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How Unbalanced Relationships Affect Your Brain

by Katie Moritz
May 24, 2017 | Health

Have a friend who calls you up every time they have a breakup but is nowhere to be found when you need moral support? Or a sibling you bail out constantly but is suspiciously busy every time you could use their help?

Not only is this kind of dynamic extremely annoying, it could be detrimental to your mental health.

Giving and receiving social support needs to be kept in balance, according to a study led by University of Southern California researcher Diana Wang. If that balance is off, there can be psychological effects.

That also goes for people who receive help but don't give it, the opposite of the scenarios mentioned above. They can suffer from the same effects.

A link to anxiety

Wang and her research team looked at 1,200 responses to a survey about the support the participants give to and receive from partners, family and friends. The researchers found that the study participants who reported an imbalance in support in either direction also reported higher levels of stress and symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Unbalanced Relationships pbs rewire

As you might expect, "underbenefitting"—giving more than you're getting—from a relationship seems to be more detrimental than "overbenefitting"—getting more than you're giving, the study suggests. But being in either position can be a stressor.

Only platonic friendships are a little different. Overbenefitting from a friendship isn't emotionally distressing, the results suggest. The same can't be said of overbenefitting from a romantic or familial relationship—feeling like you're not bringing anything to these types of relationships can be very stressful.

That might be because it's easier to end a relationship with a friend than a partner or family member when the dynamic doesn't make you feel good.

"It is possible that individuals are more likely to end friendships in which they received unsolicited support that contribute to over-benefiting," the researchers wrote in their paper. "Or, it is possible that over-benefiting does not elicit distress, because it is more normative to receive more support from friends."

Young adults are at a greater risk

Unbalanced relationships are a part of life. Luckily, as we get older we grow more able to cope with these frustrating dynamics, Wang's research suggests.

Older adults didn't report feeling as distressed about relationship imbalances, probably because their "support banks," as Wang called them, are more full. They've lived longer and can remember times when they gave or received a lot of emotional energy, looking at the big picture rather than one irritating situation.

Unbalanced Relationships pbs rewire

"One hypothesis may be that older adults are less distressed with either form of imbalance because they can rationalize that they have a history of 'support payments' to or from their network members that alleviate the imbalance," Wang said to USC.

Wang is currently studying if remembering times you gave or received support when you're stressed can help you cope with the stress in a healthier way.

Have a relationship that's off balance and want to talk about it with that person? Avoid a heated argument by thinking about the future.

Katie Moritz
Katie Moritz was Rewire's senior editor from 2016-2020. She is a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores and pho. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.
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