Political Science




I get by with a little help from my friends. John Lennon

Take a moment and think about your two best friends. Why are they such close companions? Why do you think of them as friends? You probably like but don’t love them. (Or, at least, you’re not “in love” with them, or you’d probably think of them as more than just “friends.”) You’ve probably shared a lot of good times with them, and you feel comfortable around them; you know that they like you, too, and you feel that you can count on them to help you when you need it.

Indeed, the positive sentiments you feel toward your friends may actually be rather varied and complex. They annoy you sometimes, but you’re fond of them, and because they’re best friends, they know things about you that no one else may know. You like to do things with them, and you expect your relationship to continue indefinitely. In fact, if you look back at the features that define intimacy (way back on page 2), you may find that your connections to your best friends are quite intimate, indeed. You may have substantial knowledge of them, and you probably feel high levels of trust and commitment toward them; you may not experience as much caring, interdependence, responsiveness, and mutuality as you do with a romantic partner, but all three are present, nonetheless.

So, are friendships the same as but just less intimate than our romantic partnerships? Yes and no. Friendships are based on the same building blocks of intimacy as romances are, but the mix of components is usually different. Romances also have some ingredients that friendships typically lack, so their recipes do differ. But many of the elements of friendships and romances are quite similar, and this chapter will set the stage for our consideration of love (in chapter 8) by detailing what it means to like an intimate partner. Among other topics, I’ll describe various features of friendship and question whether men and women can be “just friends.”

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Our friendships are indispensable sources of pleasure and support. One study of unmarried young adults found that over one-third of them (36 percent) considered a friendship to be their “closest, deepest, most involved, and most intimate” current relationship (Berscheid et al., 1989). A larger proportion (47 percent) identified a romantic relationship as their most important partnerships, but friendships were obviously significant connections to others. And they remain so, even after people marry. Another study that used an event-sampling procedure1 to track people’s interactions found that they were generally having more fun when they were with friends than when they were alone or with family members, including their spouses. The best times occurred when both their spouses and their friends were present, but if it was one or the other, people derived more enjoyment and excitement from the presence of a friend than from the presence of a spouse (Larson & Bradney, 1988). Why? What’s so great about friendship?

Attributes of Friendships

A variety of attributes come to mind when people think about a good friendship (Fuhrman et al., 2009; Hall, 2012). First, close friends feel affectionfor one another. They like, trust, and respect each other, and they value loyalty and authenticity, with both of them feeling free to be themselves without pretense. Second, a good friendship involves communion. The partners give and receive meaningful self-disclosures, emotional support, and practical assistance, and they observe a norm of equality, with both partners’ preferences being valued. Finally, friends offer companionship. They share interests and activities, and consider each other to be sources of recreation and fun. At its best, friendship is clearly a close, rewarding relationship, which led Beverly Fehr (1996, p. 7) to define friendship as “a voluntary, personal relationship, typically providing intimacy and assistance, in which the two parties like one another and seek each other’s company.”

Differences between Friendship and Love

How, then, is friendship different from romantic attraction? As we’ll see in chapter 8, love involves more complex feelings than liking does. Both liking and loving involve positive and warm evaluations of one’s partner, but romantic love includes fascination with one’s partner, sexual desire, and a greater desire for exclusivity than friendship does (Balzarini et al., 2014). Love relationships also involve more stringent standards of conduct; we’re supposed to be more loyal to, and even more willing to help, our lovers than our friends (Fuhrman et al., 2009). The social norms that regulate friendship are less confining than Page 215those that govern romantic relationships, and friendships are easier to dissolve (Fehr, 1996). In addition, friendships are less likely to involve overt expressions of positive emotion, and friends, as a general rule, spend less of their free time together than romantic partners do.

These differences are not just due to the fact that so many of our friendships involve partners of the same sex. Friendships with members of the other sex are also less passionate and less committed than romances usually are (Fuhrman et al., 2009). So, friendships ordinarily entail fewer obligations and are less emotionally intense and less exclusive than romantic relationships. And unlike romantic relationships, friendships typically do not involve sexual intimacy (although some do; we’ll consider “friends with benefits” later).

So, they are less passionate than romances, but rich friendships still contain all the other components that characterize rewarding intimacy with both friends and lovers. Let’s consider several of those next.


