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Social Networks

Social Network Structure: Relationship Opportunities And Constraints

The structure of social networks is critical for understanding opportunities and constraints in the development and maintenance of social relationships. Friends and family can introduce an individual to others who may have the potential for friendship or romantic involvement. Existing network ties can also limit opportunities to form new relationships, given that a person has only a finite amount of time and energy to engage in social relationships. Researchers typically acknowledge the reciprocal influence of married couples and their social networks—namely, that network ties influence the development and maintenance of a couple's relationships and that being "a married couple" affects the nature of their social network ties.

Some individuals withdraw from network relationships as they become romantically involved, but network withdrawal is probably not a universal phenomenon. Instead, different types of networks (e.g., interactive versus close associates) and different network sectors (e.g., family, close friends, peripheral friends) undergo various changes as partners become more involved in a dating relationship ( Johnson and Leslie 1982). For example, to assess the interactive networks of college-age dating couples, Robert Milardo, Michael Johnson, and Ted Huston (1983) had respondents keep daily logs for two ten-day periods separated by a ninety-five–day span. Respondents in later stages of couple involvement reported that they interacted with fewer total network members than respondents in earlier stages of involvement. However, longitudinal data results found no significant differences in total network size between respondents whose dating relationships had become more involved and respondents whose dating relationships had deteriorated. In fact, there was an increase in the number of family members and of intermediate friends in the network of dating couples who increased in romantic involvement.

As couples become increasingly interdependent in their personal lives, they develop increasingly interdependent social networks (Milardo 1982). Studies investigating couples' networks have assessed the degree of overlap between network members listed by both husbands and wives. Shared networks of family were found to be a particularly valuable source of support (Veiel et al. 1991). However, husbands and wives in the study rarely shared the same network member as their closest confidant. These findings suggest the importance of both individual and shared network ties as supportive resources for married couples.

Catherine Stein and her colleagues (1992) found that couples with different types of networks reported significantly different levels of marital satisfaction and individual well-being. For example, couples whose conjoint networks featured a relatively large number of friends for both husbands and wives also reported significantly higher levels of marital satisfaction than couples in some of the other network types. However, husbands reported significantly higher levels of depression than wives in this type of network. Postulating a direct relationship between separate friendships and individual well-being would suggest that friends might help wives with feelings of depression in a way that men's separate friendships do not. Such findings suggest that conjoint network structure may have different implications for the marital relationship and the psychological wellbeing of individual partners.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily Theory & Types of FamiliesSocial Networks - Defining Social Networks, Social Network Structure: Relationship Opportunities And Constraints, Gender Differences In Social Networks