Ohio University researcher says forget romance -- celebrate friends instead
Feb. 14, 2007
By Tom Bosco and Sally Linder
If romance isn't working for you this Valentine's Day, maybe you should celebrate the relationship of true, enduring love -- friendship.
Bill Rawlins, Stocker Professor in the School of Communication Studies at Ohio University, has been studying friendship since 1978. He believes there's a lot to love about being friends.
"A lot of people feel lonely on Valentine's Day," Rawlins says. "Our culture celebrates romantic love in pop culture, movies and song. But there isn't a holiday to celebrate friendship."
In fact, according to Rawlins, love relationships can even be detrimental to the health of friendships.
"The largest drop-off in friends occurs when someone gets married," he says. "Each partner's friends get subject to the other partner's approval." In contrast, friends have the freedom to be dependent upon and independent of one another.
So why not turn Feb. 14 from Valentine's Day into the Day of Friendship? "The primary activity would be to make time for friends," Rawlins says.
That can be a prelude to regularly rekindling friendships in your life. "When you make out your list at the beginning of a week, make sure important entries have to do with friendship," Rawlins says. "Make it a priority, not, 'Well, if nothing else comes up.'"
Rawlins has other insights about the friends phenomenon. For instance, he's found that many ambitious, middle-aged men spend so much time at work that they don't develop friends, to the detriment of a good life. College-aged people, in contrast, spend more time in groups than one-on-one, and that tendency is growing. It's also leading to more cross-sex platonic relationships, which Rawlins considers a healthy trend.
"If you don't have friendships with the opposite sex, you miss out on having a relationship with half the population."
These relationships provide different things for men and women, though. Women actually have an easier time with cross-gender friendships because they learn to be close friends earlier in life than men, Rawlins says. He found women like men friends because guys are relaxed and void of the "drama" they experience in some female relationships.
Men like that women friends can act as an "emotional mentor," according to Rawlins. His research shows men appreciate that women listen to them, care about them and train them to relate better in their love relationships. Men can get these things out of men-women relationships as long as romance doesn't begin to creep into the equation.
That begs the question: How important is it for couples to be friends? Very, Rawlins believes after looking at 30 years of research about satisfied versus troubled couples. Consistently satisfied couples reported having the same two things in common, luck and friendship. Luck allowed them to meet and friendship pulled them through "the ups and downs of life strained by external forces" such as children, work and financial stresses, Rawlins says.
So how do you spot a true friendship? Look for five characteristics, says Rawlins: It's voluntary, personal ("you care about the other person for who they are"), mutual, equal (which doesn't mean you can't be different) and affectionate (you truly like the other person). Then ask yourself, "is this a person I can talk to, trust, depend on and simply enjoy?" If your answers are yes, then, as the James Taylor song goes, "You've got a friend."
Rawlins has explored friendship since 1978, mainly through interviewing and studying pairs of friends. He published a book, "Friendship Matters," (Aldine DeGruyter, Hawthorne, N.Y., 1992) and has examined friendships across sex and the life course. He's working on a new book that explores the relationship between friendship and broader relationships, such as civic responsibility and education.
"I've interviewed people from age 14 to 100," Rawlins says. "Many of them say to me, 'My life would not have been worth living without my friends.'"
Tom Bosco is a writer and Sally Linder is acting senior director of media relations with University Communications and Marketing.