When people respect others, they admire them and hold them in high esteem. The specific traits that seem to make a relationship partner worthy of respect include commendable moral qualities, consideration for others, acceptance of others, honesty, and willingness to listen to others (Frei & Shaver, 2002). We generally like those whom we respect, and the more we respect a friend or lover, the more satisfying our relationship with that person tends to be (Hendrick et al., 2010).


We trust our partners when we are confident that they will behave benevolently toward us, selflessly taking our best interests into account (Rempel et al., 2001). Such confidence takes time to cultivate, but it is likely to develop when someone is alert to our wishes and reliably behaves unselfishly toward us (Simpson, 2007). Trust is invaluable in any close relationship because it makes interdependency more palatable; it allows people to be comfortable and relaxed in their friendships, and those who do not fully trust their partners tend to be guarded and cautious and less content (Rempel et al.). And the loss of trust has corrosive effects on any close relationship (Miller & Rempel, 2004); those who have been betrayed by a partner often find trust, and their satisfaction with their relationship, hard to recover (see chapter 10).


Good friends also tend to enhance, rather than diminish, our delight when we share good news or events with them. We don’t always receive enthusiastic congratulations from others when we encounter good fortune; on occasion, we get bland best wishes, and sometimes others are simply uninterested. But good friends are usually pleased by our successes, and their excitement can increase our enjoyment of the event (Gable & Reis, 2010). So, in a pattern of interaction known as capitalization, we usually share good news with friends and receive enthusiastic, rewarding responses that increase our pleasure  Page 216(Lambert et al., 2013b) and enhance our relationships: We feel closer to those who excitedly enhance our happiness than to those who respond to our good fortune with apathy or indifference (Reis et al., 2010), and relationships in which capitalization routinely occurs are more satisfying and longer lasting than those in which it is infrequent (Logan & Cobb, 2013).

Social Support

Enthusiastic celebration of our good fortune is one way in which our intimate partners uplift us and provide us aid, or social support (Gable et al., 2012). We also rely on friends to help us through our difficulties, and there are four ways in which they can provide us help and encouragement (Barry et al., 2009). We rely on our partners for emotional support in the form of affection, acceptance, and reassurance; physical comfort in the form of hugs and cuddling; advice support in the form of information and guidance; and material support, or tangible assistance in the form of money or goods. A partner who tries to reassure you when you’re nervous about an upcoming exam is providing emotional support whereas a friend who loans you her car is providing material support. Don’t take these distinctions too seriously, however, because these types of aid can and do overlap; because her generous concern would be touching, a friend who offers a loan of her car as soon as she learns that yours is in the shop could be said to be providing emotional as well as material support.

Social support can be of enormous value, and higher amounts of all four types of support are associated with higher relationship satisfaction and greater personal well-being as time goes by (Barry et al., 2009). Indeed, warm, attentive support from one’s partners matters more than money when it comes to being happy; your income is likely to have less effect on your happiness than your level of social support does (North et al., 2008). But there are several complexities involved in the manner in which social support operates in close relationships. Consider these points:

· Emotional support has real physiological effects. People who have affectionate partners have chronically lower blood pressures, cholesterol levels, and stress hormone levels than do those who receive lesser amounts of encouragement and caring from others (Seeman et al., 2002), and they recover faster from stress, too (Meuwly et al., 2012). In lab procedures, they even experience less pain when they submerge their arms in ice-cold water (Brown et al., 2003). And when people are under stress, just thinking about a supportive friend tends to reduce their heart rates and blood pressures (Smith et al., 2004).

· Effective social support also leads people to feel closer to those who provide it. Sensitive, responsive support from others increases our happiness, self-esteem, and optimism about the future (Feeney, 2004), and all of these have beneficial effects on our relationships. In marriages, happy spouses provide each other more support than distressed couples do (Verhofstadt et al., 2013), and higher levels of support when the partners are newly married are associated with a lower likelihood of divorce 10 years later (Sullivan et al., 2010).

· But some people are better providers of social support than others are. For instance, attachment styles matter. Secure people, who readily accept interdependent intimacy with others, tend to provide effective support that reassures and bolsters the recipient, and they do so for altruistic, compassionate reasons (Davila & Kashy, 2009). In contrast, insecure people are more self-serving, tending to provide help out of obligation or for the promise of reward. Moreover, their support tends to be less effective, either because (in the case of avoidant people) they provide less help than secure people do or because (in the case of anxious people) their help is intrusive and controlling Page 218(Collins et al., 2006). People are generally more satisfied with the support they receive when their partners have secure, rather than insecure, attachment styles (Kane et al., 2007).

