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Humans strongly need to belong and value their connection with others. Relationships with others are central across the entire lifespan, from the early attachment with caregivers in infancy to the contact with friends, colleagues, neighbors, and loved ones later in life. Some scholars have even argued that positive social relationships are essential to life satisfaction and well-being. According to Diener and Seligman "…very happy people have rich and satisfying social relationships and spend little time alone relative to average people" [3 p. 83]. However, not all types of social relationships promote well-being. Negative relationships characterized by emotional, psychological, or physical costs can severely hinder well-being. In this chapter, we address both types of relationships and their effect on well-being.


Positive social relationships are social bonds that contribute to the individual's well-being. An important demonstration of the importance of a positive relationship comes from parenting. Children whose interactions with their parents are characterized by sensitive, responsive care from the parent as opposed to over-stimulating, dysregulating care are better able to deal with frustration, show better attention during the preschool years, and do better academically and emotionally in the early elementary years. Later, in middle childhood, attentive and responsive relationships between parents and their children have been linked to the development of self-esteem, competence, and social responsibility in the child. Positive parent-child relationships continue to influence well-being during the adolescent years and even into the adult years. For example, warm and responsive relationships between adolescents and parents are associated with self-esteem, identity formation, prosocial behavior, less depression, anxiety, and adolescent behavior problems. In sum, positive parent-child relationships characterized by warmth, responsiveness, and emotional support continuously influence the child's well-being from the early years until adulthood.


Interaction with others can enhance well-being in numerous ways:


  • First, others can help us to realize our aspirations. Others can offer assistance, increase motivation, and be a great source of inspiration while pursuing meaningful goals.

  • Second, interaction with others can contribute to the fulfillment of basic psychological needs. According to self-determination theory, autonomy, competence, and relatedness are basic psychological needs. They are regarded as essential psychological nutrients for optimal functioning and well-being. Others may, for example, contribute to fulfilling our need for competence by giving us constructive feedback about our performance. Likewise, by trusting and giving us room to go our way, others may help us satisfy our need for autonomy.

  • Third, positive relationships can have a beneficial effect on health. Research has revealed that a positive/supportive social network is associated with better cardiovascular, endocrine, and immune functioning. One way through which relationships affect health is by promoting a healthy lifestyle and behavior. Others may encourage health-promoting behaviors, monitor health-related behaviors, and discourage potentially dangerous behaviors. For example, others may enable us to exercise more, limit our alcohol intake, or keep track of our unhealthy food consumption. Others can also serve as a source of inspiration. For example, they may inspire us to eat healthily or balance our work and private life.

  • Finally, other people can be a great source of support in difficult times. The social support others offer helps us cope with significant life events and smaller everyday hassles. The external factor that has been found to contribute most to children and young people's ability to bounce back from adversity is their experience of positive relationships.


The literature on social support offers a meaningful way to categorize different types of positive relationships. Scholars have made a distinction between four different types of supportive relationships. First, people in the individual's social network who offer empathy, concern, affection, love, trust, acceptance, intimacy, encouragement, or caring engage in an emotionally supportive relationship. They provide warmth and nurturance and let the individual know they are valued. Second, people who offer advice, guidance, suggestions, or helpful information engage in informational support. The information they provide can help the individual solve problems or reach goals. Third, people who offer financial assistance, material goods, or services provide instrumental support. This form of social support encompasses the concrete direct ways these people assist the individual. Fourth, people who give a sense of social belonging provide companionship support. These people are companions with whom you can engage in shared social and leisure activities.

The stress-support matching hypothesis explains the unique contributions of each type of support to well-being. According to this theory, each stressful situation affects the needs of the person involved in a specific way. Social support will be effective in promoting coping and reducing stress if it matches the needs of the individual in a stressful situation. For example, receiving instrumental support in the form of money may be helpful in the face of a temporary job loss but useless at the beginning of the death of a friend. Similarly, receiving emotional support may be extremely useful when addressing the loss of a friend but less helpful when attempting to find a solution to a problem at work.

