Conclusions: Bringing the Field Together and Moving Forward
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter is designed to tie the pieces of the book together, both within and across sections. The goal is to situate the diverse sections of the book into a more coherent framework that helps clarify points of convergence and divergence in the field and that highlights and stimulates opportunities for future research.
Our goal for this book was to provide a broad and cutting-edge look into theory and research on social support in intimate relationships. We hope you, the reader, have gained a sense of the field and its possibilities. The risk in taking such a broad approach, however, is that the book, and perhaps the field, may appear to lack coherence or to be disjointed. In this final chapter, we take the opportunity to tie the pieces of the book together, both within sections and across, with the goals of clarifying the points of convergence and divergence in the field and highlighting opportunities for future research.
We begin with a discussion of each section of the book. Section 1 was “recipient-focused,” and emphasized the support recipient’s experience of the support provided. In both chapters, the authors (Brock & Lawrence; Rini & Dunkel-Schetter) argued that perception of support as adequate or effective by the recipient is the key to success in social support transactions. The authors also agreed that adequacy or effectiveness is dependent on the extent to which what is provided is perceived as in line with what is desired. Both overprovision and underprovision, in these models, are identified as serious problems that undermine support processes. Rini and Dunkel-Schetter described how a model that emphasizes support effectiveness applies to a discrete stressful event, and Brock and Lawrence described such a model’s application to accumulated support experiences over time and circumstance. Taken together, these models are thought to apply to a wide range of situations in which support processes come into play.
Although implicitly interpersonal in nature, the models in Section 1 emphasized more the “end result” of support transactions—the recipient’s (p. 361 ) experience of the support—rather than how a couple gets there. The models in Section 2 were more explicitly interpersonal in nature, emphasizing what providers and seekers need to do to be able to facilitate recipients perceiving support as adequate or effective. These models have in common the idea that interpersonal sensitivity and responsiveness, in particular accurate understanding of the support seeker’s needs and the ability to validate these needs, are the keys to successful support transactions. The chapters by Verhofstadt and colleagues and Fruzetti and Worral highlight that empathy and a nonjudgmental attitude are at the heart of good support provision. Whereas the model proposed by Verhofstadt and colleagues focuses primarily on what providers need to do on their end of the support transaction, the chapters by Fruzzetti and Worral, and Collins and Feeney, described the transactional processes and couple microdynamics in greater detail, and also emphasize the responsibility of the support seeker to clearly convey needs. Unlike the other chapters in this section, the chapter by Collins and Feeney distinguishes among two very different types of support that partners need—support in response to distress and support in response to goal-striving, a distinction that is returned to in a later chapter in this book.
Section 3 moves from overarching theoretical models of support processes and deals more with the complexities of actual support transactions. These chapters largely agree with those in Sections 1 and 2 that the mechanism of action is the appropriateness and effectiveness of the support provided, essentially the “match” between what is needed or desired and what is provided. However, these chapters begin to illuminate the intricacies of this process. These chapters also have in common a focus on the effect of support interactions on the individual well-being of partners, particularly emotional well-being. The chapters by Shrout and colleagues and DeLongis and colleagues speak to day-to-day support transactions among partners and how different types of support provided (or felt) have different effects on recipients’ mood and ability to use adaptive coping strategies. As these chapters show, it is not simply the case that people experience mood- or coping-related benefits from day-to-day when partners provide support. Rather, these benefits are dependent on the type of support and whether the interaction is reported as supportive by the recipient or the provider. Furthermore, support may have different immediate and long-term consequences on the mood and coping of both the provider and the recipient.
The chapter by Gable and Algoe alerts us to an entirely different and understudied facet of social support that can affect mood and relationship functioning—support of positive experiences, what the authors refer to as capitalization. Unlike the other chapters in the book (except for Collins & Feeney), which emphasize the need for support in the face of negative or (p. 362 ) stressful life experiences, Gable and Algoe demonstrate how supporting a partner in positive, successful, or happy moments is critical to well-being. In doing so, they remind us that there are many daily opportunities to be supportive of a partner in good times, not just in bad, a fact that begs for an examination of how capitalization processes interact with more traditional forms of support (i.e., in response to stressful circumstances) in couples’ daily lives (much like Collins and Feeney are doing in their work on safe haven and secure base support).
