We often think that the ideal social relationships are perfectly in balance –partners should be each other’s equals. However, psychologist Ari Väänänen has demonstrated that unequal relationships are sometimes happier and healthier. For women in particular, it’s better to give support in a relationship than to receive it. Väänänen will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 20 May 2010.
People with very intimate relationships are usually healthier and happier than people without a relationship or with a less strong relationship. Researcher Ari Väänänen wanted to know why, and charted which aspects of relationships determine health and happiness. He analysed the data on social support, reciprocity and health of tens of thousands of Finnish men and women from the working population.
The research revealed that a lack of support from the partner and a one-sided social network can contribute to health problems. Women who experience a lack of support from their partner have 1.3 times more chance of developing psychological problems than women who experience a lot of support from their partner. The influence of the support from family members and other connections is less clear and less long-lasting than that of the partner.
What is more remarkable is that the women who provide support within their intimate relationship often experience better health, whereas women who receive more support within their intimate relationship or gradually move into that role run the risk of developing health problems. Väänänen: ‘We used to think that it was good to receive just as much support as we give, but that does not seem to be the case.’ Men appear to be less affected in this regard – the amount of support has a less clear effect on their health.
For women in particular, therefore, giving appears to be a better strategy in a relationship than taking. The research thus confirms ancient insights. Väänänen: ‘What many people do not realise, however, is that this effect also has a predictive value. Someone who currently gives more support than they receive will also have a reduced chance of developing health problems in the future.’ Väänänen has drawn this conclusion based on research on Finnish civil servants over a period of nine years.
So are men doing women a favour by allowing themselves to be cosseted and not lifting a finger to help in the home? No, Väänänen warns against such simplistic conclusions. ‘In the research the men and women gave and received equal amounts of support. Men and women react differently to it; women turn out to profit more from giving support than men. However, we must not forget that receiving support is also an important health predictor for women.’
Ari Väänänen conducted his research at the University of Groningen and the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, where he is currently a senior researcher. He will be awarded a PhD by the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences. His supervisors were Prof. A.P. Buunk, Prof. J. Vahtera and Prof. M. Kivimäki. The title of Väänänen’s thesis is Source of support, balance of support and health: A gender-focussed cohort study from Finland.
Contact: Ari Väänänen, tel. +358304742435, ari.vaananen ttl.fi
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