Kristen Norwood & Steve Duck. 21st Century Communication: A Reference Handbook. Editor: William F Eadie. Sage Publication. 2009.
The modern study of friendships has roots in social psychology, sociology, and communication, with influence from rhetorical studies and interpersonal communication. This chapter can only briefly overview this vast literature. We begin by tracing ideas of friendship through history and then discuss its nature and functions. This is followed by an overview of theories of friendship development, maintenance, and dissolution. Also included is a brief discussion of methods used to research friendships.
Friendship in Time
Early Ideas about Friendship
Friendship is something we all know a little about, via “common sense,” and may not seem deserving of the philosophical contemplation or rigorous research it has received in the past 2000 years. However, Aristotle recognized the complexities of friendship, and even Homer (900 BCE) commented on a similar notion that translates to comrade. Aristotle still gets credit for first analyzing friendship in a systematic manner, devoting chapters in his Nicomachean Ethics and Eudemian Ethics to the nature of friendship, types of friendships, and the place of friendship in the Greek polis (city state).
Aristotle’s ideas on friendship are still relevant and ring true compared with lay perceptions. First, he believed that friendship should reflect the relationship one should have with oneself (self-love), and he described a friend as another self. Though this notion of loving oneself may seem egotistic, Aristotle’s concept of self-love is based on ethics and goodwill rather than narcissism. He believed that a person will typically strive to do what is in his or her own best interest, and so friends should behave toward each other in the ways that are in each other’s best interests: in other words, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Aristotle discussed three types of friendship. Friendship grounded in virtue, or character friendship, is the purest type of friendship, where individuals are friends simply because they recognize each other’s good character. The truest friends are those who do not seek personal gain from the relationship, other than keeping the company of another whose virtuous nature they appreciate. A friend such as this wishes good for the Other simply for the Other’s sake. Aristotle believed that for this or any type of friendship to exist, the sentiments must be reciprocated. One person can have feelings of respect, appreciation, and liking for another, but unless those feelings are reciprocated no friendship exists. In this definition, friendship is something that exists between two people and is not something that one person can possess alone.
Aristotle is more skeptical about the other types of friendships. Friendships grounded in pleasure or utility exist because of some advantage gained. If friendship is a means to personal reward then it is not what Aristotle would deem a perfect friendship. However, friendships of utility were as common in Aristotle’s time as the many relationships today where “politics” and economics are the basis of interaction (e.g., relationships with the boss or with classmates in school). In Aristotle’s city, it was necessary to base relationships on some sort of social or economic reciprocity. Aristotle nevertheless saw these types as imperfect forms of friendship.
The Roman orator and philosopher Cicero continued the philosophical discussion of friendship in his treatise Laelius: de Amicitia (“On Friendship”). Like Aristotle, Cicero allows for different types of friendship but reveres friendship based on love and good feeling as the purest form. He maintained that such friendship does not fade with absence or death. Cicero does, however, disagree with Aristotle’s claim of friendship being akin to self-love. He posited that we may sometimes hope less for ourselves than we should hope for a friend. So, in a way, Cicero believed that friends should actually be held in higher esteem than oneself.
Cicero goes further to discuss the nature of communication between friends. He suggests that honesty is better than flattery between friends because criticism is communicated without spite or personal attack. Friends also should accept honest communication/critique without feelings of bitterness. In addition to being honest and direct, friends should put their friends’ well-being before their own reputations and even lives, if necessary. Clearly, Cicero expected much of his friends!
Aristotle and Cicero based their views of friendship in their own historical times and beliefs, but so do we. Any notion of friendship—even our own—is historically situated.
Temporal Aspects of Friendship
Alberta Contarello and Chiara Volpato (1991) conducted an analysis of literary texts looking for accounts of friendship as it has been depicted through the ages. They examined five French texts (spanning eight centuries) for descriptions of friendship. They noted that the kinds of relationships counted as friendships changed over history. In classical times, friendship was seen as distinct from kinship, but in medieval times, it was based on kin, describing solidarity between family members as well as lovers. With the progression of feudal systems, friendship blended with patronage relationships or those based on the inequality of relational partners, where one benefited the other, much like Aristotle’s friendship of utility. Later still, the term reflected a concept closer to that of our modern idea of friendship.