Section 4 returns to the stressful situations in which support is needed, focusing on both common and extreme health-related circumstances. Sullivan and Pasch, and Manne and Badr focused on the outcomes of support transactions among couples with a partner facing a health-related problem or illness. Maisel and colleagues focused on the predictors of support provision when a couple is faced with a traumatic injury to one partner. These chapters, like the others, highlight the ways in which support can go well or poorly. For instance, Maisel and colleagues report data showing that people provide more support to their injured partners when they (the providers) view their partners injuries as more severe, regardless of how severe their partners perceive their own injuries to be. On one hand, increasing support when a caretaker perceives an injury or illness to be severe may be a good thing. However, as Sullivan and Pasch suggest, the success of social support and social control attempts in response to a partner’s health problems is likely to depend on the accuracy with which the provider perceives the partner’s readiness to make health-related changes, and the extent to which the provider uses strategies consistent with the partner’s current stage of change. As Manne and Badr discuss, the type of support also matters. Although it may be tempting for people to attempt to protect an ill partner by concealing worries and avoiding conflicts, such protective buffering is actually deleterious for ill partners (cancer patients), whereas active engagement, involving discussing concerns and problem-solving to deal with cancer-related problems, has more positive outcomes for ill partners. These few examples illustrate the complexities in support processes when a partner with health problems is involved. Important questions remain, such as when it is appropriate to attempt to actively engage an ill partner in problem solving, when it is appropriate to push for change versus hold back, and whether more support provision is always better. And the answers are likely dependent on the type of illness or problem and its controllability.
Section 5 makes the greatest departure from the other sections, but provides extremely important perspectives on support in larger contexts, especially gender, culture, and broader social networks. All three chapters in this section argued for and supported the idea that the cultural context (broadly (p. 363 ) speaking) is important, and they all emphasize broad socialization experiences as being responsible for how culture (and gender) lead to differences in support processes. Schoebi and colleagues and Brown and colleagues highlighted how larger social networks play different roles in different cultures. This is an important point that is overlooked in the other chapters, which are specific to couple relationships. These two chapters make the important point that support transactions in couples may need to be considered within the context of larger support networks, and that failure to account for such networks leaves an incomplete picture of how support processes operate (and this may be particularly true for certain cultural groups). The chapters in Section 5 differ from one another in a number of key ways. First, the chapter by Brown and colleagues is more of a “big-picture” chapter, and it focuses on the “what” part of cultural differences. By that we mean it addresses the question of what the differences are between cultural groups (in this case Black and White Americans) with regard to the role of support networks on marital outcomes. The chapters by Schoebi and colleagues and Burleson and Hanasono are more about the mechanics and details of support processes, and they focus more on the “why” part of cultural differences. That is, they address the question (and this is particularly true of the Burleson and Hanasono chapter) of why cultural (and gender) differences might exist. Burleson and Hanasono emphasized “meta-level” variables related to how people are socialized to attend to, scrutinize, and be motivated to process supportive communications. Shoebi and colleagues compared cultural categories (e.g., country of origin) versus individual difference variables that may be associated with cultural differences (e.g., individualism, conservatism, familism). All three chapters concluded that important cultural (and gender) differences exist, and each chapter provided a somewhat different way of thinking about what these are and why they exist.
Each chapter in Section 5 also presented some “clinical” implications, which raises important issues about support in the cultural context and how interventions may need to be tailored to meet the needs of couples of different cultures (or partners of different genders). For instance, Burleson and Hanasono argued that men process supportive communications less well than do women. There are no data yet to suggest whether this is a problem for couples, but it may be if it relates to empathic accuracy (or a lack thereof), given the emphasis on the importance of empathy and validation documented in the chapters in Section 2 . Similarly, in cultures in which support is expected as much or more from family than from a spouse, the adequacy of partner support may not be as critical a variable compared to less family-oriented cultures. Cultural and gender factors like these will be important to consider as we strive to develop more and better ways to intervene with (p. 364 ) distressed couples and to teach couples support skills to prevent individual and relationship distress.
