The quality of our relationships with romantic partners, friends, acquaintances, and even parents has an enormous impact on overall happiness. Negative interpersonal vibes are particularly threatening.
Longstanding theories in the social-science literature suggest that, for women, self-image, self-esteem and identity are tied to having harmonious relationships—in ways that are not as true for men. Unlike male friendship, which is often based on shared enjoyment of particular activities, the hallmarks of female friendship are self-disclosure and emotional support. Girls learn as early as elementary school that having a certain number of friends and being “liked” is a type of tender. To accumulate this currency, girls are often socialized to hide parts of themselves to keep others happy and to make their relationships pleasingly smooth for others.
Why Playing to Win the Hearts of Others Often Hurts
As I discuss in my book, Having Sex, Wanting Intimacy, a loss of freedom is one consequence of too much dedication to winning the adoration of others. Girls and women in this trap are not always as free as their male counterparts to healthfully manage conflict in relationships. Most damaging of all is the loss over time of the aptitude for ending toxic relationships.
Some take the message that you need to be liked by and become friends with everyone so deeply to heart that they won't turn away even from highly negative relationships. For them, failure, in even just one case, raises the specter of being intrinsically unlikeable, and conflict in relationships can have a different meaning for. They learn early on that being "liked" and "pleasing" has a huge impact on how they are treated by caregivers, teachers, and friends. They may not always granted the same freedoms to separate psychologically from their parents or to be "different" from those they are closest to—as a result, they often feel they have to go along to get along.
Negative Relationships Increase Women’s Mortality
What is astounding, however, is the deeply hurtful impact that unhappy relationships may have on self-esteem and mental health. New research is showing that relationship quality not only impacts physical and psychological health, but mortality as well. Telomeres are repetitive structures at the end of our chromosomes that help to support their longevity. Each time a cell replicates itself, telomeres shorten; the length of telomeres are widely believed to be an indication of mortality.
Researchers have found that the number of "ambivalent" relationships a person has is associated with increased cellular aging as indicated by telomere length, even after controlling for a number of variables, including age and health behaviors. The association between ambivalent relationships and shorter telomere length was primarily found to be true for women—but less so for men. An ambivalent relationship is characterized by high proportions of both positive and negative interactions and experiences.
This is not surprising when you stop to consider the toll it would take on a woman to have a lifetime of negative relationships while her identity is firmly rooted in being liked by others. Consider "Laurie," a 22-year-old recent college graduate. She is vulnerable as she begins to navigate the world out on her own. She moves to a new town and works hard to attract both male desire and female friendship. Within a year, she has hooked up with a number of male peers and has five female roommates with whom she hangs out on a regular basis.
But there is emotional turmoil under the surface: Laurie continuously feels pressure to do what her roommates want to do socially. She does not like their choices, yet at the same time is terrified of being alone. She hooks up with guys in the hope that one will see her true self and make a commitment. She is surrounded by people but feels lonely—people do not truly know her or care about her in a meaningful way. Further complicating matters is that she has no idea how to find the kind of relationships that would feel good to her. With no exit strategy, she maintains the status quo, never recognizing the full impact that these ambivalent relationships have on her psychological well-being and physical health.
Far too frequently, a pattern such as Laurie’s may start in high school, when a teenager is so frightened of her peer group turning against her that she always accommodates others. If such a pattern continues without intervention, 22-year-old-Laurie becomes a 42-year-old, still striving to win hearts, all the while feeling perpetually alone and unknown—even with a husband and family.
5 Steps to Playing for Keeps in Your Relationships:
Click here to follow Jill on Facebook or here to follow Jill on Twitter @DrJillWeber. Jill P. Weber, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and author of Having Sex, Wanting Intimacy—Why Women Settle for One-Sided Relationships.
Reference: Uchino, B.N., Cawthon, R.M., Smith, T.W., Light, K.C., McKenzie, J., Carlisle, M., Gunn, H., Birmingham, W., & Bowen, K. (2012). Social relationships and health: Is feeling positive, negative, or both (ambivalent) about your social ties related to telomeres? Health Psychology, 31.
copyright Jill P. Weber, Ph.D.