Although the types of support are presented separately here, research has revealed high intercorrelations among the different kinds of assets; this suggests a possibility of a considerable overlap of the different types of support. In reality, it may be challenging to categorize social interaction exclusively into one particular category. Moreover, it is essential to note that a positive relationship can cover multiple forms of support. Research has shown that people in close relationships often exchange various forms of social support (and companionship and control).


Negative relationships can also have a detrimental effect on physical well-being. Relationships characterized by conflict and negativity are associated with deterioration in immune and cardiovascular function. Negative relationships can also negatively influence health through "social contagion" of adverse health behaviors. When others display unhealthy behavior, they are setting norms for "normal" or "appropriate" behavior, making it more likely for us to engage in similar unhealthy behavior. For example, peers' standards about drinking behavior influence alcohol consumption among young adults, and friendship norms about dieting influence harmful weight control.


Some negative relationships are characterized by unhelpful support or are detrimental to the recipient. Support efforts can be miscarried or result in feelings of indebtedness, a threat to self-esteem, or guilt about the support receipt. In research on individuals with chronic health conditions, such as cancer, HIV/AIDS, and rheumatoid arthritis, unsupportive responses from others were associated with decreased psychological adjustment. Moreover, interviews with chronic pain patients revealed that lack of understanding and listening from their intimates were among the most common difficulties in their lives.


Negative social relationships may hinder goal achievement. When people start to make changes in life, they commonly experience resistance or unsupportive remarks from their peers. For instance, peers may disapprove of the person's new aspirations or may even actively try to prevent specific changes from happening. For example, a person who decides to reduce drinking may get confronted with disbelief and mockery from his friends, who might feel that he is "abandoning" the group with his choice. Likewise, a mother who decides to take more time for herself may initially experience resistance from her kids, who refuse to do more chores at home.


Social relationships can also be a significant source of distress and misery. These negative social relationships, which can occur in various ways, are social ties that reduce the individual's well-being. First, negative social interactions may fail to meet the needs of one or both of the persons involved, resulting in emotions such as jealousy and hurt. Furthermore, relationships involving psychological or physical abuse violate the critical need for safety.

Resources and Additional Readings

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Aron, A., Norman, C. C., Aron, E. N., McKenna, C., & Heyman, R. E. (2000). Couples' shared participation in novel and arousing activities and experienced relationship quality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 273–284.


Barnes, H. L., & Olson, D. H. (1985). Parent–adolescent communication and the circumplex model. Child Development, 56, 438–447.


Barrera Jr, M. (1986). Distinctions between social support concepts, measures, and models. American Journal of Community Psychology, 14, 413-445.


Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 497-529.


Bolger, N., & Amarel, D. (2007). Effects of social support visibility on adjustment to stress: Experimental evidence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 458-475.


Bolger, N., & Eckenrode, J. (1991). Social relationships, personality, and anxiety during a major stressful event. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61, 440-449.


Bolger, N., Foster, M., Vinokur, A. D., & Ng, R. (1996). Close relationships and adjustments to a life crisis: The case of breast cancer. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 283-294.


Bolger, N., Zuckerman, A., & Kessler, R. C. (2000). Invisible support and adjustment to stress. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 953-961.


Bosone, L., Martinez, F., & Kalampalikis, N. (2015). When the model fits the frame: the impact of regulatory fit on eficacyappraisal and persuasion in health communication. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41, 526-539.


Carlson, E. A., Jacobvitz, D., & Sroufe, L. A. (1995). A developmental investigation of inattentiveness and hyperactivity. Child Development, 66, 37–54.


Cohen, S., & McKay, G. (1984). Social support, stress and the buffering hypothesis: A theoretical analysis. In A. Baum, S. E. Taylor, & J. E. Singer(Eds.), Handbook of psychology and health (pp. 253-267). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.


Collins, W. A., Harris, M. L., & Susman, A. (1995). Parenting during middle childhood. In Mark H. Bornstein (Ed.), Handbook of parenting: Vol. 1. Children and parenting (pp. 65–89). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.


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