Why You Need to Say "I'm Here for You No Matter What"
Research illustrates the importance of knowing support is available when needed.
Posted Sep 29, 2019
Research has shown that knowing there are people who can support you if and when you need it can help ward off mental and physical health problems. Decades of research studies have illustrated the importance of the support people think they have access to. Not the support they actually receive - words of comfort, rides to work, or help solving problems – but the support network they could tap into if they needed it.
Researchers call this type of support perceived support availability and it is linked to numerous positive mental and physical health outcomes for people. Perceived support is thought to buffer the normal stress of life on people’s health.
The most intriguing thing about the idea of perceived support availability is that time and again, researchers have found it is more important than the actual support people have received. And the two concepts are only moderately related to one another, meaning that just because you receive support from others doesn’t mean you perceive it is there when you need it and vice versa (Melrose, Brown, & Wood, 2015).
For example, back in the 1980’s, Drs. Kessler & McLeod found that the stress-buffering benefits of support were more consistent when they asked people about their perception of support rather than when they asked about actual support people received. They defined perceived support availability as the “perception that one’s network is ready to provide aid and assistance if needed” (Wethington & Kessler, 1986).
Across studies, women tend to report more perceived support availability than men. Recent research led by Dr. Lisa Hanasono began uncovering the factors that lead to women perceiving more support availability. Their research suggests that women report more perceived support availability because they tend to be more cognitively complex and expressive (e.g., being kind, affectionate, and warm) than men. Cognitive complexity refers to the ability to process social information in complicated and nuanced ways. The team also found that instrumentality, or seeing oneself as independent and assertive, was associated with more perceived support availability. Instrumentality tends to be higher in men than women. They warn that while there are differences between men and women when it comes to perceived support availability, the differences are very small.
More research needs to be done to fully understand what contributes to people’s perceptions of support being available to them when they need it, but for now, we could all do more to remind our loved ones that we are there for them.
The emphasis placed on perceived support in the research leads me to suggest that we let our loved ones know, explicitly, that we are there for them if they need us. We should also show them we are there for them through our actions and nonverbal behaviors.
Preliminary research out of my lab, the Family Communication and Relationships Lab, has found that explicitly communicating to others that you are there for them is closely related to perceptions of support availability and that those perceptions are related to more satisfying sibling relationships in adulthood.
The relational maintenance strategy of assurances also suggests the importance of explicitly reminding our friends and family that we love and care about them. Assurances can also include explicit reminders about our ability to provide support when it is needed. People who practice relational maintenance behaviors regularly have closer and more satisfying relationships.
A final thought on communicating your support. If you tell your loved ones you will be there for them, you should mean it! Not following through on this promise would likely be more detrimental to your loved one and the relationship than never making the promise at all.
Hanasono, L. K., Burleson, B. R., Bodie, G. D., Holmstrom, A. J., Rack, J., McCullough, J. D., & Rosier, J. G. (2011). Explaining gender differences in the perception of support availability: The mediating effects of construct availability and accessibility. Communication Research Reports, 28(3), 254-265.
Wethington, E., & Kessler, R. C. (1986). Perceived support, received support, and adjustment to stressful life events. Journal of Health and Social behavior, 78-89.
Melrose, K. L., Brown, G. D., & Wood, A. M. (2015). When is received social support related to perceived support and well-being? When it is needed. Personality and Individual Differences, 77, 97-105.
Wills, T. A., & Shinar, O. (2000). Measuring perceived and received social support. Social support measurement and intervention: A guide for health and social scientists, 4, 86-135.