Social Support in Couples: Marriage as a Resource in Times of Stress


Carolyn E. Cutrona

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  • SAGE Series on Close Relationships

    Series Editors

    Clyde Hendrick, Ph.D., and Susan S. Hendrick, Ph.D.

    In this series…


      by Susan S. Hendrick and Clyde Hendrick


      by Rodney M. Cate and Sally A. Lloyd


      by Rosemary Blieszner and Rebecca G. Adams


      by Lucia Albino Gilbert


      by Valerian J. Derlega, Sandra Metts, Sandra Petronio, and Stephen T. Margulis


      by Susan Sprecher and Kathleen McKinney


      by William R. Cupach and Sandra Metts


      by Steve Duck


      by Lawrence H. Ganong and Marilyn Coleman


      by Daniel J. Canary, William R. Cupach, and Susan J. Messman


      by Renee F. Lyons, Michael J. L. Sullivan, and Paul G. Ritvo with James C. Coyne


      by Beverley Fehr


      by Carolyn E. Cutrona


      by Judith Feeney and Patricia Noller


      by Barbara A. Winstead, Valarian J. Derlega, and Suzanna Rose


      by Janice M. Steil


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    To Dan, Gina, and Jonathan

    Series Editors' Introduction

    When we first began our work on love attitudes more than a decade ago, we did not know what to call our research area. In some ways, it represented an extension of earlier work in interpersonal attraction. Most of our scholarly models were psychologists (although sociologists had long been deeply involved in the areas of courtship and marriage), yet we sometimes felt as if our work had no professional “home.” That has all changed. Our research has not only a home but also an extended family, and the family is composed of relationship researchers. During the past decade, the discipline of close relationships (also called personal relationships and intimate relationships) has flourished.

    Two aspects of close relationships research should be noted. The first is its rapid growth, resulting in numerous books, journals, handbooks, book series, and professional organizations. As fast as the field grows, the demand for even more research and knowledge seems to be increasing. Questions about close, personal relationships still far exceed answers. The second noteworthy aspect of the new discipline of close relationships is its interdisciplinary nature. The field owes its vitality to scholars from communication, family studies, human development, psychology (clinical, counseling, developmental, social), sociology, and other disciplines such as nursing and social work. This interdisciplinary wellspring gives close relationships research its diversity and richness, qualities that we hope to achieve in the current series.

    The Sage Series on Close Relationships is designed to acquaint diverse readers with the most up-to-date information about various topics in close relationships theory and research. Each volume in the series covers a particular topic in one area of close relationships. Each book reviews the particular topic area, describes contemporary research in the area (including the authors' own work, where appropriate), and offers some suggestions for interesting research questions or real-world applications related to the topic. The volumes are designed to be appropriate for students and professionals in communication, family studies, psychology, sociology, and social work, among others. A basic assumption of the series is that the broad panorama of close relationships can best be portrayed by authors from multiple disciplines so that the series cannot be “captured” by any single disciplinary bias.

    Modeling this interdisciplinary emphasis within her career, Carolyn E. Cutrona, a clinical psychologist, has worked extensively in the interface of clinical and social psychology with her research on social support. In the current volume, she applies the extensive social support literature to married couples and partnered relationships. Nowhere is social support more important than in the long-term partnered relationships in which we spend much of our lives.

    Addressing issues such as the interplay between social support and conflict during a health crisis, Cutrona skillfully weaves case examples into her presentation of the most up-to-date research in the area. The result is an important and much-needed addition to the social support literature.

    Susan S.Hendrick Series Editors


    Since 1980, more than 4,000 journal articles have been published on social support. Most of these articles pose the same tired question over and over again: Does social support predict mental or physical health among individuals facing Stressor X? Stressor X has included childbirth, rape, war, diagnosis of AIDS, heart attack, caregiving for an Alzheimer's patient, unemployment, divorce, and almost any other taxing event one can imagine. Few of these studies have examined what actually goes on between people as they strive to deal together with life's problems. In this book, I have tried to delve into the everyday acts that communicate caring and concern in one specific relationship. I chose marriage because the most important sources of support are the people to whom we are closest. Although the studies I review deal almost exclusively with married couples, I imagine that many, if not all, of the findings apply equally well to other kinds of relationships characterized by commitment and emotional intimacy (e.g., lesbian and gay relationships, close friendships, some parent-child relationships).