Other interesting observations concerned a change in the nature of the relational dynamics with friends in later times more directly expressing emotion, tolerating relational conflict, and seeking to resolve it rather than merely ending the friendship. Furthermore, throughout the texts, there was almost no mention of female-female friendships. It is likely that female friendships did exist but were just not represented, perhaps because of women’s social status at the time.
Therefore, we can reasonably conclude that the concept of friendship is dynamic and has experienced changes through time and historical context. So, then, what is the nature of friendship in our own historical context?
The Nature of Friendship
We use the term friend to refer to many different kinds of people: best friend, close friends, and good friends; someone may be just a friend or more than a friend; siblings or parents may be not just family members but also friends; our significant others may also be our best friends. We may even differentiate our friends based on context by labeling different groups, such as friends from high school, friends from college, or friends from work, or differentiate friends based on sex by labeling guy friends as separate from girlfriends. For the many ways we think and talk about friends, though, there is at least one common element, namely, free choice: A true friend is someone you freely choose and who chooses you back.
The voluntary nature of friendship is stressed in research. Robert Hays (1988) offered this definition of friendship: “Voluntary interdependence between two persons over time, that is intended to facilitate social-emotional goals of the participants and may involve varying types and degrees of companionship, intimacy, affection, and mutual assistance” (p. 395). This voluntary element of friendship requires that the relationship exists by the free choice of both parties, not by the felt obligation to maintain a relationship, for example, at work or in class. This is the feature of friendship that separates it as a relational type from others, such as familial or work-related relationships, which are not typically voluntary or not usually perceived as such.
Keith Davis and Michael Todd (1982) developed a paradigm case of friendship—characteristics that are typical of friendship and differentiate friendship from other relationships. They found that in friendship, two people participate in a mutually reciprocal relationship as equals; enjoy each other’s company; have mutual trust that each will protect the other’s interests, will provide support in times of need, and accept the other person “as is”; respect each other’s judgment; feel free to “be themselves”; have an understanding of the other’s thought process; and are close through shared experience and intimate disclosure. Friendship comes with very hefty expectations!
Friendship is different from other types of relationships because no formal bond, contract, or ceremony exists to mark its beginning or permanence (e.g., we do not send friendship anniversary cards as we do for romances or marriages). There are usually no factors that serve as obligatory pressures to keep friendships from ending, as in marriages where children, religious beliefs, or concerns over money might prevent two people ending an unsatisfying relationship. Another way friendships differ from romantic relationships is nonexclusivity. Typically, people are involved in only one romantic relationship at a time (at least, as prescribed by social norms). However, an individual can have several friends at a time. It is acceptable and even encouraged for a person to be on the lookout for new friends at any given point.
So if friendship is a voluntary and somewhat costly relationship in terms of time and effort, why do most people choose to have friends? While some definitions of friendship align with Aristotle’s idea that one should be a friend simply for the sake of that person, most modern relational scholars emphasize self-referent rewards (benefits for oneself) or good feelings that friends give us about ourselves. If we got nothing from these voluntary relationships, why would we feel the need to have them in the first place? It seems Aristotle’s idea of true friendship is missing something. Even if we do selflessly value the good character of another, we also want to profit from good friendship.
Functions of Friendship
Friendships fulfill various emotional, psychological, and physical needs. Individuals who are denied relationships or who choose to separate themselves from others, such as hermits, are not psychologically or even physically as healthy as those involved in close relationships. There’s a reason we consider solitary confinement or even exile among the harshest of punishments. To take away an individual’s connections to others is to take away a much needed system of support.
