Friendships Throughout Adulthood
Close friendships are possible and, in fact, common at all stages of adulthood. Also, regardless of whether they involve women, men, or cross-gender pairs, close friendships provide benefits that are similar in kind and degree. There are, however, circumstances at young, middle, and later adulthood that affect typical friendship patterns (Adams and Blieszner 1996; Matthews 1996).
Young adulthood starts with the individual's loosening of emotional ties with parents and family while beginning to explore stable work opportunities or pursue further education. This development includes changes in commitments and activities, and often changes in residence. Such changes usually disrupt the individual's network of non-kin associates, creating the opportunity, if not the necessity, of forming new friendships. Indeed, young adults who succeed in forging new friendships report being happier, less lonely, and better adjusted than those who do not. Individuals at this stage are relatively free of obligations and social roles (e.g., professional advancement, marriage, and parenthood) that might conflict with forming friendships. Consequently, single young adults report more friendships, including cross-gender friendships, than adults at any other stage.
Gender differences in friendships are as much in evidence during young adulthood as at any other time. That is, women are, on average, more expressive and personally oriented in their friendships than men. Moreover, the friendships of women are generally stronger than those of men with respect to both voluntary interdependence and the person-qua-person factor. As in adolescence, males find that their cross-gender friendships provide expressive rewards to a greater degree than do their same-gender friendships.
With such life events as marriage, parenthood, and accelerated career development, young adulthood merges into middle adulthood. Following marriage, both women and men report having fewer cross-gender friends. One obvious reason for this is suspicion and jealousy, but there are other factors. Michael Monsour noted, for example, that "marriage curtails opportunities for cross-sex friendship formation because spouses spend most of their free time together rather than separately in social situations that might lead to cross-sex friendship formation" (2002, p. 156). Furthermore, when people marry, they generally become more dependent on spouses and less so on friends for meeting social needs. Men especially tend to rely on female friends as confidants, but when they marry they find that their wives meet their expressive needs by becoming live-in confidants, that is, "friends."
Also during middle adulthood, men show a drop in the number and intensity of same- as well as cross-gender friendships. This is partly because their preoccupation with career development leaves them little time to cultivate anything but superficial friendships. In addition, men most often meet other men in work settings. Because of this, many of their potential friends are people with whom they compete for raises or advancement, or with whom they are involved either as supervisors or subordinates. Neither of these conditions is conducive to the openness and personalized concern necessary for the development of a close friendship. When friendships do develop between male work associates, they are likely to center around shared activities and camaraderie rather than personal self-disclosure and expressiveness.
The "friendship situation" for women in middle adulthood is complex. Prior to the arrival of children, marriage has little impact on the number, strength, or expressive character of friendships. With the arrival of children, however, women report a decrease in the number of friendships. This is probably due to women's traditionally greater responsibility for the home and family. The fact that many women also work outside the home further limits the time and energy they have to pursue friendships. Even so, the friendships they are able to maintain retain their expressive and highly personalized character. Later in middle adulthood, presumably as their children become more independent, women report increasing numbers of friends. Women, like men, often form friendships in work settings. However, they are likely to see such relationships as acquaintanceships rather than friendships. They commonly make distinctions among work friends, activity friends, and "real" friends (Gouldner and Strong 1987).
But what about the friendships of adults who never marry? One often hears anecdotally that such never-marrieds cultivate more friendships and treat their friends as special "family." Research, however, does not bear out such a "friends as family" trend. Rather, findings suggest that most unmarried adults increase their contact with relatives rather than forming more or different kinds of friendships.
Older adulthood, usually considered to begin when a person reaches about sixty-five years of age, is marked by two kinds of changes that affect friendships. On the one hand, increasing health concerns, reduced mobility, and declining vigor reduce opportunities for contact with friends and the energy the individual has to devote to them. On the other hand, retirement and reduced social and family obligations increase the free and uncommitted time the individual has to nurture existing friendships and to develop new ones. Not surprisingly, these factors have a different impact on the friendships of older women than those of older men (Field 1999).
For women, the increasing flexibility of middle adulthood continues into older adulthood. Older women are thus able to sustain established friendships and to form new ones as friends die or relocate. Throughout life, women's friendships tend to be more expressive than those of men. In older adulthood, then, women have both the social skills and inclination to continue this pattern. Moreover, women are more likely than men to face the prospect of widowhood and to fill the relationship void by emphasizing their friendships. Whereas widows rely on adult children, especially daughters, for material and practical support, they rely on same aged friends to meet their expressive needs and to maintain their morale.
Because men's friendships are centered mostly around work affiliations and shared activities, when men retire and curtail their activities they often lose their friendships as well. Men are less likely than women to form new friendships to replace the ones they lose. Even so, they retain their primary source of personal and emotional support: their wives. In the relatively rare case where a man outlives his wife, he is likely to remarry rather than seek out new friends. With the loss of friends, however, men do lose the stimulation, fun, and camaraderie that goes along with shared interests and activities. Therefore, men who depart from the average and maintain close same-gender friendships throughout life are likely to lead fuller and more satisfying lives in their older adult years.