Living Single

The truth about singles in our society.

Success Depends More on Friendship Skills than Romantic Ones

Having a romantic partner matters less than you think

If you are around the age of 20, you probably have something on your mind – or maybe just lodged in the back of your mind. In our matrimaniacal culture, obsessed as it is with marriage and coupling and romantic “achievements,” you probably can’t help but wonder about your own romantic skills.

Once we get past all this over-the-top hyping of coupling, and realize that there are people of every age who are perfectly happy living single (and some, such as the single-at-heart, who live their best lives single), then we will all be better able to live the lives best suited to each of us as individuals.

In the meantime, it is great when there is some myth-shattering research that challenges our cultural fantasies about the overriding importance of being good at romance.

Here’s the question the study addressed: Suppose we measure how talented and successful 20-somethings are at friendship and at romance; to what extent would those age-20 talents predict success 10 years later in their work life, as well as in their friendships and romance? So, if you are good at friendship at age 20, are you likely to be doing better in your work life at age 30 than if you were not good at friendship as a 20-year old? What about your romantic talents at age 20 – how relevant are they to your success at age 30?

Researchers have been studying 205 Minnesotans since they were between the ages of 8 and 12 years old. Around age 20 and then 10 years later, they assessed how skilled and successful the participants were at friendships and romantic relationships. At age 30, the researchers also assessed success at work: “a clear track record of reliably holding and successfully executing the responsibilities of paid positions.”

To measure friendship skills and romantic talents, the researchers used the participants’ own reports (from several sources, such as validated self-report measures and, at age 20, in-person interviews), reports from their parents, and the evaluations of clinical psychologists who saw the participants’ self-reported data. For friendship, the assessments were designed primarily to assess whether the participant had “a close, confiding friendship,” though other indications of having a social life were included, too. For romance, the key question was whether the participant “had engaged in a close and positive reciprocal relationship with a romantic partner for more than a brief period.” The 30-year olds were asked whether they had such relationships within the past 3 years.

The results?

Friendship skills at age 20 matter for success at age 30. People who were good at friendship at age 20 were more likely to be succeeding at paid work 10 years later than those who were not good at friendship. Unsurprisingly, those who were especially good at friendship at age 20 were also especially good at friendship at age 30. And guess what? They were also good at romance.

Romantic skill at age 20 did not predict any successes at age 30, not even romantic ones! The 20-somethings who had had “a close and positive reciprocal relationship with a romantic partner for more than a brief period” were no more likely to be successful at work 10 years later than those who did not have such a partner. They were also no more likely to be successful at friendships. And, those who had a good and lasting romantic relationship at age 20 were no more (or less) likely to have such a relationship 10 years later!

So if you are a 20-year old and you think you are good at romance, good for you. Enjoy it for its own sake. But if you are a 20-year old and you are good at friendship, you have something to be truly proud of – something that will last and which may even predict success in the future.

Reference: Roisman, G. I., Masten, A. S., Coatsworth, J. D., & Tellegen, A. (2004). Salient and emerging developmental tasks in the transition to adulthood. Child Development, 75, 123-133.

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., is author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. She is a visiting professor at UCSB.

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