Robert Weiss (1974) offered a list of “provisions” of friendship—the good things that friendships provide for us—such as positive emotion, support, and shared communication and activity. Friends provide a sense of inclusion and belonging. Though family members may serve a similar function, it is the voluntary choice of a friend that makes such inclusion special. A friend provides a reliable alliance or a sense that someone is there if needed—emotionally, physically, or otherwise. A friend provides this support not out of obligation but for the sake of the other person and the friendship.
Besides offering inclusion, friends serve as measurement tools to help us gauge the propriety of emotions and the validity of opinions. They are sounding boards, confirming or disconfirming our actions and beliefs. They let us know where we stand, whether in the right or wrong. Because of this, friends are important to our emotional integration and stability. They help construct and reconstruct our emotional framework when we are in doubt; for example, you may have asked a friend’s opinion as to whether you acted correctly in a given situation.
In addition to emotional support, friends supply us with physical support and assistance, helping with everyday tasks, such as picking new clothes, preparing food, or studying. They bring us soup when we are ill, give us rides when ours cars malfunction, and give us gifts on special occasions—and we do the same for them.
A simple but vital function of friendship is that it gives us opportunities for communication. With friends we have opportunities to communicate about everything and nothing, meaning the range of topics one discusses with friends typically has few limitations. We talk with friends about ourselves, other relationships, the weather, tragic or exciting events, future plans, present situations, and past mistakes. We share secrets, make small talk, and gossip about others. Talk about topics that may seem trivial is just as important as talk about life-changing events. It is both kinds of talk that constitute friendships in the first place. Friendships exist because of and through communication.
Furthermore, friends develop ways of communicating specific to the relationship (personal idioms). Friends share private jokes, understandings, private languages—such as nicknames for other people, activities—such as going to a favorite bar or restaurant, and references to common history. This phenomenon serves to demonstrate the relationship, as well as to exclude those outside the relationship who do not share the joke or the private language.
Friends also build and maintain each other’s self-esteem in two main ways: by complimenting us directly and by relaying compliments from others. Friends help us see positive ways others perceive us. Another way friends increase levels of self-esteem is by making us feel valued. By choosing to spend time with us, listening to what we say, asking for our opinions, and soliciting our help in emotional and physical ways, friends give a sense of utility and worth. We feel good about our ability to do things for others, and without friends we would lose many such opportunities. In fact, most people resent it when others will not let them help or repay them for help.
Last, a provision of friendship that seems to incorporate most others is that of identity confirmation or personality support. All the provisions discussed above—inclusion, emotional and physical support, communication, and self-esteem—serve to support one’s identity. Personalities consist of thoughts, emotions, behaviors, attitudes, doubts, and beliefs, among other things, none of which mean much unless performed and validated. We desire confirmation of who we are to be successful being who we are. Along the way, friends help us construct our personalities and spot holes that need fixing or parts that need rearranging. Those whom we trust to do this are likely to be those who share our ways of thinking. Friends typically have psychological commonality because they share similar thought-worlds or systems of thinking and understanding. For this reason, perception of similarity is important in the development of friendships.
Theories of Attraction and Relationships
Attraction and Information Seeking
Why do we choose the friends we do? The motivation to make friends and keep them differs over the life span, and young people are more motivated to develop new friendships than middle-aged adults. Also, opportunities for meeting people must exist for friendship to develop. Research shows that physical proximity stimulates friendship development. We are more likely to become friends with those we encounter frequently, whether in class, at work, or in our neighborhoods (the Field of Availables), from whom we then make specific selections (the Field of Desirables) (Kerckhoff, 1974). Furthermore, we are more likely to become friends with those with whom we have enjoyable encounters.
Research has shown that similarity is important in some ways and at certain points in friendship development but less important at others. We tend to think that friends have much in common and are already similar in many ways, but in what ways do friends need to be similar for relationships to commence and develop successfully? Friends are usually more similar to each other than nonfriends in age, sex, race, interests, intelligence, and economic status. It was originally thought that attitude similarity was a specific condition for friendship, but research has shown that similarity in behavioral preference is actually more highly associated with friendship. We are fine having small differences of opinion with friends but are less likely to maintain friendship with those who engage in different sorts of behaviors or tend to make different behavioral choices than we do.