As is already becoming evident, the sections of the book both complement and challenge one another in a variety of ways. To further highlight how they do so, we now focus on six themes that capture key lessons across the chapters.
1. For support transactions to be successful, the support provided needs to be what the seeker wants/needs. This theme emerged either explicitly or implicitly in each chapter. The most explicit examples were in the chapters in Sections 1 and 2 , which dealt directly with issues of provider–seeker “match,” as well as in a number of the chapters in Section 3 , which also highlighted how what is intended as support is not always experienced as such. Additionally, the Sullivan and Pasch chapter dealt with this issue of “match” in the form of providers having an understanding of whether their partners were actually ready to benefit from support. This is a novel approach to thinking about what it means to provide the kind of support that a partner wants or needs, and one that is rarely considered in the literature. This chapter asserts that providers must know what seekers want or need and providers must have a sense of whether seekers are actually ready to benefit from support. This further raises the issue of whether seekers always know and can clearly convey what they need and what they are ready for. The issue of readiness is also rarely considered in the literature. Although there are theoretical frameworks that emphasize it (see chapters by Collins & Feeney and Fruzetti & Worral), relatively little empirical work exists.
A number of the chapters discuss the ways in which mismatches in support provision might occur, such as over- and underprovision, and there is reason to think that these different types of mismatches might be more or less problematic for different types of support. For instance, Brock and Lawrence’s chapter would suggest that overprovision is particularly bad for coping with stress, as overprovision, compared to underprovision, was associated with greater declines in marital satisfaction over time. Gable and Algoe’s chapter might suggest that underprovision is particularly bad for capitalization situations, as only active–constructive capitalization attempts were associated with benefits; passive efforts were not. And this might also apply to secure base support, as described by Collins and Feeney, given its similarity to capitalization. Sullivan and Pasch’s chapter also might suggest that overprovision (especially in the form of social control) is particularly (p. 365 ) bad when partners are not ready to make a health-related change, as they may experience support attempts as controlling and unhelpful. This is echoed in the work of Collins and Feeney, who found that intrusiveness and interference is problematic when attempting to support a partner’s personal goal-strivings. An important future direction for the field will be research that further examines the most problematic types of mismatches in different support contexts.
2. Providers need to understand/know the seeker well enough to provide what the seeker wants/needs. This was a theme that also was echoed in many of the chapters, and is considered to be the mechanism by which the support provided will match the needs and wants of the support seeker. As noted earlier, the ability of providers to recognize potential support-seeking signals, and to understand and empathize, is thought to be key. A number of the chapters (Collins & Feeney; Fruzetti & Worral) also highlight the importance of the ability to tolerate partners emotions. For instance, as Collins and Feeney note, providers’ own interpersonal styles (e.g., avoidant or anxious) affect their ability to tolerate negative emotion in their partner and lead to negative emotions of their own. These difficulties may, consequently, impede responsive support provision. In addition, a number of the chapters (Fruzetti & Worral; Gable & Algoe; Verhofstadt, et al.) suggest that empathy and emotional tolerance must be conveyed to partners in a validating, nonjudgmental manner that conveys that the provider is taking seriously the experiences of the partner. Interestingly, a number of contemporary approaches to couples therapy, although not specifically designed to increase social support, emphasize increasing awareness of partners experience, tolerance of their emotions, and the development of empathy for and acceptance of the partner (e.g., Christensen, Wheeler, & Jacobson, 2008 ; Johnson, 2004 ). As such, couples intervention scholars are inherently aware of the importance of partners truly knowing one another, being tolerant of emotions, and providing validation. In fact, interventions may be having their effect, at least in part, through increasing partners ability to be effective support providers (see also Bodenmann, Bradbury, & Pihet, 2009 ).
