Researchers have known for decades that people with few friends and family are more likely to get sick than people who have big and supportive social networks. Most research, though, has focused on the beneficial aspects of receiving social support.
Now, a new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 88, No. 8) suggests that for many women, but not for men, it's also important to give support in close relationships.
Psychologist Ari Väänänen, PhD, of the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, and his colleagues conducted an 11-year study of more than 700 men and women, all municipal employees in the town of Raisio, Finland.
Participants completed two sets of questionnaires, one in 1990 and another in 1993, about their health status, health risk behaviors and social-support networks. The social-support questionnaire required participants to list up to 10 people who were closest to them, and then indicate whether in each relationship they gave more support than they received, received more support than they gave, or gave and received support equally.
Then, from 1993 to 2001, the researchers tracked the number of physician-approved medical work absences taken by each employee. They found that women who felt underbenefited--that is, who gave more support than they received--took about 50 percent less sick leave than women who felt overbenefited, even when the researchers controlled for other health risk variables. The pattern for men was reversed: Men who felt overbenefited took about 40 percent less sick leave than those who felt underbenefited.
However, Väänänen points out that the study dealt only with perceived support; there was no way to verify that the underbenefited women were actually giving more support than they received. But in this case, the perception was what mattered, he says.
There are many possible explanations for the findings, Väänänen says. One comes from social-equity theory. "Social-equity theory says that people try to balance efforts and rewards in their relationships," Väänänen explains. So women who feel they are getting more out of their relationship than they put in may feel uneasy about the situation, he theorizes. Väänänen and his colleagues aren't sure, though, why this isn't the case for most men.
"It could be possible that women are more expected to act as support providers in intimate relationships, and it's an especially valued role in Western societies, so feeling that they are fulfilling it could contribute to women's well-being," he says.
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