Research: How We Make Friends As Adults
So I’m sitting in the pickup lane at the elementary school.
Or I’m perched on a lawn chair during those coveted short hours of silence (also known as my two year old’s nap).
Or I’m trying to ignore whichever game-of-all-games-rivalry-of-all-rivalries is blaring in the ESPN-laden-background.
All so I can live nose-down in research.
This is not the climax of fun, I assure you. But each article teaches me something about how hundreds or thousands of people experience friendship. Piece by piece, it rounds out a fuller picture of how humans connect to each other.
These studies will serve as inspiration for the questions I’ll ask in my upcoming interviews. [Willing to let me interview you? Sign up here.] And while I’m swimming around in all this data, I thought I’d share some highlights–starting two weeks ago with some insights on how kids develop their first social ties and then proceeding to last week’s post which focused on connectivity during the teen years.
Today, we proceed to…well, today. How we make friends in adulthood.
- Young adults’ emotional ties with parents and family usually fade a little, sometimes temporarily, while they take their first steps into college or work life. They often move, geographically, and may move socially into new activities and experiences as well. These changes usually shake up their current network of friends as well, creating the opportunity or even necessity, of developing new connections. As an aside, young adults who succeed in forging new friendships report being happier, less lonely, and are generally better adjusted than those without such bonds (Adams and Blieszner, 1996).
- Close friendships surface in all stages of adulthood. Also, regardless of whether these important connections involve women, men, or cross-gender pairings, close friendships offer similar benefits (Adams and Blieszner 1996; Matthews 1996).
- Young adulthood usually mark a stage of life that is free of later obligations (marriage, children etc.) that might compete with one’s energy or time for forming friendships. As a result, single young adults report more friendships, including cross-gender friendships, than adults in all other life stages (Adams and Blieszner, 1996).
- Women tend to be more expressive and focused on “the personal” in their friendships than men. Maybe unsurprisingly, women’s friendships tend to be stronger than men’s. Similar to when they were younger, males find that their cross-gender friendships enrich their “expressive side” (understanding themselves and others) more than same-gender friendships do.
- Eventually young adulthood merges into middle adulthood, which often involves marriage and starting a family and/or more serious career. Post-marriage, unsurprisingly, men and women both report having fewer cross-gender friends. This is sometimes due to suspicion and jealousy on the part of the spouse, but it is often just as related to the way they spend their time. With family obligations in play, people often have less time to socialize and therefore spend the majority of after-work time with their spouses and kids. Thus they just aren’t in places where there is much opportunity to make friends–whether that be same-gender or cross-gender (2002, p. 156).
- There may also be decreased need for as many cross-gender friends, since men (who tend to rely on female friends as confidants) often have at least one confidant in a female spouse.
- During this stage, men report a reduction in both the quantity and intensity of same-gender as well as cross-gender friendships. They are often preoccupied with career and family, and generally don’t view people in their profession as potential friends as much as work mates who may help each other advance. Also, since most work-related connections are with peers, there is often a strange dynamic because everyone in the group is striving toward a limited number of opportunities to advance (whether at a company, or in a field, or in opportunities to achieve significance). These conditions aren’t conducive to maintaining openness in friendship. When friendships spring up between male work associates, they are likely characterized by workplace camaraderie and enjoyment in the midst of work activities instead of self-disclosure and expressiveness. Ironically, perhaps, men often report they wish for more of these close friendships like they often see evidenced in women.
- Women’s friendships, on the other hand, are not as impacted by marriage (though their friendships due generally decrease when they have children). This is likely an effect of women having great responsibility for the home and family life. If women work and have children, they may have fewer friends, but those friendships still tend to be personal and expressive in nature. As their responsibilities to older children decrease, women tend to report increasing numbers of friends again. And one more note: when it comes to workplace relationships, women would classify them as acquaintaceships even more than men because they are more likely to insist on distinctions between work friends, activity friends, and “real” friends (Gouldner and Strong 1987).
- There is a misconception that single adults, who do not marry, may cultivate more close friendships. Perhaps surprisingly, though, research suggests most unmarried adults increase connectedness with relatives rather than forming more or closer friendships.
- Although in middle adulthood, friendship quantity may be lacking, quality remains. People often discover and foster some of their closest social ties during these years, perhaps because they become more self-and-friend-aware and are therefore more likely connect with those who truly enrich their lives.
- Older adulthood, perceived as sixty-five years of age and older, is sometimes marked with less opportunity for friendship due to rising health concerns, reduced mobility, and declining energy. Still, if older adults retire, there is opportunity for more social connection due to a more open schedule. (Field 1999).
- Older women tend to be able to sustain established friendships and to form new ones as friends die or move to new living arrangements as is common in later years. Still, even at this age, women’s friendships tend to be more expressive than men’s friendships. Women, too, are more likely to live beyond their spouses, and to fill that void with more and deeper friendships.
- Because for much of their lives, men’s friendships were centered on tasks, projects, and shared activities, retiring from their career aspirations can also lead to more loss of friendship. And, if this occurs, men are unfortunately less likely than women to form new friendships. In the more exceptional case when a man outlives his spouse, he is less likely to seek new friendships, but instead to remarry and gain a familiar live-in friendship with a new wife. It is not surprising, perhaps, that men who do manage to maintain close friendships throughout life report they are more satisfied with life in the older years.
Read more bullet points about how kids and teens make friendships here.
Does this fit for how you’ve experienced friendship? In what ways do your experiences align with these norms? In what ways do you break from them? Feel free to a comment and tell me how this fits you or tell me what kind of questions it raises.
Photo source: Friends
Ron October 8, 2014 (6:06 pm)
Hey Sarah, I’ve been lurking around over the last few weeks. Have thought about commenting a few times, but I have to admit I felt a little weird getting too IN to this stuff as a guy. I know that is stupid, but I just must feel a little uncomfortable about admitting I still have questions about friendship. At one level, friendship seems like elementary stuff. But other times, it seems impossibly complex.
Today’s bullet points did sort of touch on some of my concerns. I guess I am wondering if you will find like this suggested that guys feel less connected than women do. Or less deeply connected. Is it all about politics or sports or whatever their hobby is and less about some kind of commitment to each other? That’s one thing I’d like to know.
Sarah October 8, 2014 (9:46 pm)
Agreed. As someone who has taught high school and led youth groups, I’ve seen a lot of this play out. And my initial readings suggest that people tend to spend more time with their families than their friends starting even in their twenties. I’ll try to pay attention to that theme as I read more though. Thanks!