"Friend" redirects here. For other uses, see Friend (disambiguation), Friends (disambiguation), and Friendship (disambiguation).
Friendship is a relationship of mutual affection between people. Friendship is a stronger form of interpersonal bond than an association. Friendship has been studied in academic fields such as communication, sociology, social psychology, anthropology, and philosophy. Various academic theories of friendship have been proposed, including social exchange theory, equity theory, relational dialectics, and attachment styles.
Although there are many forms of friendship, some of which may vary from place to place, certain characteristics are present in many types of such bonds. Such characteristics include affection; kindness, love, virtue, sympathy, empathy, honesty, altruism, loyalty, mutual understanding and compassion, enjoyment of each other's company, trust, and the ability to be oneself, express one's feelings to others, and make mistakes without fear of judgment from the friend.
The understanding of friendship in children tends to be more heavily focused on areas such as common activities, physical proximity, and shared expectations.:498[a] These friendships provide opportunity for playing and practicing self-regulation.:246 Most children tend to describe friendship in terms of things like sharing, and children are more likely to share with someone they consider to be a friend.:246 As children mature, they become less individualized and are more aware of others. They gain the ability to empathize with their friends, and enjoy playing in groups. They also experience peer rejection as they move through the middle childhood years. Establishing good friendships at a young age helps a child to be better acclimated in society later on in their life.
Based upon the reports of teachers and mothers, 75% of preschool children had at least one friend. This figure rose to 78% through the fifth grade, as measured by co-nomination as friends, and 55% had a mutual best friend.:247 About 15% of children were found to be chronically friendless, reporting periods without mutual friends at least six months.:250
Potential benefits of friendship include the opportunity to learn about empathy and problem solving. Coaching from parents can be useful in helping children to make friends. Eileen Kennedy-Moore describes three key ingredients of children's friendship formation: (1) openness, (2) similarity, and (3) shared fun. Parents can also help children understand social guidelines they haven't learned on their own. Drawing from research by Robert Selman and others, Kennedy-Moore outlines developmental stages in children's friendship, reflecting an increasing capacity to understand others' perspectives: "I Want It My Way", "What's In It For Me?", "By the Rules", "Caring and Sharing", and "Friends Through Thick and Thin."
In adolescence, friendships become "more giving, sharing, frank, supportive, and spontaneous." Adolescents tend to seek out peers who can provide such qualities in a reciprocal relationship, and to avoid peers whose problematic behavior suggest they may not be able to satisfy these needs. Relationships begin to become more focused on shared values, loyalty, and common interests, rather than physical concerns like proximity and access to play things that more characterize childhood.:246
A study performed at the University of Texas at Austin examined over 9,000 American adolescents to determine how their engagement in problematic behavior (such as stealing, fighting, and truancy) was related to their friendships. Findings indicated that adolescents were less likely to engage in problem behavior when their friends did well in school, participated in school activities, avoided drinking, and had good mental health. The opposite was found regarding adolescents who did engage in problematic behavior. Whether adolescents were influenced by their friends to engage in problem behavior depended on how much they were exposed to those friends, and whether they and their friendship groups "fit in" at school.
A study by researchers from Purdue University found that friendships formed during post-secondary education last longer than friendships formed earlier.
Friendship in adulthood provides companionship, affection, as well as emotional support, and contributes positively to mental well-being and improved physical health.:426
Adults may find it particularly difficult to maintain meaningful friendships in the workplace. "The workplace can crackle with competition, so people learn to hide vulnerabilities and quirks from colleagues. Work friendships often take on a transactional feel; it is difficult to say where networking ends and real friendship begins." Most adults value the financial security of their jobs more than friendship with coworkers.
The majority of adults have an average of two close friends. Numerous studies with adults suggest that friendships and other supportive relationships do enhance self-esteem.
Older adults continue to report high levels of personal satisfaction in their friendships as they age, and even as the overall number of friends tends to decline. This satisfaction is associated with an increased ability to accomplish activities of daily living, as well as a reduced decline in cognitive abilities, decreased instances of hospitalization, and better outcomes related to rehabilitation.:427 The overall number of reported friends in later life may be mediated by increased lucidity, better speech and vision, and marital status.:53
As on review phrased it:
Research within the past four decades has now consistently found that older adults reporting the highest levels of happiness and general well being also report strong, close ties to numerous friends.
