Friendships fluctuate by age, gender, context, purpose, and even the seasons of life. When people are starting families, they may have close friendships that include other young families with children. Colleagues may share the common bond of career interests. And spouses, partners, and extended family members may experience varying levels of social support and closeness over time. Regardless of the tone of a friendship, when someone is in need, he or she often turns to a friend for emotional and physical support. But until now, there have been few attempts made to better understand the influence of these relationships on overall well-being. To address this issue, Kira S. Birditt of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan led a study that looked at how social support was delivered during especially stressful life events.
Birditt chose to focus on middle-aged participants because it is during this time that people face many difficult transitions, such as children leaving home, losing spouses, health issues, or retirement. Birditt assessed how friends of 152 participants responded, emotionally and instrumentally, in times of extreme and moderate stress. She found that the nature of the friendship directly predicted the level of enacted support. Specifically, close friends provided high levels of both emotional and instrumental support regardless of the severity of the stressful event, while less intimate friends did not. However, those who were less close did come through during highly stressful events. Birditt believes that strained friendships or family relationships may be called upon only when the need is extremely urgent. “Thus, it appears that individuals can rely on their lower quality ties for their support needs when they are under extreme stress but not under all circumstances (i.e., under conditions of lower stress),” she said. But close friendships, those with high levels of positivity and few negative aspects, are readily accessible and available whether the need is small or large.
In sum, the results of this study clearly show each friendship comes with its own set of unique benefits. For middle to older adults, having a social network that can provide support is critical. Although this study included individuals under extreme stress and often with co-morbid conditions, including depression, it shows the importance of having friends in times of need. Birditt hopes future work will examine the long-term effects of these relationships and how enacted support is offered under other types of stressful conditions.
Birditt, Kira S., Toni C. Antonucci, and Lauren Tighe. Enacted support during stressful life events in middle and older adulthood: An examination of the interpersonal context. Psychology and Aging 27.3 (2012): 728-41. Print.
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