Friendships are important relationships in all cultures and throughout the lifespan. Friendships are characterized by several defining features: (1) they are dyadic relationships, (2) there is a reciprocated, affective bond, (3) they are voluntary relationships, (4) they are typically egalitarian in nature, and (5) almost all friendships entail shared activities and companionship. Friendships often meet other functions as well, such as serving as a source of support and providing opportunities for self-disclosure and intimacy.
These features differentiate friendships from several related phenomena. The fact that friendships are dyadic relationships distinguishes them from cliques or groups of peers. (Of course, individuals often have friendships with several members of their cliques). Similarly, having friendships is not the same as being popular. Individuals who are unpopular may still have friendships; and less commonly, a popular person may not have a close friendship. The reciprocal nature of friendship differentiates actual friendships from relationships in which one person thinks or wishes it were a friendship. The criterion of a strong affective bond distinguishes friendships from acquaintanceships. Friends often provide individuals with more emotional and functional support than acquaintances. Friendships typically entail more cooperation, positive social interactions, and affective responsivity than acquaintanceships. Rates of conflict, however, do not differ between friends and acquaintances. Finally, romantic relationships are considered a special form of friendship, and in fact, romantic partners are commonly seen as one’s best friend.
Who become friends? Two key predictors of friendship formation are proximity and similarity. Friends usually live near one another, attend the same school, or work nearby each other. Proximity means that individuals will have relatively frequent opportunities to interact with each other and to develop a friendship. In addition, contrary to the adage “opposites attract,” friends usually share a number of similarities. For example, they tend to be of the same age, gender, socioeconomic and ethnic background. Moreover, friends commonly share interests and tend to develop more similar interests and values over the course of being friends. Individuals who are dissimilar are less likely to remain friends than those who are similar.
Individuals of almost all ages develop friendships. Approximately 75% of preschoolers report having friends, and the percentage increases to over 90% by adulthood. The proportion remains high through adulthood, although about 15% of the elderly report not having friends. It is debatable whether very young children have “true friendships.” However, even toddlers prefer some playmates to others. Preschoolers’ friendships are typically based on shared activities and tend to be much less long-lasting than friendships later in life. One of the most striking developmental changes in friendships occurs during preadolescence, when children begin to develop “chumships.” These relationships are usually with a same-sex peer and involve more support and acceptance than earlier friendships.
In adolescence, teens typically begin to spend more time with their friends than with their families, and friendships become characterized by greater intimacy, self-disclosure, and closeness than in childhood. Other-sex friendships also become more commonplace, and romantic relationships begin to emerge. Adolescents and adults often develop specialized friendships wherein one turns to different friends for different purposes. Throughout adulthood, friendships remain important, although they may not be as central as a romantic relationship.
Friendships develop more often between members of the same gender than between males and females. Other-sex friendships are particularly infrequent during the elementary-school years, accounting for less than 20% of friendships during this time. Other-sex friendships occur less commonly because of structural barriers and cultural norms. Differences also exist in the typical nature of friendships of males and females. For instance, perhaps because of gender differences in the socialization of emotion expression and regulation, female friendships tend to be characterized by more intimacy and self-disclosure than male friendships, and this distinction becomes particularly notable in adolescence.
Adolescent girls and their friends also coruminate more often about their problems, which fosters both closeness as well as potential problems in adjustment when rumination is marked. Closeness in male friendships may occur through shared activities; sometimes experiencing a very stressful event together can also foster closeness. During childhood and adolescence, girls tend to be more exclusive in their friendships than boys are, whereas boys’ friendships often develop in the context of a larger group. Additionally, girls’ friendships are typically less stable than those of boys.
Friendships play an important role in development and adjustment in several key ways. Whereas parents ultimately have more power in parent-child relationships, friends are on equal footing. Accordingly, what friends do together or how they behave toward each other is more open to negotiation. As a result, children obtain valuable experience in learning how to express their own wishes and compromise with another person in a way that they can’t learn by interacting with a parent or other authority figure. In addition, friendships provide a ready venue for communicating information about peer norms and values, as well as about taboo topics such as sex.
These contrasts between friendships and parent-child relationships do not mean that friends and parents are opposing social influences. In fact, contrary to some depictions in the popular media, friends and parents actually have more similar than opposing influences on youth. Children typically select friends whose values are congruent with their parents’ values. Parents and friends are both likely to exert important influences on youths’ behavior. For example, the habit of smoking in either friends or parents of adolescents both uniquely influence the likelihood of their choosing to smoke. The strongest clashes between the influences of friends versus parents occur when relationships with parents are strained.
Empirical research has repeatedly found links between healthy adjustment and having friendships. Well-adjusted individuals are more likely to develop friendships, and friendships seem to promote psychological health and well-being. It seems particularly important to have at least one close friendship. Friends can serve to protect children from being victimized by other peers, including bullies. Chronic friendlessness is associated with social timidity, sensitivity, and a lack of social skills. Although friendships are generally thought to have a positive influence on adjustment, the specific effects vary as a function of who the friend is. For instance, having a friend who engages in deviant or antisocial behavior is likely to foster more deviant or antisocial behavior in a young person. Similarly, conflictual, problematic friendships can have deleterious effects on an individual’s emotional well-being.
Both having friendships and being accepted by one’s peers contribute to well-being. Similarly, the characteristics of relationships with parents and friends both contribute to adjustment and development. In effect, friendships share features with other close relationships, but also have their own unique features and make their own contributions to individuals’ lives.
Interpersonal Relationships; Peer Influences.
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