As family responsibilities and vocational pressures lessen, friendships become more important. Among the elderly, friendships can provide links to the larger community, serve as a protective factor against depression and loneliness, and compensate for potential losses in social support previously given by family members.:32-3 Especially for people who cannot go out as often, interactions with friends allow for continued societal interaction. Additionally, older adults in declining health who remain in contact with friends show improved psychological well-being.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
Children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may have difficulty forming and maintaining friendships, due to a limited ability to build social skills through observational learning, difficulties attending to social cues, and because of the social impacts of impulsive behavior and a greater tendency to engage in behavior that may be seen as disruptive by their peers. In a 2007 review, no treatment was identified which effectively address peer functioning in children with ADHD, and treatments which addressed other aspects of the disorder were not found to eliminate issues related to peer functioning.
Certain symptoms of autism spectrum disorders can interfere with the formation of interpersonal relations, such as a preference for routine actions, resistance to change, obsession with particular interests or rituals, and a lack of social skills. Children with autism have been found to be more likely to be close friends of one person, rather than having groups of friends. Additionally, they are more likely to be close friends of other children with some sort of a disability. A sense of parental attachment aids in the quality of friendships in children with autism spectrum disorders; a sense of attachment with one's parents compensates for a lack of social skills that would usually inhibit friendships.
A study done by Frankel et al. showed that parental intervention and instruction plays an important role in such children developing friendships. Along with parental intervention, school professionals play an important role in teaching social skills and peer interaction. Paraprofessionals, specifically one-on-one aides and classroom aides, are often placed with children with autism spectrum disorders in order to facilitate friendships and guide the child in making and maintaining substantial friendships.
Although lessons and training may help peers of children with autism, bullying is still a major concern in social situations. According to Anahad O'Connor of The New York Times, bullying is most likely to occur against autistic children who have the most potential to live independently, such as those with Asperger syndrome. Such children are more at risk because they have as many of the rituals and lack of social skills as children with full autism, but they are more likely to be mainstreamed in school, since they are on the higher-functioning end of the autism spectrum. Children with autism have more difficulty attending to social cues, and so may not always recognize when they are being bullied.
Children with Down syndrome have increased difficulty forming friendships. They experience a language delay causing them to have a harder time playing with other children. Most children with Down syndrome may prefer to watch other students and play alongside a friend but not with them, mostly because they understand more than they can outwardly express. In preschool years, children with Down syndrome can benefit from the classroom setting, surrounded by other children and less dependent on adult aid. Children with this disability benefit from a variety of interactions with both adults and children. At school, ensuring an inclusive environment in the classroom can be difficult, but proximity to close friends can be crucial for social development.
Studies have found that strong social supports improve a woman's prospects for good health and longevity. Conversely, loneliness and a lack of social supports have been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, viral infections, and cancer, as well as higher mortality rates overall. Two researchers have even termed friendship networks a "behavioral vaccine" that boosts both physical and mental health.
There is a large body of research linking friendship and health, but the precise reasons for the connection remain unclear. Most of the studies in this area are large prospective studies that follow people over time, and while there may be a correlation between the two variables (friendship and health status), researchers still do not know if there is a cause and effect relationship, such as the notion that good friendships actually improve health. A number of theories have attempted to explain this link. These theories have included that good friends encourage their friends to lead more healthy lifestyles; that good friends encourage their friends to seek help and access services when needed; that good friends enhance their friends' coping skills in dealing with illness and other health problems; and that good friends actually affect physiological pathways that are protective of health.
The lack of friendship has been found to play a role in increasing risk of suicidal ideation among female adolescents, including having more friends who were not themselves friends with one another. However, no similar effect was observed for males. Having few or no friends is a major indicator in the diagnosis of a range of mental disorders.
