Relationships evolve over the course of a person’s life. Camaraderie with coworkers and neighbors may shift and change as people age and assume new jobs or locations. Likewise, relationships with friends and family members also ebb and flow based on circumstances and maturity. It is thought that positive relationships with others enhance physical and psychological well-being. In fact, research suggests that healthy and supportive relationships can provide protection from stress and illness. But little attention has been given to the effects of relationships as people enter their later years in life.
Unlike relationships forged in early and mid-life, relationships maintained in older adulthood tend to be based on mutual respect and are valued for their positive benefits. However, relationships with some individuals, such as family members, may still present stress and conflict. To better understand how these ambivalent relationships compare to entirely negative relationships with respect to health in later life, Karen S. Rook of the Department of Psychology and Social Behavior at the University of California recently conducted a study examining the influence of relationships on physical and psychological health in a sample of 916 elderly adults.
She found that the participants had more ambivalent relationships than exclusively negative relationships and that the ambivalent relationships, regardless of their negative aspects, had little effect on well-being. In contrast, the results revealed that the negative relationships had significant negative health consequences on the participants. Rook believes this could be due to the fact that even though the ambivalent relationships had negative qualities, they also had positive qualities that buffered the participants from negative outcomes. She added, “Considered together, these complementary processes have an influence on the quality of older adults’ social relationships and, in turn, on their physical health and psychological well-being.” The exclusively negative relationships did not offer any rewarding benefits and therefore were more harmful, causing more stress and maladaptive coping strategies. On a positive note, Rook noted that the number of ambivalent relationships exceeded the number of exclusively negative relationships, suggesting that as people mature, they seek out relationships with others that will be more productive and provide more rewarding interactions.
Rook, K. S., Luong, G., Sorkin, D. H., Newsom, J. T., Krause, N. (2012). Ambivalent versus problematic social ties: Implications for psychological health, functional health, and interpersonal coping. Psychology and Aging. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0029246
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