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Singles Invest More in Friends, Enjoy Payoffs in Self-Esteem

The costs of valuing your romantic partners more than your friends.

In our cultural stories and celebrations, in the U.S. but not only there, friendships get short shrift. Romantic relationships are the relationships that seem to matter most. They are announced publicly, swooned over, sentimentalized, rewarded with gifts and even legal benefits, and valued in just about every imaginable way.

It might be understandable, then, if some people devalued their own friendships. New research shows that single people are unlikely to do that. More so than people with romantic partners, they invest in their friendships, and then they enjoy even higher quality friendships as well as higher self-esteem.

Psychological attunement of self-esteem to friendships” was just published in Social Psychological and Personality Science. Alexandra N. Fisher and her colleagues Danu Anthony Stinson, Joanne V. Wood, John G. Holmes, and Jessica J. Cameron studied 279 young adults, surveying them eight times over the course of two years of college. Each time, the participants were asked whether they were in a romantic relationship. Those who were not were classified as single. (I’ve discussed other meanings of “single” here.)

How Friendship Quality, Self-Esteem, and Investment in Friendship Were Measured

Friendship quality. Young adults had higher quality friendships if they were especially likely to say that (a) they were comfortable being close to their friends, (b) they were generally satisfied with their friendships, and (c) they did not have many doubts about their friendships.

Self-esteem. Young adults with higher self-esteem tended to agree more strongly with statements such as “I feel that I am a person of worth, at least on an equal plane with others,” and disagree with statements such as “At times I think I am no good at all.”

Investment in friendship. Participants who invested more in their closest friendship agreed more strongly with statements such as “I have put a great deal into my friendship that I would lose if my friendship were to end.”

How Single People Valued Their Friendships, and How It Mattered

Having good friendships seems to be good for self-esteem. Young adults with higher quality friendships, whether single or partnered, had higher self-esteem. Of course, self-esteem could also be good for friendships. More telling was what happened over time.

If You Feel Closer to Friends, You Will Probably Enjoy Higher Self-Esteem – Especially If You Are Single

When young adults became closer to their friends and more satisfied with those friendships, their self-esteem increased. That psychological dynamic was even stronger for the single people than the partnered ones. For single people especially, over time, the better they felt about their friendships, the better they felt about themselves.

Singles Invest More in Their Friends and Are Rewarded with Higher Quality Friendships and Higher Self-Esteem

Single people were more likely than partnered people to have invested a great deal into their closest friendship. That investment seemed to pay off. Two months later, the people who invested more in their closest friendship were even more satisfied with their friendships generally, and that greater satisfaction was linked to higher self-esteem.

Over Time, Friendship Quality Stayed Stable or Increased, but Only for Single People

At the beginning of the study, people with romantic partners described their friendships as closer and more satisfying than single people did. Over time, though, the quality of their friendships declined. That’s not because their romantic relationships were blossoming – the quality of those relationships did not improve.

It was different for single people. The quality of their friendships stayed intact or even improved over the two years of the study.

The Costs of Prioritizing Romantic Relationships Over Friendships

Single people invested more in their friendships, and seemed to be rewarded, over time, with deeper friendships and greater self-esteem. Young adults with romantic partners became less close to their friends over the course of the two years, while not enjoying any better relationships with their romantic partners.

Fisher and her colleagues believe that their findings point to “a potential pitfall of prioritizing romantic love over friendships during emerging adulthood”:

“It is possible that the all-consuming nature of romantic love (Coontz, 2005; Finkel, 2017) may lead partnered people to invest less in their friendships resulting in the decline of these important bonds over time. This possibility is worrisome given that most young adults’ romantic relationships will end sooner, rather than later (Macskassy, 2013). Thus, young adults who experience a romantic breakup may suffer double blows to their belonging and self-esteem as they contend with the pain of a breakup and the realization that some of their friendships lack the closeness they once had.”

Plenty of single people have experienced the pain of being demoted by their friends once those friends become romantically involved. Maybe putting single friends on the back-burner comes back to bite coupled people once their own romantic goose is cooked.

Psychological Attunement – It’s Not Just About Couples Anymore

Fisher and her colleagues think about the psychological dynamics documented in their research as a process of “psychological attunement.” Single people are particularly attuned to the quality of their friendships. They invest more in them, and that deepens their feelings of belonging. It also enhances their self-esteem, which, by some accounts, is dependent in fundamental ways on a sense of belonging.

What marks this research as particularly significant is that single people and their friendships were included at all. Scholarly research on relationships has focused overwhelmingly on romantic relationships. Regrettably, even the word “relationships” has been co-opted; used without any qualifications, it means romantic relationships. “Relationship” is in fact a great big word that throws its arms around all sorts of people, such as friends, relatives, and mentors. It should never be used as a shorthand for romantic relationships. And relationships journals should not be stuffed mostly with studies of cooing couples.

Before the Fisher article was published, studies of psychological attunement were all about couples and how they prioritize their romantic bond, and the psychological dynamics that unfurl when they do. This study shows that single people are attuned to relationships, too – their friendships. The authors also took the bold step (bold for a field obsessed with marriage and romantic relationships) of showing that prioritizing romantic relationships over friendships can be costly. That was a welcome, scientifically-grounded counterpoint to the typical deficit narrative of single life that has been perpetuated not just by pundits and pro-marriage groups but even by scholars.

Other Routes to Self-Esteem

This study shows that for single people especially, investing in friends can pay off in even closer friendships and higher self-esteem. It adds to the accumulating evidence, from psychology and sociology, documenting the important place of friendship in the lives of single people. What it does not show, though, is that friendship is the sole route to self-esteem.

There are lots of other possibilities. What intrigues me the most is the one that draws its power from solitude. Researchers such as Thùy Vy T Nguyễn have shown that time spent alone is experienced in markedly different ways by those who like their solitude and those who fear and avoid it. People who are single at heart embrace the time they have to themselves. They rarely feel bored or lonely when they are alone. Do they also feel even better about themselves when they get enough of their cherished alone time? I’d like to know.

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