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The Costs and Benefits of Social Support in Families


Robertson, Elizabeth B.; Elder, Glen H., Jr.; Skinner, Martie L.; & Conger, Rand D. (1991). The Costs and Benefits of Social Support in Families. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 53, 403-416.


Family members frequently seek the social support of relatives and friends as they try to cope with the strain of economic pressure. External support can reduce the distress of individuals, but it may also produce costs for the persons involved. These contrasting effects—a much-neglected problem in the behavioral sciences—may be operating in families with unstably employed husbands whose spouses seek emotional support outside the immediate family. In theory, for example, the wife's support from external sources ameliorates her distress but it can also affirm the husband's sense of failure as a breadwinner and evoke more negatively on his part in family relationships. Using survey and observational data on families in the rural Midwest, this study finds support for this scenario. In families headed by a man with an unstable work history, wife's support from relatives and friends is positively associated with husband's negativity toward spouse. By comparison, this type of wife support in stable work families is inversely associated with husband's negativity. Moreover, husband's negativity toward wife and punitive parenting covary, but this is especially true when the husband is unstably employed. Clearly, the ecology and meaning of social support deserve more attention in relation to family dynamics than they have received to date.


Reference Type

Journal Article

Year Published


Journal Title

Journal of Marriage and the Family


Robertson, Elizabeth B.
Elder, Glen H., Jr.
Skinner, Martie L.
Conger, Rand D.