Similarity between friends is not a fixed thing. Steve Duck and Gordon Craig (1975) studied changes in similarity between friends over time: Broad value similarity is associated with early attraction, but by the time 8 months have passed, there has already been some filtering out, and the main feature of those who remain friends is a deeper psychological similarity. So in the beginning of friendships, it seems important for friends to value similar things, but sharing similar ways of thinking and processing experiences assumes greater importance for lasting friendship in daily life. Perhaps these different types of similarity come to light at different times because surface value systems are easier to discover during the first stages of interaction, while deep-thought processes or behavioral styles and patterns may take time to uncover.
In addition, perceptions of physical attractiveness, competence, and immediacy (or liking behavior) will cause us to feel connections to certain people. So, then, what happens after the initial attraction, after we realize the possibility of friendship exists? There are many theories that explain how two individuals get from Point A (attraction) to Point B (friendship).
Charles Berger and Richard Calabrese (1975) developed the uncertainty reduction theory to explain what happens during the first stage of interaction between two people. The theory posits that when strangers first meet, their primary concern is information gathering in an attempt to reduce uncertainty and increase predictability about the behavior of another person. Individuals experience greater certainty when they can accurately predict another person’s behaviors, and these predictions guide their own interaction behaviors. Levels of uncertainty affect perceptions and behaviors. The more certain an individual becomes about another, the more readily he or she perceives similarities and differences between self and the other person. The interaction may cease or progress accordingly.
Steve Duck (1991) proposed a model to explain the development from acquaintanceship to friendship based on factors other than simple personality similarity. Duck’s model posits that strangers gather information about each other from different sources, such as physical appearance, communication style, and perceived attitude similarity, to construct an idea of the other person’s deeper personality. In the beginning stages of interaction, we do not have much more to go on other than what we see and hear. We gather this type of information until more becomes available, usually through disclosures and shared experiences. Essentially, this model proposes that not all initial attraction leads to a developed friendship, because people get weeded out along the way. Those friendships that develop fully are based on successive passings through finer filters that cut other people out.
New information refines our ideas about the other person. New information helps us “figure them out” in such a way that we feel we can more easily describe, interpret, and predict behavior. One assumption of this model and others like it is that this progression runs smoothly and leads to a close relationship. Experience tells us that such is not always the case. With every potential relationship, the two parties must decide whether or not to engage in the activities that serve to develop relationships. So, then, how do we decide whether or not to move forward or at least to a different place?
Many social psychologists, including Donn Byrne, Gerald Clore, and Bernice and Albert Lott, have applied reinforcement theories to the study of attraction. They maintain that we are attracted to people who offer us rewards or are simply present when something positive happens to us. We associate positive outcomes with those people and so want to spend time with them. These rewards can come in many forms, from immediacy behaviors (closeness) to compliments to agreement with opinions. We can be conditioned by rewards to have a positive reaction to reward givers, and furthermore, a high frequency of rewards will usually cause positive feelings to increase.
Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor (1973) developed the social penetration theory to explain how relational development is based on changes in communication between people. During the initial stages of interaction, communication is somewhat superficial and is focused on a narrow range of topics, such as TV shows, general interests, and local events. As two people interact more frequently (and in a positive and rewarding manner), the communication becomes more intimate and covers a broader range of topics. Here, individuals begin to feel more comfortable self-disclosing about family members, personal problems, or past relationships. This progression can happen quickly or more slowly depending on the individuals involved or the context of the friendship development. In fact, self-disclosure can be used strategically to speed up or slow down the process of relational development.
Mark Knapp (1984) extended the work of Altman and Taylor to focus on the communicative dimensions of self-disclosure and how difference in these dimensions can delineate relational type. Knapp’s results revealed three factors important in distinguishing communication between close relational partners and more distant acquaintances: personalized communication, synchronized communication, and difficult communication. Personalized communication is signified by unique and flexible communication, as well as by the depth of self-disclosure (personal information about oneself). Synchronized communication refers to the smoothness, coordination, and ease of communication between two people. Last, difficult communication is marked by strained and awkward interactions and the perception of communication barriers. Knapp showed that friendships were characterized more often by the first two factors than were acquaintanceships, and acquaintanceships were more often characterized by difficult communications than were friendships.
