Relationship Types and Issues
• What role do friends play across adulthood?
• What characterizes love relationships? How do they vary across cultures?
• What are abusive relationships? What characterizes elder abuse, neglect, and exploitation?
amal and Kahlid have known each other all their lives. They grew up together in New York, attended the same schools, and even married sisters. Their business careers took them in different directions, but they and their families always got together on major holidays. Now as older men, they feel a special bond; many of their other friends have died.
Jamal and Kahlid remind us that some of the most important people in our lives are our friends. They are often the people to whom we are closest, and are there when we need someone to lean on. Sometimes friendships turn into something more. Love blossoms, and relationships become more
intimate and intense. In this section, we examine friendships and love relationships in adulthood and see why and how they are central to our lives.
What is an adult friend? Someone who is there when you need to share? Someone not afraid to tell you the truth? Someone to have fun with? Friends, of course, are all of these and more. Researchers define friendship as a mutual relationship in which those involved influence one another’s behaviors and beliefs, and define friendship quality as the satisfaction derived from the relationship (Flynn, 2007).
Friends are a source of support throughout adulthood (Arnett, 2007). Friendships are predominantly based on feelings and are grounded in reciprocity and choice. Friendships are different from love relationships in that they are less emotionally intense and involve less sexual energy or
contact (Rose & Zand, 2000). Having good friendships helps boost self-esteem (Bagwell et al., 2005). Friendships also help us become socialized into new roles throughout adulthood.
Friendship in Adulthood. From a developmental perspective, adult friendships can be viewed as having identifiable stages (Levinger, 1980, 1983): Acquaintanceship, Buildup, Continuation, Deterioration, and Ending. This ABCDE model describes not only the stages of friendships but also the processes by which they change. For example, whether a friendship will develop from Acquaintanceship to Buildup depends on where the individuals fall on several dimensions, such as the basis of the attraction, what each person knows about the other, how good the communication is between the partners, the perceived importance of the friendship, and so on. Although many friendships reach the Deterioration stage, whether a friendship ultimately ends depends heavily on the availability of alternative relationships. If new potential friends appear, old friendships may end; if not, they may continue even though they may no longer be considered important by either person.
Longitudinal research shows how friendships change across adulthood, sometimes in ways that are predictable and sometimes not. For example, as you probably have experienced, life transitions (e. g., going away to college, getting married) usually result in fewer friends and less contact with the friends you keep (Flynn, 2007). People tend to have more friends and acquaintances during young adulthood than at any subsequent period (Sherman, de Vries, & Lansford, 2000). Friendships are important throughout adulthood, in part because a person’s life satisfaction is strongly related to the quantity and quality of contacts with friends. College students who have strong friendship networks adjust better to stressful life events (Brissette, Scheier, & Carver, 2002) and have better self-esteem (Bagwell et al., 2005).
The importance of maintaining contacts with friends cuts across ethnic lines as well. Additionally, people who have friendships that cross ethnic groups have more positive attitudes toward people with different backgrounds (Aberson, Shoemaker, &
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Tomolillo, 2004). Thus, regardless of one’s background, friendships play a major role in determining how much we enjoy life.
The quality of late-life friendships is particularly important (Rawlins, 2004). Having at least one very close friend or confidant provides a buffer against the losses of roles and status that accompany old age, such as retirement or the death of a loved one, and can increase people’s happiness and self-esteem (Rawlins, 2004; Sherman, de Vries, & Lansford,
2000) . Patterns of friendship among older adults tend to mirror those in young adulthood (Rawlins,
2004) . That is, older women have more numerous and more intimate friendships than older men do. As noted previously, these differences help explain why women are in a better position to deal with the stresses of life. Men’s friendships, like women’s, evolve over time and become important sources of support in late life (Adams & Ueno, 2006).
Researchers have uncovered three broad themes that underlie adult friendships (de Vries, 1996):
• The most frequently mentioned dimension represents the affective or emotional basis of friendship. This dimension refers to self-disclosure and expressions of intimacy, appreciation, affection, and support, all of which are based on trust, loyalty, and commitment.
• A second theme reflects the shared or communal nature of friendship, in which friends participate in or support activities of mutual interest.
• The third dimension represents sociability and compatibility; our friends keep us entertained and are sources of amusement, fun, and recreation.
These three dimensions are found in friendships among adults of all ages (de Vries, 1996). They characterize both traditional (e. g., face-to-face) and new forms (e. g., online) of friendships (Ridings & Gefen, 2004).
In the case of online friendships, trust develops on the basis of four sources: (1) reputation, whether grounded in an anonymous avatar or screen name or in the person’s actual offline identity; (2) performance, or what users do online, due to the scope for enhanced performance in online communication, especially in simulated environments; (3) precommitment, through personal self-disclosure, which in turn encourages a “leap of faith” and reciprocal
self-disclosure; and (4) situational factors, especially the premium placed on intimacy and the relationship in contemporary societies (Henderson & Gilding, 2004). Online environments are more conducive to people who are lonely, providing an opportunity to meet others in an initially more anonymous interaction in which social interaction and intimacy levels can be carefully controlled (Morahan-Martin & Schumacher, 2003). This relative anonymity provides a supportive context for the subsequent development of friendships online.
Perceptions of friendship vary. What it takes for one person to call someone a “friend” may not be what it takes for another. Surprisingly little research has examined the role of people’s definitions of friendship, especially in comparing definitions across cultures. Adams and colleagues’ (2000) study comparing older adults’ definitions of friendship in Greensboro, North Carolina, and Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, is one of the best. They found that psychological and sociocultural forces result in marked differences in how people define friendship. In Vancouver, people based their definitions mostly on the affective (feeling) and cognitive processes of friendship (what they think about relationships), whereas in Greensboro people relied more on behavioral, relational quality (what they actually do for others) and being like themselves (solidarity and homogeneity) aspects. Life-cycle forces also played a role, in that middle-aged and young-old participants in both cities were less likely than middle-old and old-old participants to use relational quality and solidarity and homogeneity as part of their definitions. So although people around the world all have friendships, how they define them differs.