Higher friendship quality directly contributes to self-esteem, self-confidence, and social development. A World Happiness Database study found that people with close friendships are happier, although the absolute number of friends did not increase happiness.Other studies have suggested that children who have friendships of a high quality may be protected against the development of certain disorders, such as anxiety and depression. Conversely, having few friends is associated with dropping out of school, as well as aggression, and adult crime.:500 Peer rejection is also associated with lower later aspiration in the workforce, and participation in social activities, while higher levels of friendship was associated with higher adult self-esteem.:500–1
The dissolution of a friendship may be viewed as a personal rejection, or may be the result of natural changes over time, as friends grow more distant both physically and emotionally. The disruption of friendships has been associated with increased guilt, anger and depression, and may be highly stressful events, especially in childhood. However, potential negative effects can be mitigated if the dissolution of a friendship is replaced with another close relationship.:248
Friends tend to be more similar to one another in terms of age, gender, behavior, substance abuse, personal disposition, and academic performance.:248:426:55–6 In ethnically diverse countries, there is broad evidence that children and adolescents tend to form friendships with others of the same race or ethnicity, beginning in preschool, and peaking in middle or late childhood.:264
In general, female-female friendship interactions among children tend to be more focused on interpersonal connections and mutual support, while male-male interaction tends to be more focused on social status, and may actively discourage the expression of emotional needs.:320-2 Females report more anxiety, jealousy, and relational victimization and less stability related to their friendships, and males report higher levels of physical victimization. Although males and females tend to report comparative levels of satisfaction with their friendships.:249–50
Among older adults, women tend to be more socially adept than their male peers, and many older men may rely upon a female companion, such as a spouse, in order to compensate for their comparative lack of social skills.:55
See also: Ethology, Altruism in animals, and Sociobiology
Friendship is also found among animals of higher intelligence, such as higher mammals and some birds. Cross-species friendships are common between humans and domestic animals. Cross-species friendships may also occur between two non-human animals, such as dogs and cats. Research by McLennan measured the heart rates of cattle, and showed that the cows were more stressed when alone or with an unfamiliar cow than they were with friends, lending support to the idea that cows are social animals, capable of forming close bonds with each other.
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|Look up friendship in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
- ^In comparison to older respondents, who tend to describe friendship in terms of psychological rather than mostly physical aspects.:498
Think of a time when you sat across from a friend and felt truly understood. Deeply known. Maybe you sensed how she was bringing out your ‘best self’, your cleverest observations and wittiest jokes. She encouraged you. She listened, articulated one of your patterns, and then gently suggested how you might shift it for the better. The two of you gossiped about your mutual friends, skipped between shared memories, and delved into cherished subjects in a seamlessly scripted exchange full of shorthand and punctuated with knowing expressions. Perhaps you felt a warm swell of admiration for her, and a simultaneous sense of pride in your similarity to her. You felt deep satisfaction to be valued by someone you held in such high regard: happy, nourished and energised through it all.
These are the friendships that fill our souls, and bolster and shape our identities and life paths. They have also been squeezed into social science labs enough times for us to know that they keep us mentally and physically healthy: good friends improve immunity, spark creativity, drop our bloodpressure, ward off dementia among the elderly, and even decrease our chances of dying at any given time. If you feel you can’t live without your friends, you’re not being melodramatic.
But even our easiest and richest friendships can be laced with tensions and conflicts, as are most human relationships. They can lose a bit of their magic and fail to regain it, or even fade out altogether for tragic reasons, or no reason at all. Then there are the not-so-easy friendships; increasingly difficult friendships; and bad, gut-wrenching, toxic friendships. The pleasures and benefits of good friends are abundant, but they come with a price. Friendship, looked at through a clear and wide lens, is far messier and more lopsided than it is often portrayed.
The first cold splash on an idealised notion of friendship is the data showing that only about half of friendships are reciprocal. This is shocking to people, since research confirms that we actually assume nearly all our friendships are reciprocal. Can you guess who on your list of friends wouldn’t list you?
One explanation for imbalance is that many friendships are aspirational: a study of teens shows that people want to be friends with popular people, but those higher up the social hierarchy have their pick (and skew the average). A corroborating piece of evidence, which was highlighted by Steven Strogatz in a 2012 article in The New York Times, is the finding that your Facebook ‘friends’ always have, on average, more ‘friends’ than you do. So much for friendship being an oasis from our status-obsessed world.
‘Ambivalent’ relationships, in social science parlance, are characterised by interdependence and conflict. You have many positive and negative feelings toward these people. You might think twice about picking up when they call. These relationships turn out to be common, too. Close to half of one’s important social network members are identified as ambivalent. Granted, more of those are family members (whom we’re stuck with) than friends, but still, for friendship, it’s another push off the pedestal.
Friends who are loyal, reliable, interesting companions – good! – can also be bad for you, should they have other qualities that are less desirable. We know through social network research that depressed friends make it more likely you’ll be depressed, obese friends make it more likely you’ll become obese, and friends who smoke or drink a lot make it more likely you’ll smoke and drink more.