A number of the chapters also point out the importance of support seekers’ behavior in support dynamics. As noted earlier, and as Collins and Feeney, and Fruzetti and Worral particularly point out, it is necessary for support seekers to be aware of their needs, to convey them accurately, and to perceive or take in offered support effectively. This may be more easily said than done, as a variety of factors might impede these abilities. For instance, Collins and Feeney emphasize how individual differences in attachment patterns can affect how partners seek support. Fruzetti and Worral emphasize how support seekers’ capacity to deal with their own (p. 366 ) emotions can affect their ability to accurately convey what they need. This also is consistent with Maisel and colleagues’ data showing that support seekers who score higher on neuroticism have partners who provide more care (in the context of a traumatic injury), suggesting that providers are responding to characteristics of support seekers.
Importantly, it is inherent in couples that both partners are support seekers and providers. As such, the needs of both partners at any given time will interact, as will their abilities to seek, receive, and provide support. For example, Collins and Feeney suggest that support providers are more effective when they have adequately gotten their own support needs met and are feeling secure in the relationship. There is little research on how satisfaction with support received relates to the ability to provide adequate support, nor is there research on how the needs of both partners may interact in any given situation (see Gable & Algoe). These will be important topics for future study, in line with the growing emphasis on the interpersonal and transactional nature of support dynamics in couples, as many chapters in this book highlight.
3. Support is needed in bad times and good. The relative importance of support in times of stress versus support for positive or goal-oriented experiences was at issue in the chapters. Most of the chapters very clearly stated that support for stressors is the most important in couple relationships (see Brock & Lawrence in particular), but the chapters by Gable and Algoe, and Collins and Feeney argue otherwise, making the case that support for positive events or personal goals and strivings is equally important. Moreover, Collins and Feeney argued further that, although support in times of stress and for personal goals can be distinguished and have different antecedents, dynamics, and consequences, their success is linked and perhaps even dependent on one another. Collins and Feeney’s attachment-based model of social support makes a strong case for this linkage, both theoretically and empirically, although additional work is needed to further document how support processes in good times and bad are linked, and the extent to which this depends on the nature of the good and bad circumstances (e.g., the types of events).
Another potentially fruitful line of research might examine whether different emotion processes might be involved in support for stressors versus positive events or personal goals. It may be that support for stressors reduces negative emotion in the recipient, whereas support for positive events and personal goals increases positive emotion in the recipient (see chapters by Collins & Read; Gable & Algoe; Fruzetti & Worral). As such, different emotion regulation and coping processes may be at work in the two different types of support processes.
(p. 367 ) 4. Support transactions are highly complex interpersonal processes. Whether chapters emphasized support provision or receipt, they all, taken together, demonstrated that social support is an interpersonal transaction with complex dynamics. Support is not always “good,” there is no prototypical situation in which support is needed, there is no one type of support that works for all in all circumstances, etc. There may be normative patterns in support transactions, such as those outlined by Collins and Feeney, but the adaptive enactment and success of support transactions depends on numerous individual difference and contextual factors. For example, as the chapters show, the provision of adequate support can depend on provider characteristics, including providers’ attachment orientation (e.g., whether they tend to avoid intimacy, whether they are fearful of rejection), their level of religiosity, their ability to cope with their own and their partners emotions, their ability to empathize with partners, their motives for providing support (e.g., egoistic, altruistic), their sense of having their own support needs met, and their satisfaction in the relationship. Likewise, the seeking and receipt of adequate support can depend on seeker characteristics, including seekers’ attachment orientation, their personality styles (e.g., neuroticism), their ability to manage their emotions, and whether they want and/or are ready to make a change or cope with a problem.
