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Social support is a multidisciplinary field that asks: Why are people who are involved in relationships mentally and physically healthier than those who are not? It includes enacted support/ supportive communication (what people say and do to help one another cope with stress), perceived available support (beliefs about relationships that influence coping and outlook on life), and social network/integration (structures of interconnection that affect opportunities, information, immunity, and resources). Because relationships are sometimes harmful, support research identifies when and how relationships produce positive outcomes.
Interpersonal communication researchers most often study the messages and conversations that constitute enacted support. Theories explain why some interactions are more effective than others by specifying processes (e.g., uncertainty management or emotional re-appraisal) that connect message features to beneficial outcomes. Well-intended support attempts can threaten a recipient’s autonomy, imply criticism, and convey status or solidarity. Consequently, person-centeredness, face-saving, and relational control are important message features. Partners also must coordinate whether problem-solving, emotional support, or avoidance is desired.
Perceived available support is one’s perception of being valued by others who will provide support if needed. This belief enhances coping and contributes to relational satisfaction. Perceptions of available support are not strongly correlated with reports of enacted support; instead, perceptions arise from individual cognitive structures for relationships (e.g., attachment models) and ongoing global properties of relationships such as responsiveness, trustworthiness, and care.
Densely connected social networks validate social identities and coordinate provision of aid, whereas loose interconnections facilitate new identities, information, and resources. Network size is a poor predictor of outcomes, perhaps because conflictual ties can offset the benefits of supportive ties. Social integration entails a diverse range of relationships, including family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and community and religious organizations. Those who are well integrated live longer and healthier lives than those who are isolated. Integration enhances personal control, meaning, affect, and healthful behaviors.
Social support research provides a basis for interventions, including providing new supportive relationships and making existing relationships more supportive. Support groups and self-help groups, both face-to-face and electronically mediated, are a popular form of social support intervention.
- Goldsmith, D. J. (2004). Communicating social support. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Goldsmith, D. J. & Albrecht, T. L. (2011). Social support, social networks, and health. In T. L. Thompson, R. Parrott, & J. Nussbaum (eds.), Handbook of health communication, 2nd edn. London: Routledge, pp. 335–348.
- MacGeorge, E. L., Feng, B., & Burleson, B. (2011). Supportive communication. In M. L. Knapp & J. A. Daly (eds.), The Sage handbook of interpersonal communication. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 317–354.