Other ‘good’ friends might have, or start to have, goals, values or habits that misalign with your current or emerging ones. They certainly haven’t ‘done’ anything to you. But they aren’t a group that validates who you are, or that will effortlessly lift you up toward your aims over time. Stay with them, and you’ll be walking against the wind.
In addition to annoying us, these mixed-bag friendships harm our health. A 2003 study by Julianne Holt-Lunstad from Brigham Young University and Bert Uchino from the University of Utah asked people to wear blood-pressure monitors and write down interactions with various people. Blood pressure was higher with ambivalent relationships than it was with friends or outright enemies. This is probably due to the unpredictability of these relationships, which leads us to be vigilant: Will Jen ruin Christmas this year? Ambivalent relationships have also been associated with increased cardiovascular reactivity, greater cellular ageing, lowered resistance to stress, and a decreased sense of wellbeing.
One research team, though, found that ambivalent friendships might have benefits in the workplace. They showed that in these pairings workers are more likely to put themselves in the other’s shoes, in part because they are trying to figure out what the relationship means and what it is. Also, because ambivalent friendships make you feel uncertain about where you stand, they can push you to work harder to establish your position.
‘Frenemies’ are perhaps a separate variety in that they are neatly multi-layered – friendliness atop rivalry or dislike – as opposed to the ambivalent relationship’s admixture of love, hate, annoyance, pity, devotion and tenderness. Plenty of people have attested to the motivating force of a frenemy at work, as well as in the realms of romance and parenting.
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As with unhappy families, there are countless ways a friend can be full-on ‘bad’, no ambivalence about it. Susan Heitler, a clinical psychologist in Denver, and Sharon Livingston, a psychologist and marketing consultant in New York, have studied the issue, and found some typical qualities: a bad friend makes you feel competitive with her other friends; she talks much more about herself than you do about yourself; she criticises you in a self-righteous way but is defensive when you criticise her; she makes you feel you’re walking on eggshells and might easily spark her anger or disapproval; she has you on an emotional rollercoaster where one day she’s responsive and complimentary and the next she freezes you out.
In 2014, a team at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh found that, as the amount of negativity in relationships increased for healthy women aged over 50, so did their risk of developing hypertension. Negative social interactions – incidents including excessive demands, criticism, disappointment and disagreeable exchanges – were related to a 38 per cent increased risk. For men, there was no link between bad relationships and high blood pressure. This is likely because women care more about, and are socialised to pay more attention to, relationships.
Negative interactions can lead to inflammation, too, in both men and women. Jessica Chiang, a researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, who conducted a study showing as much, has said that an accumulation of social stressors could cause physical damage, just like an actual toxin.
Some of our most hurtful friendships start out good, but then became bad. Among teens, for example, the rates of cyber aggression are 4.3 times higher between friends than between friends of friends. Or as Diane de Poitiers, the 16th-century mistress of King Henry II of France, said: ‘To have a good enemy, choose a friend: he knows where to strike.’
The writer Robert Greene addresses the slippery slope in his book The48 Laws of Power (1998). Bringing friends into your professional endeavours can aid the gradual crossover from ‘good’ to ‘bad’, he warns, in part because of how we react to grand favours:
Strangely enough, it is your act of kindness that unbalances everything. People want to feel they deserve their good fortune. The receipt of a favour can become oppressive: it means you have been chosen because you are a friend, not necessarily because you are deserving. There is almost a touch of condescension in the act of hiring friends that secretly afflicts them. The injury will come out slowly: a little more honesty, flashes of resentment and envy here and there, and before you know it your friendship fades.
Ah – so too much giving and ‘a little more honesty’ are friendship-disrupters? That conclusion, which runs counter to the ethos of total openness and unlimited generosity between friends, provides a clue as to why there are so many ‘bad’, ‘good and bad’, and ‘good, then bad’ friends. In his paper ‘The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism’ (1971), the evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers concludes that ‘each individual human is seen as possessing altruistic and cheating tendencies’, where cheating means giving at least a bit less (or taking at least a bit more) than a friend would give or take from us.
Good people do attract more friends (though being a high-status good person helps)
Trivers goes on to explain that we have evolved to be subtle cheaters, with complex mechanisms for regulating bigger cheaters and also ‘too much’ altruism. He writes:
In gross cheating, the cheater fails to reciprocate at all, and the altruist suffers the costs of whatever altruism he has dispensed without any compensating benefit… clearly, selection will strongly favour prompt discrimination against the gross cheater. Subtle cheating, by contrast, involves reciprocating, but always attempting to give less than one was given, or more precisely, to give less than the partner would give if the situation were reversed.