Adaptive support transactions also may be affected by the nature of the circumstances, such as the severity of a stressor (both actual and perceived) and the resources available to deal with stressors, as well as by cultural and gender-based factors that dictate norms and expectations (which also can be considered features of the support seekers and providers). The effects/outcomes of support transactions may also differ at different time points. As a number of the chapters highlight (e.g., Shrout et al., DeLongis et al.), the effects of support transactions vary based on when the effects are assessed (immediately vs. longer-term) and on the type of support provision. In addition, the effects of support transactions may be different for providers and seekers, and also may depend on who is reporting on the support experience. For instance, Shrout et al. found that provision of emotional support was typically associated with increased anger, anxiety, depressed mood, and fatigue, whereas receipt of such support was associated with increased vigor (although only for two time lags) and decreased anger (although only on the same day). DeLongis et al. reported findings suggesting that empathic responding to stress can have negative consequences in the short run (consistent with Shrout et al.), but positive consequences in the longer run, whereas avoidant responses to stress can have positive consequences in the short run, but negative consequences in the longer run. Clearly, the study of social support processes must continue to take into account the complexities (p. 368 ) of support transactions, including a focus on individual, environmental, and cultural moderators; unique perspectives of providers and receivers/seekers; and short- and longer-term outcomes.
5. Momentary and accumulated experiences are part of and affect support transactions. The chapters are diverse in whether they focus on more momentary versus more accumulated experiences, but they clearly demonstrate a number of key issues. First, both types of experiences are important. This is reflected in the varying emphases in the book, including in-the-moment details of support transactions (such as those described by Verhofstadt et al.), daily experiences of support (such as those described in the chapters by Shrout et al., and DeLongis et al.), support in the context of discrete or ongoing health problems (as described in the chapters in Section 4 ), adequacy of support over time and situation (as discussed by Brock & Lawrence), and ongoing support across good times and bad (as emphasized in the chapters by Collins & Feeney and Gable & Algoe).
Second, each focus can provide unique information. Momentary experiences can tell us about the details of the complexity of support transactions. As a number of the chapters demonstrate, focusing on the microprocesses of support transactions provides important insights into how support processes are actually enacted (see Collins & Feeney; Fruzetti & Worral; Verhorstadt et al.), as well as their immediate effects (see DeLongis et al.; Shrout et al.). Accumulated experience can tell us about how patterns of support that have been established over time can affect perceptions, expectations, and behavior in ways that could undermine or facilitate relationship success (see Brock & Lawrence; Collins & Feeney). Such perspectives are consistent with findings from work on “sentiment override” in marriage, in which global beliefs and feelings about the partner and relationship color and drive ongoing relationship experience (e.g., Hawkins, Carrére, & Gottman, 2002 ).
Third, together, the chapters begin to paint a picture of how momentary experience builds into accumulated experience. Indeed, it is the moments that become the building blocks for more global perceptions and expectations, and continued research on how these processes develop over time would strengthen our understanding of how, when, and where to intervene to promote adaptive social support and prevent maladaptive transactions. Furthermore, momentary and accumulated experience likely interact, as partners bring their accumulated experience into momentary interactions, and also are faced with the reality of each momentary interaction. For instance, changes in marital satisfaction over time are associated with both global expectations as well as actual interaction skills (e.g., McNulty & Karney, 2004 ). The chapters by DeLongis et al. and Collins and Feeney offer useful perspectives on these ideas. Continuing to examine how partners (p. 369 ) experience, navigate, and respond to support transactions in the context of their accumulated experience is an important area for future research.
6. Support transactions result in diverse outcomes. Although it might be tempting to conclude that good support is associated with good outcomes and that good support makes for more satisfied relationships, these would be significant oversimplifications that rob the field (and ultimately couples) of the reality of the rich and diverse consequences of support transactions. As the chapters in this book clearly demonstrate, a wide variety of outcomes are affected by support transactions, including changes in perceived stress, coping abilities, changes in emotional and physical health, changes in mood, changes in self-regulation, changes in relationship satisfaction, and effects on larger family systems. There are outcomes for both the provider and recipient, and these outcomes may not always be the same. And, as discussed earlier, different outcomes occur at different times. Continuing to move away from the simple conclusions at the opening of this paragraph to more nuanced accounts of the specific ways in which social support transactions aid or hurt individual and couple outcomes is, in our opinion, a high priority for research on social support in intimate relationships. We hope this edited volume serves as a resource for doing so.
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