The impact of social support on relationships and loneliness

Asking as many thought-provoking questions demanding further enquiry as it provided research-based answers, the lunchtime lecture entitled ‘Current Issues in Social Support’ was an engaging experience for all who attended it on November 24th in the ILAS institute.

Led by Dr Carolyn Cutrona and Professor Daniel Russell, this seminar was much more specific than its provisional title would suggest, with Cutrona and Russell splitting the hour-long session between them to focus on the effect that social support (where one partner supports the other to overcome a problem) has within committed romantic relationships in comparison with common dyadic coupling (where two partners work together to address an issue they are facing), before looking at the impact that social support has on people’s perceived levels of loneliness within a community.

Referencing Bolger, Zuckerman, and Kessler’s ‘Invisible Support and Adjustment to Stress’ study published in 2000, Dr Cutrona opened by highlighting contemporary research’s suggestion that when someone is visibly supported by their partner (i.e. he or she receives emotional support and is aware of receiving said support), this actually leads to them feeling more distressed in the aftermath of their being supported. The reason for this perhaps being that the person’s self-esteem is affected by their realising that others feel the need to support them – i.e. that they are perceived as being in need of support, and therefore weak in some way.

This implication reveals the need for people to support their partners using less obvious methods (invisible support) when seeking to make a positive difference to their partner’s well-being beyond the short-term. In addition, Cutrona pointed out that, within a committed relationship, a combination of giving and receiving social support by both partners works best to ensure their relationship’s overall quality.

Subsequently, Dr Cutrona considered common dyadic coping in tandem with research first conducted by Guy Bodenmann in 1995, exploring how the process works before critically comparing it to social support again in terms of a relationship.

Cutrona suggested that dyadic coping is more effective in terms of maintaining balance and equity in a relationship’s dynamic, but pointed out that perhaps not all relationships are capable of or suited to this approach to problem-solving.

Overall, Dr Cutrona finds that, in reality, there is no essential difference between the impact of both processes in terms of a relationship’s longevity and quality, but stressed the need for further research regarding when and where social support and common dyadic coupling are most helpful for couples.

Building on Cutrona’s presentation, Dr Russell explored the relationship between social support and loneliness, pin-pointing how, through the provision of social support, we can predict a change in a given population’s perceived levels of loneliness over time.

Russell’s own research evidences a strong correlation between social support and levels of loneliness, and suggests that an individual’s perceived level of loneliness decreases over time in response to their receipt of social support, but not significantly, and with significant variation between individuals; that the more support an individual receives, and the more personalised the nature of this support is, the greater the decrease in the individual’s level of perceived loneliness over time.

Concluding his section of the seminar, Dr Russell went on to discuss his finding that, in the U.S. at least, third-level students are the loneliest population group he has encountered, and that this group experiences little change in their feelings of loneliness throughout their working life, only experiencing a significant reduction in their loneliness levels circa the age of 60 (retirement age).

This conclusion is particularly striking, especially given NUI Galway’s recent findings that a large proportion of its students experience mental health issues, and that over one third of students ‘feel down’ every day.

In the discussion that followed, audience members responded to the effect that much of this is due to the fact that third-level students experience a period of great change and relative uncertainty during their time in higher education, both internally and externally; but Dr Russell’s finding continued to overshadow the seminar’s remainder.

Like so much of the research findings recently made available by NUI Galway, Russell’s finding compounds the realisation that we need to concentrate further on supporting people socially as they start out in life; that perhaps it is too late to do so when they have gone through their education and working life feeling the way Russell’s research suggests that they do.