Does Your Relationship Help You Thrive Or Holds You Back?

July 01, 2023; Unhurry Expert Research Team

Individuals who have supportive and rewarding relationships have greater mental health, higher levels of subjective well-being, and reduced rates of morbidity and death, according to previous studies. Research published in Personality and Social Psychology Review offers an important perspective on living via connections, emphasizing two types of support that relationships bring and highlighting areas that require additional investigation – 1. Source of strength (SOS) support 2. Relational catalyst (RC) support.

What is ‘thriving’?

Researchers Brooke Feeney of Carnegie Mellon University and Nancy Collins of the University of California, Santa Barbara emphasize the importance of relationships in supporting individuals’ efforts to learn, grow, explore, achieve goals, cultivate new talents, and find purpose and meaning in life. Relationships can allow a person to thrive, but we know very little about how relationships help or hinder thriving.

The researchers define thriving as having five components of well-being: hedonic well-being (happiness, life satisfaction), eudaimonic well-being (having purpose and meaning in life, progressing towards meaningful life goals), psychological well-being (positive self-esteem, absence of mental health symptoms/disorders), social well-being (deep and meaningful human connections, faith in others and humanity, positive interpersonal expectancies), and physical well-being (happiness, life satisfaction).

Two types of Relationship support

Source of strength (SOS) support

People are more likely to prosper when they have well-functioning interpersonal connections that provide various support functions, whether they are with friends, parents, siblings, a spouse, or mentors. The review focuses on two types of assistance, each of which serves a distinct function in different life settings.

The first important role of relationships is to help people thrive in the face of adversity, not just by protecting them from the harmful consequences of stress, but also by allowing them to thrive because of or despite their circumstances. “Relationships serve an important function of not simply helping people return to baseline but helping them to thrive by exceeding prior baseline levels of functioning,” explains lead researcher Brooke Feeney. “We refer to this as source of strength (SOS) support and emphasize that the promotion of thriving through adversity is the core purpose of this support function.”

Relational catalyst (RC) support

The second important role of relationships is to promote full participation in life possibilities for exploration, growth, and personal success in the absence of hardship. People thrive in this context when they can embrace and seek chances that improve their well-being, broaden, and build their resources, and foster a sense of purpose and meaning in their lives. Because support providers can act as active catalysts for thriving in this environment, this sort of support is known as relational catalyst (RC) support. This type of assistance emphasizes that the promotion of thriving through life possibilities is its primary goal.

Support should be dictated by the situation and by the partner’s needs

The researchers emphasize that there are certain characteristics of support providers that enhance their capacity to provide meaningful support. “It is not just whether someone provides support, but it is how he or she does it that determines the outcome of that support. Any behaviours in the service of providing SOS and RC support must be enacted both responsively and sensitively to promote thriving,” explains Feeney.

“Being responsive involves providing the type and amount of support that is dictated by the situation and by the partner’s needs, and being sensitive involves responding to needs in such a way that the support-recipient feels understood, validated, and cared for,” he adds.

Can do more harm than good

Support providers may inadvertently cause more harm than good if they make the person feel weak, needy, or inadequate; induce guilt or indebtedness; make the recipient feel like a burden; minimize or discount the recipient’s problem, goal, or accomplishment; blame the recipient for misfortunes or setbacks; or limit autonomy or self-determination.

Support providers may also be inattentive or disengaged, too involved, controlling, or otherwise out of touch with the needs of the recipient. Responsive assistance necessitates understanding how to help others and considering their perspectives, the resources (cognitive, emotional, and/or practical) required to provide successful support, and the motivation to accept the duty to support another.

Mutually caring connections help people thrive

Support recipients play an essential part in this process as well, either promoting or impeding the receiving of appropriate support. Reaching out to others (rather than withdrawing), expressing needs in a clear and direct manner, being receptive to others’ support efforts, regulating demands on others (rather than taxing their social network), expressing gratitude, engaging in healthy dependence and independence, building a dense relationship network, and providing reciprocal support are all ways that support recipients can cultivate effective support.

The researchers emphasize that accepting help when it is needed and being willing and competent to help others should foster the kinds of mutually caring connections that allow people to thrive.

Need for Future Research

Much of the existing literature focuses on how connections can aid in stressful situations, with most of this research focusing on self-reports of perceived social support. Future studies should (a) conduct additional assessments of real support behaviours enacted in dyadic interaction and the degree to which those actions are responsive to the recipient’s needs, (b) acknowledge that social support in adverse life circumstances can do much more than buffer against the negative effects of the stressor, (c) conduct more research on social support in non-adverse life circumstances, (d) work towards understanding mediating pathways and mechanisms of action (with thriving as the ultimate outcome), and (e) emphasize close relationships as being central to facilitating or hindering thriving.

The researchers anticipate that this paradigm will serve as a foundation for the development of relationship-based public health initiatives. Building close supportive relationships (e.g., within families or through mentors) and educating support providers to offer the type of responsive assistance that promotes growth and thriving may be the focus of interventions.

Story Source:

Materials provided by Society for Personality and Social Psychology. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal Reference:

B. C. Feeney, N. L. Collins. A New Look at Social Support: A Theoretical Perspective on Thriving Through Relationships. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 2014; DOI: 10.1177/1088868314544222

Page citation:

Society for Personality and Social Psychology. “Meaningful relationships can help you thrive.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 29 August 2014. <>.

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