Social Support and Sibling Relationships in Middle Adulthood
Contact: Dr. Sue Boland, Psychology Department,
Lock Haven University
Presented at the meeting of the Eastern Psychological Association, Philadelphia, PA, 2007
Siblings are widely recognized as potential sources of support (Campbell, Connidis, & Davies, 1999), but the type and level of support provided by and to siblings is not well established (Reidmann & White, 1996). The present study focused on perceived emotional and instrumental support. Emotional support includes behaviors that communicate acceptance and caring for a person. Instrumental support provides practical assistance (Wills & Shinar, 2000).
Midlife sibling relationships are more likely to serve as sources of emotional support than of instrumental support. Thus, relationship satisfaction is expected to be more strongly linked to emotional than instrumental support. The ability to provide practical support to siblings may be affected by factors such as marital and parental status and geographic distance (Campbell, et al.,1999; White, 2001).
Gender may also relate to the nature of the sibling relationship. Many researchers find a closer bond with sisters than with brothers (Miner & Uhlenberg, 1997). There is also some evidence that same-sex sibships are closer than mixed-sex sibships (Connidis & Campbell 1995).
The present study investigated sibling support both given and received, and relationship satisfaction. Factors thought to be related to support such as gender, parental and marital status, and geographic proximity were also measured.
Eighty-three women and 17 men, aged 40-65 (M = 50.47, SD = 6.19) with at least one living sibling participated.
Participants identified a focal sibling who either gave or received the most support. All questions were answered in regard to this sibling. The focal sibling did not take part in the study.
Participants completed scales assessing emotional support and instrumental support given to and received from the focal sibling (Xu & Burleson, 2001). Each scale was 7-items in length with a 1 to 5 response scale (1 = no support given or received; 5 = very much support given or received).
Hendricks’s Relationship Assessment Scale (1988), a 7-item measure of relationship satisfaction was adapted for use for sibships. Participants rated their level of satisfaction on a 1 to 5 scale (low – high).
Results and Discussion
Emotional and Instrumental Support
Overall, participants reported fairly high levels of emotional support given (M = 3.69) and received (M = 3.44). Levels of instrumental support given (M = 2.51) and received (M = 2.36) were somewhat lower.
Women (M = 3.83, SD = 0.91) reported giving more emotional support than did men (M = 3.10, SD = 0.95), F(1, 51) = 6.37, p < .05. Participants also reported receiving more emotional support from sisters (M = 3.59, SD = 0.97) than from brothers (M = 3.14, SD = 1.11), F(1, 51) = 6.40, p < .05. This is consistent with research that siblings are more emotionally connected with sisters, but because males were under-represented in the sample, this conclusion should be treated with caution.
Participants living one hour or less from their sibling gave (M = 2.83, SD = 0.97) and received (M = 2.69, SD =1.02) more instrumental support than did participants who had to travel an hour or more gave (M = 2.22, SD = 0.79) or received (M = 2.08, SD = 0.77), F(4, 92) 6.73, p < .001.
The interaction between parental and marital status was significant for support, F(4, 48) = 3.12, p < .05). Means are presented in Table 1. Single parents reported giving and receiving the lowest level of emotional support, but receiving the highest level of instrumental support. The demands of the single parenthood may leave few resources left to share with siblings, but increase need for instrumental support.
Participants who were unmarried with no children provided the most instrumental support to their siblings. Lack of other relationship commitments may allow time and resources to be directed towards giving practical aid to siblings. Married participants with no children reported receiving high levels of emotional support.
Relationship Satisfaction and Support
A regression analysis with simultaneous entry used emotional and instrumental support to predict relationship satisfaction, (R2 = .78, p <.001). As expected, emotional support received was a significant predictor of relationship satisfaction (p < .001). Emotional support given and instrumental support given or received were not significant predictors. The results for instrumental support are not surprising as most researchers find that midlife sibling relationships provide more emotional support than instrumental support (Campbell, et al., 1997; White, 2001). It was expected, however, that emotional support given would be related to satisfaction as reciprocity is an important factor influencing relationship satisfaction (Acitelli, 1996).
Siblings appear to provide much emotional support during mid-life and to a lesser extent, instrumental aid. Sisters appear to be at the heart of many sibling relationships, giving and receiving more emotional support than do brothers. Some support seems contingent upon a sibling’s circumstances. For example, single parents receive more practical assistance from siblings, but less emotional support than married or childless siblings. Receiving higher levels of emotional support predicted higher relationship satisfaction. Future research should explore the circumstances when siblings call on each other for support rather than on other potential sources of support such as spouses or friends.
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Means of Support Given and Received as a Function of Participant Marital and Parental Status
Note: *p < .05, ** p < .0.
Married = married or with domestic partner.
Unmarried = never married, widowed, divorced, separated