the responses of 407 individuals in romantic relationships, 39% of whom were in same-sex relationships with the remaining 61% being in mixed-sex relationships. On average, participants provided information on 20 of their friends and family members, including how much each person supported their relationship and that individual's sexual identity, which was then used to determine whether each person listed was an ingroup or outgroup member. For example, an individual in a same-sex relationship had ingroup members with sexual identities that could lead to same-sex relationships (lesbian, gay, bisexual), and outgroup members more likely to have mixed-sex relationships (heterosexuals).

Unsurprisingly, those in same-sex relationships reported greater diversity of sexual identity among their friends and family, with 59% of their social network being straight, followed by 39% LGBTQ and 2% unknown or unspecified. By comparison, those in mixed-sex relationships reported that their sexual networks were 88% heterosexual, 8% LGBTQ, and 4% unknown or unspecified. Interestingly, both individuals in same-sex and mixed-sex relationships reported higher levels of perceived support from fellow in-group members. In other words, those in mixed-sex relationships perceived more support from friends and family who were also likely to have mixed-sex relationships and less support from those likely to be in same-sex relationships. 

Furthermore, support for the relationship from ingroup members was more strongly associated with relationship well-being than support from outgroup members. Surprisingly, this was only true for those in mixed-sex relationships, while those in same-sex relationships did not show significant differences in the strength of associations between the source of support and their relationship well-being. Thus, even though previous research found that individuals in same-sex relationships report that they value the opinions of their close ingroup members (LGBTQ friends) most, this may not actually pan out when looking at actual perceptions of support and actual measures of relationship well-being.

Overall, this area of research continues to produce one very clear finding: social support for relationships matters. When we feel that our relationship is disapproved of by others, our relationship tends to suffer, and we experience more mental and physical distress.

Interestingly, however, those in same-sex relationships, who receive and perceive less support for their relationships, especially from family members, appear to have developed some degree of resilience that serves as a buffer to attenuate the potential negative effects of reduced support for their relationships. More research in the area will be needed to better understand precisely how such resilience develops and whether or not these patterns continue as general societal support for same-sex relationships continues to rise. 

Facebook image: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

References

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.

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.

Blair, K. L., & Holmberg, D. (2008). Perceived social network support and well-being in same-sex versus mixed-sex romantic relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 25(5), 769–791

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.