February 19, 2018

Judging from the popular media coverage of a recent study in the journal Personal Relationships, friendships are more important than family relationships in promoting health and well-being, especially in later life. Click-bait headlines such as Times, “Why Friends May Be More Important than Family” stretch these findings to suggest that family relationships are not especially important to health and well-being. A close reading of the study, however, reveals careful and circumspect research that cannot justify these bottom-line messages. Is there a broader agenda here to minimize the value of marriage or to increase the value of singlehood? I can’t say for sure, but there is a lot of effort these days to challenge the benefits of marriage and sing the praises of the unattached, single life.

In the article in question (“Associations Among Relational Values, Support, Health, and Well-being Across the Adult Lifespan”), Michigan State University psychologist William Chopik reviews research on the importance of social relationships to health and well-being. More specifically, he investigates whether different kinds of social relationships – such as those with a spouse, child, parent, or friend – have stronger or weaker effects on health and well-being, particularly for older adults. He pursues these questions using two different datasets and reports two distinct studies.

The first study is a large cross-sectional (i.e., one time), cross-national survey. However, it has numerous weaknesses – a fact Chopik readily acknowledges – making the results not particularly helpful in answering his questions. Chopik tried to address these weaknesses with a second study that followed a large, representative, longitudinal sample of older Americans. With this data, he could track how social support and strain from various kinds of relationships impacted reports of major chronic illnesses and overall life happiness over a period of several years.

So, what did Chopik find in this second, high-quality study? First, he reported that social support from spouses, children, other family, and friends all had significant effects on participants’ overall life happiness. Of these, spousal support had the strongest impact, though spousal and child strain also had negative effects on life happiness, with spousal strain again having the largest. Strain from other kinds of relationships did not have significant impacts.

So far, these findings do little to support click-bait headlines that downgrade marriage and upgrade the value of friendship. Instead, those headlines appear to have been justified by stretching Chopik’s second set of findings. In these, he found that strains from friendships had the strongest impact on reports of chronic health; support or strain from other kinds of relationships had weak (if any) impacts on chronic health. In other words, when friendships add strain to older adults’ lives, they report more serious chronic health problems. Conversely, when friendships are stress-free, older adults report fewer chronic health issues. Strangely, friendship support had only a small effect on reducing chronic health problems. Friendships in later life are voluntary in nature and strains from these ongoing relationships were associated with poorer health in this study, though it is unclear why. This was an unusual and specific finding, one that Chopik says needs replication before we accept (or claim to understand) it.

But Chopik’s circumspection didn’t restrain the media from clucking about how overrated marriage is in provocative headlines. In addition to the Time story mentioned earlier, Science Daily asks (with a hint), “Are Friends Better for Us Than Family?Newsweek proclaims that “Your Friends, Not Family, Will Help You Live Longer.” And MSN Lifestyle asserts (with a photo of Betty White and the other Golden Girls smiling back at you) that “Good Friends Are More Important Than Family for Our Well-being in the Long Run.” If readers bother to dive past the headlines, they will find some modest attention to Chopik’s findings about the importance of marital relationships nested between paragraphs explaining the parallel importance of friendships in later life. Hopefully, readers will absorb the fuller report of the findings rather than the abbreviated and distorted message given in the provocative headlines.

Chopik’s findings are a long way from asserting, as these media outlets hint, that we should focus on friendships rather than family relationships to promote health and well-being in later life. An enormous body of research documents how family relationships (especially with spouses) remain potent forces for health and well-being across the lifespan. One study with a unique finding – one that currently lacks replication – cannot outweigh the full body of research on this question.

Image Credit: Flickr user foooomio // CC BY-SA 2.0

About the Author

Alan J. Hawkins is the Camilla E. Kimball Endowed Professor of Family Life at Brigham University in Provo, Utah. His scholarship and outreach focuses on educational and policy interventions to help couples form and sustain healthy relationships and enduring marriages.

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