Recently, many of us here at Science of Relationships attended the Society for Personality and Social Psychology annual conference in Austin, Texas. Research on close relationships was well represented at the conference, with symposia covering a range of topics, including social support in relationships, social networks, evolution and sexual behavior, attachment, and more. For my part, I had a chance to attend some fascinating talks from researchers who have been tackling some interesting questions across two of my favorite, closely-related research areas – social support (i.e., how people in relationships help each other) and responsiveness (i.e., how a close other’s behavior make us feel understood, cared for, and validated).
One session featured research shedding new light on patterns of supportive behavior in intimate relationships.1,2 Consistent with classic support theory and current research,3,4 new evidence suggests that social support is most effective for both providers and recipients when it is well-matched to the recipient’s needs. Across a series of three studies on support in close friendships, researchers found that when individuals were distressed by personal failures (e.g., failing to get a promotion at work, or receiving negative feedback on an evaluation), those with low self-esteem preferred to receive support in the form of negative validation (e.g., “It’s really disappointing to get an evaluation like that isn’t it?”) rather than positive reframing (e.g., “Cheer up, it’s not that bad. You’ll do better next time.”). The reason? Negative validation, although seemingly a “bad” form of support, is likely more consistent with the self-views of those with lower self-esteem.5 In other words, those who see themselves in a negative light may be less receptive to support that aims to boost their self-esteem, because such support doesn’t ring true to them.
Furthermore, the studies indicated that while support providers seemed to be aware that their support efforts should match the needs of their low self-esteem friends, providers generally tried to provide “positive” forms of support anyway. Such support was generally not well received, and ultimately these support providers felt worse about themselves and about the quality of their friendships afterwards. If you’ve ever been unsuccessful at cheering up a friend, this might be a familiar feeling to you. After all, when supportive messages fall on deaf ears, providers might start to question their value as sources of support, and may begin to wonder whether their friends appreciate their efforts to help (e.g., “Does my friend even need me right now? Does he/she even care that I’m trying to be supportive?”).
The question is, why doesn’t a support provider’s apparent knowledge of his/her friend’s needs translate into appropriately tailored support? It may be that bolstering the esteem of a friend with low self-esteem seems like the only sensible thing to do when that friend is faced with setbacks. Despite this intuition, it may be best to give others the support that best fits their needs and validates their self-views – even when that self-view isn’t particularly positive. Indeed, this sort of validation is a key component of responsiveness – and responsiveness can make a great deal of difference when it comes to being effective support providers for those close to us.3
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1Marigold, D., Cavallo, J.V., & Holmes, J.G. (2014). Why support providers may not behave responsively towards low self-esteem friends. Paper presented at the 15th Annual meeting of the Society of Personality and Social Psychology. February. Austin, TX.
2Marigold, D.C., Cavallo, J.G., Holmes, J.G., & Wood, J.V. (in press). You can’t always give what you want: The challenge of providing social support to low self-esteem individuals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
3Cutrona, C. E., & Russell, D. W. (1990). Type of social support and specific stress: Toward a theory of optimal matching. In B.R. Sarason, I.G. Sarason, & G.R. Pierce (Eds.) Social support: An interactional view. Wiley series on personality processes. (pp. 319-366). Oxford, England: John Wiley & Sons.
4Maisel, N. C., & Gable, S. L. (2009). The Paradox of Received Social Support: The Importance of Responsiveness. Psychological Science, 20(8), 928-932.
5Swann Jr, W. B., & Read, S. J. (1981). Self-verification processes: How we sustain our self-conceptions. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 17(4), 351-372.
Fred Clavél, M.A. – Science of Relationships articles
Fred is interested in social support dynamics in romantic couples, the effects of context on relationships, relationships and health & well-being, and issues of the self in relationships. He draws primarily on theories of social exchange, attachment, motivation, and social cognition in his research.