George Levinger and J. Diederick Snoek (1972) developed a model of the different levels of pair relatedness to explain the progression of interaction between two individuals. Their four levels of pair relatedness are: (1) zero contact, (2) unilateral awareness, (3) surface contact, and (4) mutuality. When two individuals are at zero contact, they are not even aware of one another. At unilateral awareness, one person is aware of the other, but there is no interaction. If this one-sided awareness leads to attraction of some kind, then the aware individual might make an effort to interact with the other. This might lead tosurface contact, where the two individuals interact using small talk or superficial communication.
Based on this narrow sample of communication, the individuals assess the possible rewards of continued interaction. If things look positive, then the two may progress to mutuality. Mutuality involves intimate interaction where self-disclosure becomes deeper, and the partners clearly intersect in an integrative relationship.
These theories of initial interaction give us different perspectives on how two people might begin to gauge the possibility of a relationship. During the initial stages and beyond, relationships take awareness and effort to form and transform. Steve Duck (1991) offered four skills needed for relationshipping, or the doing of relationships. Essential to the acquisition of friendship is the ability to recognize opportunities for friendship and the ability to make sound judgments of others. Second, one needs to be equipped with a relational tool belt complete with strategies and techniques for enticing likable people into relationships and showing them the potential rewards of such a relationship. Third, one should possess knowledge about the way successful relationships develop and use that knowledge to ensure timely and successful progression. Last, one must have skills for relationship maintenance and repair since relationships require looking after if they are to thrive.
Dynamics of Relationships
Moving past the initial attraction, some theorists have developed ideas about the choices we make once we are involved in relationships and must decide whether or not to stay in them. Among these theories are social exchange theories, based on economic models of not only the rewards in relationships but also the costs and, more important, the balance or imbalance of the two. Relational costs include investments of emotion, time, money, and energy. According to social exchange theories, relationships are satisfying and will continue when the rewards outweigh the costs, taken as a whole and in the long term.
John Thibaut and Harold Kelley (1959) took social exchange theory a step further in writing that relational partners not only weigh the cost-benefit ratio of the relationship to evaluate its worth but also compare relational outcomes to those of other relationships. People compare relationships with those they have experienced, those they anticipate, and those of others around them. In this way, relational partners not only evaluate the present relationship on its own terms but also compare its costs and benefits with those of other relationships. Kelley (1979) later proposed that as relationships develop, the motivations of those involved transform, shifting focus from individual costs-benefits to the relational rewards, or the rewards of the partner.
Stage Models of Relationships
Relational scholars have explained the dynamics of relationships with stage models of different phases relationships go through during development and dissolution. For example, Levinger extended his and Snoek’s (1972) model of attraction stages to cover deterioration and dissolution of relationships. His ABCDE model stands for Acquaintanceship, Buildup, Continuation, Deterioration, and Ending. Mark Knapp and Anita Vangelisti (1992) developed a similar model, called the relational development model, claiming that relationships progress through stages of development: initiation (individuals form initial assumptions and opinions of each other); experimentation (individuals collect and disclose information about themselves to get to know each other); intensifying (individuals begin to disclose more personal information, begin to develop informal and particular ways of communicating, and use labels such as “close friends”); integrating (two people fuse together and are seen as a pair, often merging social networks and creating a joint identity); and bonding (two people denote their relationship publicly—with marriage or some other social ritual; bonding doesn’t seem to apply to friendships since there is no formal ritual involved, for example, when two friends become roommates).
Knapp and Vangelisti (1992) also outlined stages for relational breakdown: differentiating (partners begin to disengage the joint identity); circumscribing (partners no longer communicate frequently or about personal matters); stagnating (interaction is at a standstill); avoiding (partners avoid face-to-face communication or physical copres-ence altogether); and terminating (the bond between partners is broken and the relationship dissolves).
