People who lose their spouse may do better health-wise to confide in a close friend than in a close relative, according to Jamila Bookwala, a psychology professor at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., a researcher who studies and teaches about relationship trends among adults in middle age and older.
Professor Bookwala's latest research on the power of friendship in staving off declining health after an older person loses a spouse appears in the special June edition of the American Psychological Association journal Health Psychology. Her research reveals that that people who are widowed but have a close friend as confidante do much better health-wise following their loss than those who do not -- but having a family member as confidante was not associated with similar benefits.
Bookwala and her colleagues followed 747 Americans, mostly older women, between 1992 and 2004. They examined the differences in physical health between those who had a close confidante and those who did not. Having family support from relatives did not show the same positive health benefits as did having friends.
Why not a family member? Bookwala explains that the emotional complexities of family can add stress to a friendship with relative. "Friendships are discretionary while family relationships are obligatory," she says, "and past research shows that obligatory relationships can be less beneficial than discretionary relationships during times of stress."
"Family relationships are more likely to be characterized by ambivalence than are friendships," Bookwala explains. "Such ambivalence -- feeling both close and bothered by the person -- may occur even within confidante relationships with family members. This ambivalence may reduce the likelihood of health benefits from confiding in a family member."
"In comparison," she notes, "a close, confiding relationship with a friend is likely to be less emotionally complex, less ambivalent. As a result, having a friend to confide in may be more conducive to protecting health in the face of stress, such as becoming widowed. And this may explain why having a family member to confide in resulted in no protective health benefits for those whose spouse died, but having a friend to confide in did."
- Jamila Bookwala, Kirsten I. Marshall, Suzanne W. Manning. Who needs a friend? Marital status transitions and physical health outcomes in later life.. Health Psychology, 2014; 33 (6): 505 DOI: 10.1037/hea0000049
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