One special type of friendship exists with one’s siblings. Although little research has focused on the development and maintenance of sibling friendships across adulthood, we know that sibling relationships play an important role in young adulthood (Schulte, 2006) and that the importance of these relationships varies with age. As you can see in Figure 11.1, women place more importance on sibling ties across adulthood than do men; however, for both the strength of these ties is greatest in
15 20 25 30 35 40 45 50 55 60 65 70 75 80 85
Figure 11.1 Strength of sibling ties across adulthood.
Source: From Schmeeckle, M., Giarusso, R., & Wang, Q. (1998, November). When being a brother or sister is important to one’s identity: Life stage and gender differences. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Gerontological Society, Philadelphia.
adolescence and late life (Schmeeckle, Giarusso, & Wang, 1998).
Developmental Aspects of Friendships and Socio e-motional Selectivity. Why are friends so important to older adults? Some researchers believe that one reason may be older adults’ concerns about becoming burdens to their families (Roberto & Scott, 1986). As a result, they help their friends foster independence. This reciprocity is a crucial aspect of friendship in later life because it allows the paying back of indebtedness over time. Also important is that friends are fun for people of all ages (Cavanaugh, 1999b).
Older adults tend to have fewer relationships with people in general and to develop fewer new relationships than people do in midlife and particularly in young adulthood (Carstensen, Isaacowitz, & Charles, 1999). For many years, researchers tended to view this phenomenon as merely a reflection of the loss of relationships in late life through death and other means. However, Carstensen and colleagues (Carstensen et al., 1999; Carstensen, Mikels, & Mather, 2006) have shown that the changes in social behavior seen in late life reflect a much more complicated and important process. They propose
a life-span theory of socioemotional selectivity,
which argues that social contact is motivated by a variety of goals, including information seeking, selfconcept, and emotional regulation.
Each of these goals is differentially salient at different points of the adult life span and results in very different social behaviors. For example, when information seeking is the goal, such as when a person is exploring the world, trying to figure out how he or she fits, what others are like, and so forth, meeting many new people is an essential part of the process. However, when emotional regulation is the goal, people tend to become highly selective in their choice of social partners and nearly always prefer people who are familiar to them.
Carstensen and colleagues (Carstensen et al., 1999, 2006) believe that information seeking is the predominant goal for young adults, that emotional regulation is the major goal for older people, and that both goals are in balance in midlife. Their research supports this view; people become increasingly selective in whom they choose to have contact with. Additionally, Magai (2008) summarizes several approaches to emotional development across adulthood and concludes that people orient more toward emotional aspects of life and personal relationships as they grow older and that emotional expression and experience become more complex and nuanced. Carstensen’s theory provides a more complete explanation of why older adults tend not to replace, to any great extent, the relationships they lose: Older adults are more selective and have fewer opportunities to make new friends, especially in view of the emotional bonds involved in friendships.
With time, older adults begin to lose members of their friendship network, usually through death. Rook (2000) proposes that older adults compensate for this loss through three strategies: forming new ties, redefining the need for friends, or developing alternative nonsocial activities. Although not always successful, these strategies reflect the need to address an important loss in people’s lives.
Men’s, Women’s, and Cross-Sex Friendships. Men’s and women’s friendships tend to differ in adulthood, reflecting continuity in the learned behaviors
406 CHAPTER 11 from childhood (Fehr, 1996; Sherman et al., 2000). Women tend to base their friendships on more intimate and emotional sharing and use friendship as a means to confide in others. For women, getting together with friends often takes the form of getting together to discuss personal matters. Confiding in others is a basis of women’s friendships. In contrast, men tend to base friendships on shared activities or interests. They are more likely to go bowling or fishing or to talk sports with their friends. For men, confiding in others is inconsistent with the need to compete; this may be one reason men are reluctant to do so (Cutrona, 1996). Rather, competition often is a part of men’s friendships, as evidenced in basketball games with friends. However, the competition usually is set up so that the social interaction is the most important element, not who wins or loses (Rawlins, 1992). Men’s friendships usually are less intimate than women’s, no matter how one defines intimacy (Fehr, 1996).
Women tend to have more close relationships than do men. Although you may think this puts women at an advantage, research shows that this is not always the case. Sometimes friends can get on people’s nerves or make high demands. When these things happen, women tend to be less happy even when they have lots of friends (Antonucci, Akiyama, & Lansford, 1998).
Why are women’s friendships typically more intimate than men’s? Compared to men, women have much more experience with such intimate sharing from early childhood, and they are more comfortable with vulnerability. Social pressure on men to be brave and strong may actually inhibit their ability to form close friendships (Rawlins, 1992).
What about friendships between men and women? These friendships have a beneficial effect, especially for men (Piquet, 2007). Cross-sex friendships tend to help men have lower levels of dating anxiety and to have higher capacity for intimacy. Interestingly, such benefits are not found clearly for women. These patterns hold across ethnic groups, too. But cross-sex friendships also can prove t roublesome due to misperceptions. For example, some research shows that men tend to overperceive and women tend to underperceive their friends’ sexual interest in them (Koenig, Kirkpatrick, & Ketelaar, 2007). Maintaining cross-sex friendships once individuals enter into exclusive dating relationships, marriage, or committed relationships is very difficult, and often results in one partner feeling jealous (Williams, 2005).