Lean on Me in Good Times, But Not in Bad: Supporting a Friend

Friends and loved ones attribute the strength of their relationships to many things. Liking the same things, sharing confidences, and experiencing similar life events are some of the factors that bond people in friendship. Emotional support is another key component of a close friendship. People rely on their friends to provide positive reactions when good things happen, and for emotional support during stressful times. But is it the perception of emotional support — the idea of believing a friend will be there in bad times — or the actual enacted support that produces positive feelings and strengthens bonds? Shelly L. Gable of the University of California Santa Barbara recently led a series of studies examining that question. Gable assessed how enacted support during positive events differed from enacted support during negative events. Additionally, she assessed how positive support influenced perceptions of future support during negative events.

Gable found that the participants were more receptive to support during positive times than during negative times. Specifically, individuals who experience stress may have expectations of how a friend should support them. Usually under such conditions, the friend is unaware of what is expected and cannot offer the type of emotional support that is needed. This can lead to anger and resentment on the part of the friend in need and the supporter, resulting in a strained relationship. However, when a friend offers support during a positive time, the receiver perceives that the same person will be available during difficult times, and the result is a higher level of friendship commitment and satisfaction. “In relationships, when close others are responsive to our needs consistently during the ups of daily life, it lays a solid foundation of belief in their accessibility during the down times,” Gable said.

Gable, S. L., Gosnell, C. L., Maisel, N. C., Strachman, A. (2012). Safely testing the alarm: Close others’ responses to personal positive events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0029488

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  • Steve

    August 29th, 2012 at 4:02 AM

    This is what I feel like my wife does to me. She always says she needs/wants me to support her, but then when there is something stressful that comes up in her life that’s when she pushes me away and acts like she gets all made at me. I am left wondering what in the world I did wrong and what I can do to make it better. But then she has to give me the silent treatment for days over the perceived slight. And I have to tell you that’s a real turn off.

  • Tobias

    August 29th, 2012 at 2:55 PM

    Now what good is a friend who is not willing to stick with you through thick and thin? What kind of a relationship is that?

    from where I stand, a friend is going to be there for you when the going gets tough and when there are good times to be had. That’s how I treat my friends and that’s how I expect them to treat me.

    It’s easy to be with someone when things are good, but you know that it’s the people who are with you when things get hard that are going to be your true friends that you can always depend on.

    I have enough people at work and in other parts of my life who are going to let me down. I don’t need to have “friends” who are going to treat me that same way.

  • b thomas

    August 29th, 2012 at 5:31 PM

    well well well…expecting people to stand by you in tough times because they share your happiness? if this is what you believe then I am really sorry but you might actually end up feeling worse in those tough times. why? because a vast majority of ‘friends’ do not stick when times are tough! I can say this from experience as well as my observation of many decades.

    i’m sure there are others that share this view.i think the best approach would be to identify and keep the few good friends you can find but even then do not have high hopes of help if testing times were to come!

  • irish queen

    September 2nd, 2012 at 7:07 PM

    I absolutely agree. With the passing of two brothers in one year, I lost
    most of what I ‘thought’ were friends. I rarely ask for help, but have had to in the past year. Absolutely NO ONE has come thru for me, even tho’ I’m the first person to offer/give help when others ask.
    I keep going back to the saying my mother raised me on: ” If you can count your friends on one hand, you are very rich.” This is more true than ever. I’ve beome a stronger person as a result of others letting me down; however, it WOULD be nice once in awhile to have someone’s ear, or other assistance when needed, as I age.

    I do believe the real reason everyone scatters and is not there for support is that they just don’t know what to do. Good times, yeah, everyone joins the party…trauma, sadness , loss, financial, or other matters are things most people don’t want to have to address; probably for fear they may face the same thing sometime!


    August 30th, 2012 at 12:54 AM

    I’m blessed with friends that have stood the test and it really helps to have such friends in time of need.While there are always those fake friends they are not difficult to spot and real friends can be a source of strength in times of need and great company in the good times.you just need to look for the good people out there not everybody is out to hurt you!

  • Brooke

    August 30th, 2012 at 4:17 AM

    Now why am I going to be more receptive to feedback when I am in a more positve state of mind.
    Duh, if I need it the most when I am down, what the heck am I thinking? We, and I include myself in this statement, have the most backward way of thinking sometimes.

  • TC

    August 30th, 2012 at 12:20 PM

    “is it the perception of emotional support — the idea of believing a friend will be there in bad times — or the actual enacted support that produces positive feelings and strengthens bonds?”

    I think it is a bit of both but I would lean slightly towards the former.As humans we have this hope that things will go our way,that our friend will stand by us.Even though the person may not eventually turn out to be what we thought of him the initial expectation is always there.

    And that unfortunately can further weaken us in the longer run.To not expect and still get help is great.To not expect help and not have it is alright.But to expect help and not get can only be a downer.

  • Sandi

    October 2nd, 2012 at 5:06 PM

    I have been going through a 3 year divorce! My husband is dragging this out so I will be penniless. I have lost pretty much every one including my sister. I have always been there for every one else! When my mother died my sister had Anxiety attacks! Almost everyday for at least 3 years and then here and there after they became less! Through this divorce my sister has never been there for me. Never came to visit me like I did for her. It hurt so bad! She is a control freak! It’s all about her. So she put me on a guilt trip one day and I hung up on her! Boy did that feel great. I wrote her a 3 pg. letter and sat her down and read it to her! I told her I was married for 40 yrs. and then I filed for divorce because my husband was cheating on me! I said you couldn’t even come over and be that ear or shoulder i needed. I told her I really needed her and I helped her and never turned my back on her! Her answer knowing what I’ve been put through between my husband and the courts, she didnt feel comfortable in my house. Wow! You think you know someone, that hurt so bad. So I told her I loved her but if she wasn’t going to treat me as an equal and stop controlling me, then I guess we will not have a relationship! That was 4 months ago! Not a word or a call from her! I have had to become shall I say “Not a very nice person as I had always been!” I don’t have room in my life for users and abusers. So I have lost a lot of people but the stress is gone so really what did I lose? It’s a shame but I have 2 boys and only the one son has stood by me these past 3 yrs. Thank God for him because other then a few friends I would have had to deal with this divorce on my own. My advice to anyone going through a Divorce, try to get it over as soon as possible! I have lost 3 yrs. of my life all because I the one who did everything for my husband for 40 yrs. and have been treated like dirt through the court visits etc. I tried to be fair and he’s taking me to the cleaners! Think about yourself and what’s good for you and don’t be the kind wonderful person because your just thrown away like a piece of paper! Too bad I didn’t stick up for myself before this but I will from now on! Question everything and learn to stand on your own two feet! It feels good but in the same respect, I’ve lost a lot to get here! Now if I could get my Divorce I’d really be happy! Take care of your needs because other than a few good people no one will do the same for you!

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