The rewarding emotion of ‘liking’ someone is also a part of this psychological regulation system, and selection will favour liking those who are altruistic: good people do attract more friends (though being a high-status good person helps). But the issue is not whether we are cheaters or altruists, good or bad, but to what degree are we each of those things in different contexts and relationships.
Perhaps this seesaw between cheating and altruism, which settles to a midpoint of 50/50, explains why 50 per cent keeps coming up in research on friends and relationships. Recall that half of our friendships are non-reciprocal, half of our social network consists of ambivalent relationships, and – to dip into the adjacent field of lie detection – the average person detects lies right around 50 per cent of the time. We evolved to be able to detect enough lies to not be totally swindled, but not enough to wither under the harsh truths of (white-lie-free) social interactions. Likewise, we’ve evolved to detect some cheating behaviours in friends, but not enough to prohibit our ability to be friends with people at all. As the seesaw wobbles, so do our friendships.
Should this sound like a complicated business to you, Trivers agrees, and in fact speculates that the development of this system for regulating altruism among non-kin members is what made our brains grow so big in the Pleistocene. Many neuroscientists agree with his conclusion: humans are smart so that we can navigate friendship.
The psychologist Jan Yager, author of When Friendship Hurts (2002), found that 68 per cent of survey respondents had been betrayed by a friend. Who are these betrayers? At such high numbers, could ‘they’ be us?
We somehow expect friendships to be forever. Friendship break-ups challenge our vision of who we are
That scary thought leads me to ask: are we really striving to forgive small sins? To air our grievances before they accumulate and blow up our friendships? To make the effort to get together? To give others the benefit of the doubt? Are we giving what we can, or keeping score? Are we unfairly expecting friends to think and believe the exact same things we do? Are we really doing the best we can? Well, maybe that’s what most of our friends think they are doing, too. And if they aren’t being a good friend, or if they have drifted away from us, or we from them, maybe we can accept these common rifts, without giving into a guilt so overwhelming that it pushes us to slap a label on those we no longer want for friends: toxic.
When a friend breaks up with us, or disappears without explanation, it can be devastating. Even though the churning and pruning of social networks is common over time, we still somehow expect friendships to be forever. Friendship break-ups challenge our vision of who we are, especially if we’ve been intertwined with a friend for many years. Pulsing with hurt in the wake of a friend break-up, we hurl him or her into the ‘bad friends’ basket.
But, sometimes, we have to drop a friend to become ourselves. In Connecting in College (2016), the sociologist Janice McCabe argues that ending friendships in young adulthood is a way of advancing our identities. We construct our self-images and personalities against our friends, in both positive and negative ways.
As much as we need to take responsibility for being better friends and for our part in relationship conflict and break-ups, quite a few factors surrounding friendship are out of our control. Social network embeddedness, where you and another person have many friends in common, for instance, is a big challenge. Let’s say someone crosses a line, but you don’t want to disturb the group, so you don’t declare that you no longer think of him as a friend. You pull back from him, but not so much that it will spark a direct confrontation, whereby people would then be forced to invite only one of you, but not both, to events. Sometimes we are yoked to bad friends.
The forces that dictate whom we stay close to and whom we let go can be mysterious even to ourselves. Aren’t there people you like very much whom you haven’t contacted in a long time? And others you don’t connect with as well whom you see more often? The former group might be pencilling you into their ‘bad friend’ column right now.
Dealing with bad friends, getting dumped by them, and feeling disappointed with them is a stressful part of life, and it can harm your body and mind. Yet having no friends at all is a far worse fate. Imagine a child’s desperation for a playmate, a teenager’s deep longing for someone who ‘gets’ her, or an adult’s realisation that there is no one with whom he can share a failure or even a success. Loneliness is as painful as extreme thirst or hunger. John Cacioppo, a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, has found associations between loneliness and depression, obesity, alcoholism, cardiovascular problems, sleep dysfunction, high blood pressure, the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, cynical world views and suicidal thoughts. But if you have friend problems, you have friends – and that means you’re pretty lucky.
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is a journalist and former features editor at Psychology Today. Her work has appeared in Discover and Scientific American Mind, among others. She is the author of Friendfluence (2013).