In addition, people tend to provide better support when they are attentive and empathic and thus are able to tell what their partners need (Verhofstadt et al., 2010). People too rarely ask straightforwardly for help when they need it (Bohns & Flynn, 2010), so those who are better able to read a particular partner’s feelings tend to provide that partner more skillful support.

· Furthermore, the best support fits our needs and preferences. Not all social support is wholly beneficial to its recipients. Even when supportive friends are well-intentioned and altruistic, their support may be of the wrong type or be too plentiful (Brock & Lawrence, 2009); their efforts to help may threaten our self-esteem or be intrusive, and unwelcome indebtedness can occur if we accept such help (McClure et al., 2014). So, social support sometimes comes with emotional costs, and for that reason, the best help is often invisible support that is subtly provided without fanfare and actually goes unnoticed by the recipient (Girme et al., 2013). When cohabiting couples kept diaries of the support they gave and received during a stressful period in which one of them was preparing for a bar examination, the support that was most effective in reducing the test taker’s anxiety was aid the partner provided that the test taker did not notice (Bolger et al., 2000). Sometimes, the best way to help a friend is to do so unobtrusively in a manner that does not add to his or her woes.

When support is visible, it is more effective when it fits the recipient’s current needs and goals (Brock & Lawrence, 2010). Another study with frantic law students preparing for a bar exam found that material support—for instance, a partner cooking dinner—was helpful, but emotional support simply made the examinees more anxious (Shrout et al., 2006). On the other hand, elderly people with impaired vision may be annoyed by material support (especially when it makes them feel more helpless) but heartened by emotional support (Reinhardt et al., 2006). Evidently, there’s no sort of support that’s suitable for all situations; the type of help and assistance a friend will appreciate will depend on his or her current needs, your capabilities, and the present state of your friendship (Girme et al., 2014). We need to be alert to personal preferences and the particular circumstances if we are to provide effective support.

· Regardless of what support is offered, one of the most important patterns in studies of social support is that it’s not what people do for us but what we think they do for us that matters in the long run. The support we perceive is often only a rough match for the support we actually get (Lakey, 2013), and people become distressed when they believe that their partners are unsupportive whether or not their partners really are (Bar-Kalifa & Rafaeli, 2013). In fact, perceived support has more to do with our satisfaction with a partner than with the amount of aid he or she actually provides: When we’re content with our friends and lovers, we perceive them to be Page 219supportive, but when we’re dissatisfied, we perceive them to be neglectful and unhelpful (Lemay & Neal, 2014). Our judgments aren’t totally unrealistic; the more support our partners provide us, the more supportive we usually perceive them to be (Priem et al., 2009). Still, we’re more likely to notice and appreciate their aid and assistance when we trust them and we’re content with them, so that satisfaction may enhance perceived support at the same time that perceived support is increasing satisfaction (Collins et al., 2006). In general, then, our judgments of the aid we receive from others “are likely to possess both a kernel of truth and a shell of motivated elaboration” (Reis et al., 2004, p. 214).

· Finally, our personal characteristics also affect our perceptions of social support (Lakey, 2013). People who doubt others’ care and concern for them tend to take a biased, and undeservedly critical, view of others’ efforts to aid them. In particular, people who have insecure attachment styles judge the social support they receive to be less considerate and less helpful than do those who hold more favorable, more confident views of themselves and their relationships (Collins & Feeney, 2010). Remarkably, even when their friends are being genuinely supportive, insecure people are likely to consider their partners’ assistance and encouragement to be insufficient (Collins et al., 2010).

Overall, then, we rely on our friends and lovers for invaluable support, but the amount and quality of sustenance we (feel we) receive is affected by both our and our partners’ characteristics. The social support we perceive is also greatly influenced by the quality of our relationships; in general, partners who make us happy seem more supportive than do those with whom we share less satisfying friendships. People with roots in Western cultures are also more likely to ask for help when they need it from partners whom they trust and who are known to be responsive (Collins et al., 2010). (People from Eastern cultures are generally more reluctant to ask for help, but they’re just as pleased as Westerners to receive unsolicited support that is freely and thoughtfully provided [Mojaverian & Kim, 2013].) On the whole, however, whether it is visible or invisible, the best support is assistance that indicates that our partners attentively understand and care about—and thus are responsive—to our needs (Maisel & Gable, 2009).


