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“Being There” vs. Being There: Social Support is More Than Just a Friendly Face

We often turn to those closest to us for support when confronted with difficult situations. When financial trouble strikes, we turn to family for financial help (i.e., tangible/material support). Or, when things at work drive us crazy we turn to our partners, sometimes for advice (i.e., informational support) or simply for a warm hug (i.e., emotional support). In romantic relationships, being able to turn to a partner for support during stressful times has long been considered a crucial part of what makes a relationship work.1 Knowing that you can turn to your partner for support conveys a number of important pieces of information about your relationship. A supportive partner can be trusted to act in your best interests, demonstrates that he or she really cares about you, empathizes with you, understands you well enough to know that support is needed, and is responsive to your distress signals.

Social support in relationships taps into two important attachment-related needs. First, our partners can provide a safe haven for us by being the people we turn to for protection and comfort when things go wrong. Second, our partners can provide a secure base for us by giving us the encouragement and confidence to try new things that we find threatening or intimidating.2 Romantic partners make each other feel safe during stressful times and give each other the security and confidence to take on new challenges, through the supportive behavior they offer to one another. In fact, some research even shows that simply thinking of your partner can provide this supportive sense of safety and security when you face tough situations (how cool is that?).3 But does your partner’s mere presence serve the same supportive function?

Researchers recently tackled this question with a creative virtual reality experiment involving 131 couples.4 Partners went to separate rooms to participate in a scary, virtual “cliff-walking” task during which one partner was randomly assigned to walk the cliff while the other partner stood nearby watching. In reality, only the person assigned to walk the cliff actually did anything in the virtual environment. The researchers replaced the cliff-walker’s partner with a fake avatar, which allowed them to control (i.e., manipulate) the behavior of the virtual “partner.” This design allowed the researchers to create three scenarios: In one, the “partner” seemed attentive and responsive, staring at the walker during his/her cliff walk while clapping and waving at him/her. In the second scenario, the “partner” was present but unresponsive, looking at other nearby objects and not communicating to the walker. In the third scenario (i.e., the comparison group), participants just walked the cliff alone.    

The researchers wanted to see how support experiences differed across the three scenarios. They measured this in several ways. First, they recorded how much time participants spent gazing at their partners for comfort and reassurance during the cliff walk. Next, researchers asked participants how stressful the task was, and (for those who had a partner present) whether their partners made them feel secure and cared for. The researchers also wanted to see the effect that the scenarios would have on relationship outcomes, so they had the couples do a follow-up virtual task wherein the participant who did the cliff-walk walked to their partner and read a number written on his or her back, then walked back to the start position and reported that number. What they really measured was how much distance participants put between themselves and their partners (this was what researchers call an implicit measure).

The findings shed light on what “being there” really means. Only those who did the cliff walk with a responsive partner actually felt supported. These participants found the task less stressful, felt safer and more secure, and spent less time gazing at their partners for comfort and reassurance. Meanwhile, having an unresponsive partner present was just as stressful as doing the cliff walk alone. Moreover, those who did the cliff walk with an unresponsive partner felt less cared for than those in the other two scenarios, and were more likely to distance themselves from their partners during the follow-up task. Clearly, they weren’t too impressed with their partners’ presence.

So it appears that the real benefit of your partner “being there” may only emerge when your partner is responsive. Without responsiveness, his or her mere presence might actually do more harm than good. It seems there’s a big difference between simply being there for your partner (i.e., sharing the same space) and really being there for your partner—that is, actively providing the support and the sense of safety and security that make life’s difficulties seem a little easier to handle.

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1Cutrona, C. E. (1996). Social support in couples: Marriage as a resource in times of stress. Thousand Oaks, CA, US: Sage Publications, Inc.

2Collins, N. L., & Feeney, B. C. (2010). An attachment theoretical perspective on social support dynamics in couples: Normative processes and individual differences. In K. T. Sullivan & J. Davilla (Eds.) Support Processes in Intimate Relationships (pp. 89-120).  Oxford University Press: New York.

3Mikulincer, M., Gillath, O., & Shaver, P. R. (2002). Activation of the attachment system in adulthood: Threat-related primes increase the accessibility of mental representations of attachment figures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(4), 881–895.

4Kane, H. S., McCall, C., Collins, N. L., & Blascovich, J. (2012). Mere presence is not enough: Responsive support in a virtual world. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(1), 37-44.

Fred Clavél, M.A. - Science of Relationships articles

Fred is interested in social support dynamics in romantic couples, the effects of context on relationships, relationships and health & well-being, and issues of the self in relationships. He draws primarily on theories of social exchange, attachment, motivation, and social cognition in his research.

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