Stephanie Rollie and Steve Duck (2006) critiqued stage models, claiming that though stage model approaches are appealing in their simple representations of changes in relationships, their utility cannot encompass the complex processes of relational development, maintenance, or dissolution. Stage models serve only as general maps for the often unpredictable dynamics of relationships. They are useful in delineating general principles of relational dynamics but are limited in that they characterize relationships as moving from one point to another with relatively little wavering.
Doing and Maintaining Friendships
Much of the early work on relationships conceptualized relationships as fixed states and so missed the fact that relationships are not simply emotions but manifest dynamics and performance of behaviors. For one thing, the two people involved in a friendship may have different conceptions of the relationship. Even more central to understanding friendships is what brings relationships into being, keeps them alive, and even dissolves them, namely, communication. Most social psychological work on relationships positions communication as a secondary phenomenon used only for transmitting information about emotions rather than doing something active.
Friendships are not only developed by communicating, they are carried out through everyday talk, shared activity, and talk about shared activity—much of it routine and pedestrian. Female-female friendship dyads emphasize personal topics and confiding in one another, whereas male-male friendship dyads emphasize talk about external topics and shared activities. Friends engage in talking not merely as an activity to fill time and transmit information but to accomplish relational tasks such as expressing emotions and opinions, establishing relational rules and boundaries, and actually changing the nature of the relationship. Furthermore, talk can be seen as rhetorical, as can relationships. That is to say, talk and relationships serve as persuasive tools. For example, how often have you responded positively to a request or done a favor for someone just because the person was a friend? Steve Duck and Walter Carl (2004) offered a conception of talk and relationships as inherent in interpersonal influence, bringing together the rhetorical and interpersonal aspects of relating. They claimed, “Such talk is inherently rhetorical in that it implicitly offers a persuasive account of a view and hence is an effort to attempt to persuade others to support said view of the world or of self” (p. 7). We not only do things with words, but, very significantly if unconsciously, we do things with and for relationships. Relationships are persuasive in that we tend to make exceptions for and perform tasks for a friend rather than a stranger simply because we have a relationship with the friend.
Talk differs with relational type. The research of Sally Planalp and Anne Benson (1992) showed us that third-party observers can distinguish acquaintances from friends simply by listening to their talk. Friends were more relaxed, more intimate, and more informal in their interaction. Friends shared talk time equally but interrupted each other more than acquaintances. Furthermore, friends drew heavily on mutual knowledge when conversing, often leaving out information that was thought to be understood by both parties.
Now we know that talk between friends is vital to the relationship, but there is another kind of talk that has a great effect on friendship, to wit talk from the social network. We learn the rules and expectations of relating from our social networks, namely family members and friends. Moreover, social network members are active in giving advice, gossiping, and commenting about relationships and how they “should” be done. In this way, there are never only two people in any relationship since relationships exist within larger social contexts and their influence is ever present (e.g., “Whatever would the neighbors think?”).
One theory important to understanding these more complex processes of relationship is relational dialectics theory (RDT), developed by Leslie Baxter (1988), Barbara Montgomery, and Dawn Braithwaite. This theory focuses not on the progression from attraction to intimacy but instead on the management of everyday tensions that arise for existing relational partners. RDT assumes that relationships are not linear, that they are characterized by change, that contradiction is a fundamental fact of relationships, and that communication is central to managing contradiction. Baxter and Montgomery (1996) initially discussed three dialectical tensions: (1) autonomy-connection, where partners struggle to maintain some individual independence while still sustaining their togetherness; (2) open-ness-closedness, where partners feel pulled between the desires to reveal and to conceal information about the self and the relationship; and (3) novelty-predictability, where partners are caught between a desire for predictable stability and a desire for lively spontaneity in the relationship.
