Tamara McClintock Greenberg Psy.D.

21st Century Aging

What Do We Really Need From Our Friends?

Friendship qualities that promote good health

Posted Jun 12, 2014

A few months ago, I wrote a piece here about spousal relationships and health. I reported that feeling a spouse is not supportive or listening well is associated with increased inflammation and markers for heart disease, even when considering other factors that could also influence health.

Now, a new study has come out that helps us understand what we need from our friends in order to stay healthy—we need to be able to confide in them.

In the new issue of Health Psychology, authors Bookwala, Marshall and Manning report research in which they assessed the health of women and men following the loss of their partner through death or divorce/separation.

There were more women than men in this study of older adults. What the researchers found makes intuitive sense: Participants in the study who had been widowed and identified a friend with whom they could share “very private feelings and concerns” reported fewer depressive symptoms, better overall health and fewer sick days than those without a confidante.

Less predictably, reporting that a family member was a source for confiding was not protective in the same way friends were.

Let’s hear it for our girlfriends!

Family ties can sometimes be obligatory. And let’s face it, who does not have at least some complaints about those with whom we share genetic ties? For most of us, our families are complicated—and we just may not feel as safe.

Friends, on the other hand, can involve less emotional baggage. But the quality of the relationship matters. Many of us have friends with whom we go shopping, have lunch or play sports. More often than not, however, I hear women complain about how some friends only want to talk about themselves. When it comes to that time in a conversation in which we think, when will it be my turn?, some of our friends don’t yield the position of center stage and we are left alone pretending to listen while feeling silently resentful. This scenario does not contribute to good health and may even harm us.

We all need different kinds of friends, but the article by Bookwala and her colleagues reminds us that we do need at least one person who has the time and energy to listen, and I mean really hear us and our concerns. Our minds, bodies and overall health depend on us finding friends who can listen to our troubles and who can handle what we have to say.

This sounds easy, but from what I hear these days from women, young and old, it’s hard to find someone who can share center stage.

It’s worth finding the right kind of friends. Our health depends on it.