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.
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 them. 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 have always been 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:
- Consider the ratio of positive to negative experiences in each of your relationships. Relationships can be supportive (high positive interactions/low negative interactions), unpleasant (low positive interactions/high negative interactions), indifferent (Low in both positive and negative interactions), or ambivalent (high in both positive and negative interactions). Know where your relationships fall on this spectrum: Negative relationships are characterized by high conflict, indifference, and emotional insensitivity. They are more obvious to spot and because there is little to no payoff, easier to end. Be particularly aware of your "ambivalent" relationships, though, where it is not all bad—but there is still a lot of bad.
- Remember: It is better for your psychological and physical health to have quality, not necessarily quantity, in your relationships. Your goal is for the ratio of positive experiences and interactions to exceed the negative ones.
- If you are noticing a few ambivalent or negative relationships, stop and reflect. All healthy relationships have conflict. Consider if you are managing conflict effectively, try to understand your role—and work to change what you need to change.
- Consider talking to the other member in such relationships—your friend, mother, father, your romantic partner. If you feel the ratio is not in your favor in the relationship, tell them what you see about yourself in these negative encounters and how you are working on your role. Do they notice the negative interactions, too? Are they willing to work with you?
- Many stay connected to people who bring them happiness and heartache in equal proportions, in romance and friendships. Sometimes the desire to please results in relationships that on the surface appear conflict-free but in reality carry hidden negative consequences. If you are in a relationship that is unpredictable and causes you distress, and if you have tried unsuccessfully to work on it with the other person, it is time to consider ending things. Your time will be better spent working to find healthier connections with others.
Jill P. Weber, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and author of Having Sex, Wanting Intimacy—Why Women Settle for One-Sided Relationships.
Copyright Jill P. Weber, Ph.D.
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.