RDT also offers several strategies for managing these contradictions. A few of these strategies will be discussed here. Cyclic alternation refers to managing different poles of contradictions over time. For example, lifelong friends may be very connected when they are young, may become more independent as young adults, and may return to closeness as middle-aged adults. Neutralizing refers to a compromise of the opposite poles of a dialectical tension. An example would be friends deciding to spend only two weekends together during a month instead of all four or none at all. This way, they could maintain a balance between independence and integration. Another example of a management strategy is reframing, which refers to reconstructing the dialectic so that the two poles are no longer positioned in opposition. If two friends see their ability to be spontaneous as part of their relational stability, then they have reframed the novelty-predictability dialectic. Whatever the strategy used, managing dialectical tensions is key in relational satisfaction.
All relationships require effort to ensure functionality and success. Many scholars, including Kathryn Dindia, Leslie Baxter, Dan Canary, and Laura Stafford, have uncovered strategies for maintaining relationships, though most of these strategies are used more by romantic partners and family members than by friends. Again, since the friendship is a voluntary, nonformalized relationship, fewer active maintenance strategies are used. However, relational maintenance strategies that might be used in friendships include prosocial behaviors, which are cooperative behaviors prompting discussion of the relationship (e.g., helping, doing favors); antisocial behaviors, which are coercive in nature (e.g., threats, tantrums); positivity, the use of optimistic or cheerful behaviors to make the other person feel valued and enjoyed; openness, direct discussion or disclosure of one’s personal confidential thoughts; assurances, statements that directly indicate or imply a relational future; social networks, the use of mutual associations for relational preservation; and sharing tasks, fulfillment of responsibilities.
Sometimes, though, relational maintenance strategies are not enough to save a relationship from breaking down. Friends face difficulties like any relational partners, and there may be difficulties particular to the nature of friendship.
Difficulty and Dissolution
Since relationships are processes and are not fixed, they change and are vulnerable to all the other difficulties of human life. A successful relationship of any kind requires maintenance and repair—and perhaps especially friendships, since, as discussed earlier, there are no formalities or obligations binding friends together. Friendships require effort, or they will dissolve.
Jacqueline Wiseman (1986) conducted research to examine the nature of the bond between friends and the difficulties friends face (binds). She discussed the unwritten contract present in friendships that represents the implicit expectations of support, reciprocity, and responsibility, which can be a bind. Needs for support and rules for giving and receiving are not always explicit, which can cause problems: for instance, one person gives until his or her source “runs dry,” one person gives support that is not needed, one person stops giving support while it is still needed, or one person might need support but will expect the other friend to give it without explicitly asking for it.
Wiseman (1986) showed that physical support is a common site for contention between friends, whether it is the absence of giving physical support or the excessive eliciting of it. Physical resources seem to have limitations for friends, though they are rarely discussed as such explicitly. Other causes of discontent are reduction of time spent together, failure to heed advice, failure to understand controversial actions, criticism “behind the back,” failure to reciprocate support, and competing loyalties between the friendship and partners’ romantic relationship(s).
Such problems can lead to the breakdown of the friendship. Just as relational development tends to go through transformative stages, relational dissolution seems to work in similar ways. Though most relational stage models and theories are based on breakups in romantic relationships, some can be applied to friendships. Rollie and Duck (2006) recently offered six phases as a model for dissolution of relationships: (1) breakdown processes, (2) intrapsychic processes, (3) dyadic processes, (4) social processes, (5) grave dressing processes, and (6) resurrection.
During breakdown, one or both partners become dissatisfied with the relationship. If one person reaches the point where the discontent is unbearable, that person enters the intrapsychic process. Here, the individual ruminates about the relational partner’s behavior, role performance, the relationship itself, the costs of “getting out,” and the potential rewards of alternative relationships. Also, the individual contemplates expressing—but does not actually express—dissatisfaction to the relational partner and more likely represses any such feelings. Eventually, the person may reach another threshold where that individual feels justified in ending the relationship.