    The book is appropriate for advanced undergraduate or graduate classes in the areas of close relationships, health psychology, and marital and family studies. It was also written for students and practitioners in the fields of social work, psychology, and marital and family counseling. For researchers, I hope that it provides a useful review of empirical research on the process and consequences of social support in the context of marriage.

    Chapter 1 provides an overview of definitions and conceptualizations of social support. A new definition of support that emphasizes responsivity to the other's needs is offered. This definition provides links to other topics in the study of close relationships, including interpersonal attachment. Whereas previous authors have linked social support primarily to the mental and physical health outcomes of individuals, Chapter 1 explores the potential benefits of frequent supportive exchanges to relationships. These include the growth of love, interdependence, trust, and commitment.

    In Chapter 2, gender-related differences in social support and coping are considered. Research on the differences between men and women regarding the benefits and costs they derive from the marital relationship is critically examined. More generally, problems that can arise when two people have stylistic differences in dealing with stress are considered—gender related or not.

    The step-by-step processes of eliciting, providing, and receiving social support are described in Chapter 3. Factors that influence the decision of whether or not to disclose a stressful event to one's partner are considered as well as factors that influence the decision of whether to provide support once the desire or need for support has been expressed. Factors that influence the perceived helpfulness of support-intended acts are explored.

    In Chapter 4, the interplay between supportive and destructive interactions is addressed. A reciprocal relationship is described between supportive and hostile behaviors. For example, supportive acts can prevent the spiraling of marital disagreements into intense destructive fights. On the other hand, disappointed support expectations can lead to resentment and hasten the deterioration of a relationship.

    Special problems arise in the mutual give-and-take of social support when one member of a couple has a disabling illness. In Chapter 5, issues that arise when couples face the chronic stress of serious medical illness are discussed. These issues include dealing with anger, maintaining equity, and the dangers of fostering excessive dependence.

    Chapter 6 offers suggestions for marital therapists on how to help people increase the quality and frequency of support that they provide to one another. Based on the research summarized in the first five chapters, specific techniques are described for helping partners improve their skills in communicating support to one another, staying emotionally close during crises, and avoiding the pitfalls of excessive dependency.

    A research agenda for the future is outlined in Chapter 7. Basic research is needed on how social support fits into the array of close relationship constructs. Longitudinal studies are needed to trace the course of marriages that begin with high versus low levels of support. There is a particular need for observational research to identify the support strategies associated with high versus low levels of marital satisfaction and for tightly controlled support intervention studies.

    I have tried to provide a fresh perspective on social support and to suggest new ways that support might influence well-being. Supportive acts have remarkable power, especially when offered by someone we love.

    Carolyn E.Cutrona


    I would like to acknowledge with sincere thanks the efforts of Nancy Rosenquist, who provided outstanding secretarial assistance in the preparation of this manuscript. In addition, I would like to thank Kari Dahlin, without whom I would never have finished the reference list.

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    About the Author

    Carolyn E. Cutrona is a Professor in the Department of Psychology at Iowa State University. She also has an appointment at the Center for Family Research in Rural Mental Health at Iowa State. Prior to her present position, she was on the faculty at the University of Iowa for 12 years. A licensed clinical psychologist, she has taught graduate and undergraduate courses on depression, stress and coping, and marital and family therapy. She is currently a principal investigator on a large-scale collaborative longitudinal study of rural families that examines the role of community variables, network characteristics, social support, personal characteristics, and other factors in the prediction of mental health among both parents and children. She has studied social support processes in a number of stressed populations, including adolescent mothers, caregivers for Alzheimer's patients, spouses of cancer patients, and the elderly. She has published extensively in clinical psychology, social psychology, and interdisciplinary journals. She is a past Associate Editor of the Personality Processes and Individual Differences Section of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Her current interests include social support in marriage and families, observational methods for studying social support, and support processes in rural populations.

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