The Different Types of Social Support

Social support comes in several categories; learn the best way to support a loved one, and you'll both feel less stress!.

Every time you reach for the phone when you’ve had a bad day, accept help when you’re overwhelmed, or even search online to get information from someone on how to handle a stressor, you’re demonstrating that you know what research has repeatedly shown: that different types of social support can really help with stress!

However, all types of social support don’t affect us the same—a long talk with an empathic friend feels different from a talk with someone who has plenty of advice to offer, and those types of social support feel different from the type of support a coach or therapist might offer. Is there a best type of social support? And how do the different types of social support affect us?

Four Types of Social Support

While there are many different ways that people can support one another, much research has been done on the effects of four distinct types of social support:

Emotional Support

This type of support often involves physical comfort such as hugs or pats on the back, as well as listening and empathizing. With emotional support, a friend or spouse might give you a big hug and listen to your problems, letting you know that they’ve felt the same way, too.

Esteem Support

This type of social support is shown in expressions of confidence or encouragement. Someone offering esteem support might point out the strengths you’re forgetting you have, or just let you know that they believe in you. Life coaches and many therapists offer this type of support to let their clients know that they believe in them; this often leads to clients believing in themselves more.

Informational Support

Those offering informational support do so in the form of advice-giving, or in gathering and sharing information that can help people know of potential next steps that may work well.

Tangible Support

Tangible support includes taking on responsibilities for someone else so they can deal with a problem or in other ways taking an active stance to help someone manage a problem they’re experiencing. Someone who offers you tangible support may bring you dinner when you’re sick, help you brainstorm solutions (rather than telling you what you should do, as with informational support), or in other ways help you actively deal with the issue at hand.

Which Types Work Best?

All of these types of social support ‘work’, but not with everybody, and not in the same ways. Different people have preferences for a certain type or a combination or a few types of social support.

It’s important to note, however, that the wrong type of support can actually have a detrimental effect, so it helps to know what type of social support is needed in each situation. Here’s some of what the research has found:

  • You really can have too much support! One study, which involved 103 husbands and wives who completed surveys five times over their first five years of marriage, looked at how support was provided and measured marital satisfaction. It found that too much informational support (usually in the form of unsolicited advice) can actually be worse than no support at all. (I found it reassuring, however, that you can’t give too much esteem support; no amount of esteem support is ‘too much’, as long as it’s genuine.)
  • Too little support is more common than too much. The same study found that about two-thirds of men and at least 80% of women found themselves receiving too little support, whereas just one-third of men and women said that they were receiving more support than they wanted.
  • Another study, which examined 235 newlyweds, found that both partners are happier if the husband gets the types of social support he needs most. For women, it was enough that the husband was just trying to offer support, even if he didn’t always offer the right kind.

The important thing to remember is that there are different types of social support and that you may need to ask for the specific type you need, especially in marriage. "The idea that simply being more supportive is better for your marriage is a myth," says Erika Lawrence, associate professor of psychology in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and lead researcher in these studies.

"Often husbands and wives think, "If my partner really knows me and loves me, he or she will know I'm upset and will know how to help me." However, that's not the best way to approach your marriage. Your partner shouldn't have to be a mind reader. Couples will be happier if they learn how to say, 'This is how I'm feeling, and this is how you can help me.'"

Don’t assume that you know what type of support your spouse, friends or relatives crave; it’s always best to check-in with people to see if the support you’re offering is hitting the mark.

If not, it’s important to open up a discussion to see what types of social support are needed here. And be aware of what types of support feel the best for you, so you can communicate this to your loved ones as well. It’s not fair to expect people to read your mind when it comes to social support—and it’s not effective either. Just ask for what you need.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Brock RL, Lawrence E. Too much of a good thing: underprovision versus overprovision of partner support. J Fam Psychol. 2009;23(2):181-92. doi:10.1037/a0015402

  3. Sullivan KT, Pasch LA, Eldridge KA, Bradbury TN. Social support in marriage: translating research into practical applications for cliniciansThe Family Journal. 6(4);263–271. doi:10.1177/1066480798064002

By Elizabeth Scott, PhD
Elizabeth Scott, PhD is an author, workshop leader, educator, and award-winning blogger on stress management, positive psychology, relationships, and emotional wellbeing.