Each of the characteristics of a good friendship we’ve just encountered—respect, trust, capitalization, and social support—leave us feeling valued, understood, or cared for, so they are all tied to a last component of rewarding intimacy that is probably the most important of them all (Reis, 2014): responsiveness, or attentive and supportive recognition of our needs and interests. Most of the time, our friends are interested in who we are and what we have to say. They pay attention to us, and thereby communicate that they value their partnerships with us. They are also usually warm and supportive, and they seem to understand and appreciate us. And these are all reasons why they’re friends. The judgment that someone is attentive, respectful, caring, and supportive with respect to our needs and aspirations, which is known as perceived partner responsiveness, is powerfully rewarding,2 and we are drawn to those who lead us to feel valued, protected, and understood. (See Table 7.1.)

TABLE 7.1 The Perceived Responsiveness Scale

Here are items with which Harry Reis measures the extent to which friends and lovers judge their partners to be responsive. To use the scale, identify a particular person and rate your agreement with all 12 items while you are thinking of him or her. As will be apparent, the higher the sum of your combined ratings, the more responsive you perceive your partner to be.

Compared to most experiences I’ve had meeting somebody new, I get the feeling that this person:

_____   1. … sees the “real” me.
_____   2. … “gets the facts right” about me.
_____   3. … esteems me, shortcomings and all.
_____   4. … knows me well.
_____   5. … values and respects the whole package that is the “real” me.
_____   6. … understands me.
_____   7. … really listens to me.
_____   8. … expresses liking and encouragement for me.
_____   9. … seems interested in what I am thinking and feeling.
_____ 10. … values my abilities and opinions.
_____ 11. … is on “the same wavelength” with me.
_____ 12. … is responsive to my needs.

Perceived partner responsiveness promotes intimacy (Maisel et al., 2008), encouraging self-disclosure, trust, and interdependency, and it is unquestionably good for relationships. Two people feel closer and more content with each other when they tune in and start looking out for each other’s needs (Canevello & Crocker, 2010). Moreover, when we generously attend to others, we tend to perceive that they are supportive and caring, too, and that also enhances our relationships (Debrot et al., 2012). And remarkably, being responsive to our partners is good for us as well as for them; students in freshmen dorms who strove to understand and support their roommates adjusted better to college life as time went by (and got along better with their roommates!) than did those who were less responsive (Canevello et al., 2013). There’s enormous value in the understanding, respect, and regard that’s offered by a responsive partner, and it’s clear that friends can supply us with potent interpersonal rewards.

Responsiveness in Action

One of the most successful relationship self-help books of all time is 80 years old and still going strong. Dale Carnegie published How to Win Friends and Influence People in 1936, long before relationship scientists began studying the interactive effects of responsiveness. Carnegie firmly believed that the road to financial and interpersonal success lay in behaving toward others in a manner that made them feel important and appreciated. He suggested six straightforward ways to get others to like us, and the enduring popularity of his homespun advice helps demonstrate why responsiveness from a friend is so uplifting. Here are Carnegie’s rules (1936, p. 110):

1. Become genuinely interested in other people.

2. Smile.

3. Remember that a man’s name is to him the sweetest and most important sound in any language.

4. Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves.

5. Talk in terms of the other man’s interest.

6. Make the other person feel important—and do it sincerely.

All of these actions help communicate the attention and support that constitute responsiveness, and modern research supports Carnegie’s advice. To favorably impress the people you meet at a speed-dating event, for instance, offer them genuine smiles (Miles, 2009), and then focus on them, being warm, interested, and enthusiastic (Eastwick et al., 2010). It also helps to be Latin American. Latinos generally endorse a cultural norm of simpático that values friendly courtesy and congeniality, and sure enough, when they are left alone with a stranger in Texas, Mexican Americans talk more, look more, smile more, and enjoy the interaction more than American whites or blacks do. The people who meet them enjoy the interactions more, too (Holloway et al., 2009). Carnegie was on to something. People like to receive warm, attentive interest and support from others, and being responsive is a good way to make—and keep—friends.

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