The importance of strong relationships

What do we know from research about relationships?

Research studies have consistently found social support to be a powerful buffer against stress and change. And making use of support is a key resilience tool. When we’re talking about “social support”, we mean giving and receiving emotional and practical support and advice.

An enormous amount of research has gone into understanding what kind of social support helps us cope best. Social support has generally been divided into:

  • perceived support (how much support we believe or think we have)
  • received support (how much we actually get)
  • reciprocal exchanges of support (receiving and giving support).

Ideally, there will be a match between how much support we would like and how much we get!

It seems that perceived support and reciprocal exchanges of support are the most important for us, and are linked to positive physical and mental health. So we want to try to match up perceived and actual support, and to accept support from others as well as getting involved in supporting others.

As well as helping us cope, recent research on happiness tells us that relationships with people are more important than anything else. Studies by American psychologists Edward Diener and Martin Seligman, for example, have found that people with the highest levels of happiness have strong ties to friends and family and a strong commitment to spending time with them.

It sounds obvious, but the support we make use of needs to be helpful and constructive. Having people around us who persistently make demands on us without giving anything back, or who are critical of us, may actually be harmful. So an important part of maintaining good social support is being particular about who is in our network.

It’s a bit like what we know about good coping in general. Having a choice of coping skills is better than relying on just one or two. Social support is similar: it is usually difficult for one or two people to provide us with all our support needs. Our support network is likely to be more resilient if we have a choice of whom we can talk with.

Action plan

What does this research knowledge mean for our everyday lives?

  • Think about how much support you need and want, and check there is a match with how much you get. If there is a mismatch, it’s probably useful to either change your expectations or work at getting more support for yourself.
  • Socialise regularly and maintain a network of friends and support people: this could include family members.
  • Maintain a strong commitment to spending time with them.
  • Be choosy about who is in your support network.
  • Have a confidant or, better still, several confidants.
  • Support other people.
  • Build strong relationships – we can do that by learning to listen, empathise and respond to others with understanding as well as expressing our own feelings.

Bouncing back
Bouncing back from life’s challenges can be difficult.
The following links can help:  A resilient approach to setbacks  |  Resilience in hard times


More resources
An Interesting Watch
Compassion for yourself
Home: Relationships

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