If this threshold is breached, the dyad may begin dyadic processes and the dilemma of confronting the partner or avoiding the issue. Conflict, or at least negotiation, may occur during talks about the relationship. This is the point where relationship repair can happen if it is possible to “save” the relationship. Still, if the interaction progresses negatively, one or both parties may reach another threshold and decide on dissolution. Then, the dyad moves into social processes, where third parties are informed of the relationship problems. Typically, each partner seeks out a confidant who knows both partners so that the confidant can first act as a liaison between the partners and later can be persuaded to take sides. If the dissolution progresses from here, the dyad enters grave dressing processes, and the parties engage in adjustment behaviors. Here, both individuals make attributions about relational issues and retell the story of the relationship, giving separate versions of the breakup story. Finally, the resurrection process is where the person reemerges as a new being ready for a different kind of relational life.
Baxter (1984) noted that friendships are often just allowed to wither on the vine—calls are not returned, visits are not fixed up, availability for meetings is restricted, and so on until the Other “gets it” that the relationship is over. But there are also more complex processes of relational disengagement, represented by a flow chart of relational trajectories that incorporates what Baxter describes as the critical features of the relational dissolution process: the gradual versus sudden onset of relational problems; the unilateral versus bilateral desire to exit the relationship; the use of direct versus indirect actions to accomplish the dissolution; the rapid versus protracted nature of the disengagement negotiation; the presence versus absence of relationship repair attempts; and the final outcome of relationship termination versus relationship continuation.
Researching friendships has proven to be a challenging endeavor for several reasons. Traditional scientific methods, involving experimental techniques and laboratory conditions or questionnaires, have been only partially informative and are not always useful for finding answers to the most interesting questions about relationships. Even with qualitative methods, such as in-depth interviews, problems exist. The nature of relationships themselves creates difficulty. There are two individuals involved in every friendship, and getting both parties to agree to participate in a research study is challenging in itself. Even if a researcher succeeds in this task, each relational partner comes with his or her own vision of the relationship and a unique way of describing it.
Early work in attraction and relationships was situated in social psychology. As a result, much research was conducted using traditional scientific approaches, where relationships between variables were assessed with statistical tests. This method presented problems in what to count as the unit of analysis. If only one partner of a relationship was involved in a study, then only a one-sided account of the relationship was elicited. If both relational partners were involved in the study, there was a problem of counting two individuals as units of analysis when the relationship between them was really of interest. Furthermore, much early research occurred in laboratory settings where strangers were assessed on attraction by means of attitude similarity and other related variables. Laboratory research on relationships often revealed limited and mundane findings.
Observational methods have been used in a variety of disciplines where researchers collect data about “naturally occurring” behaviors, usually through the use of videotapes, audiotapes, and ethnographic methods. These methods are subject to validity issues, such as researcher involvement and subjectivity. One very common method used in relational research, and one that has been popular in the discipline of communication, is that of self-report data. Using self-report data, researchers can elicit the thoughts and feelings of an individual in a relationship as well as his or her perceptions of the other partner’s thoughts and feelings.
Self-report data can be gathered through the use of surveys, interviews, or diaries. Problems with self-report data come from “social desirability”: Participants may answer according to what they think theyshould say or what they think their partners might say. Furthermore, researchers have the task of trying to deduce relational dynamics from two separate accounts of a relationship. One way that researchers have attempted to learn more about the ongoing processes of friendships is by using longitudinal studies. Longitudinal research involves studying the same sample of relational dyads over a period of time and identifying how the relationships develop, transform, and possibly even dissolve.
The study of friendships is still very much alive across disciplines but for the most part is situated within interpersonal communication. Communication scholars have recently produced work in areas of relational dynamics by focusing on the meaning and development of friendship across the life span, the rituals engaged in by adult friendship dyads, the face maintenance strategies used by friends, and the turning points that friends experience during progression and during termination. Research has also looked at differences in friendship types, such as longdistance friendships and intra- and intercultural friendships. Additionally, much research has examined possible sites for difficulty in friendships. Specific studies have focused on topic avoidance between friends, the management of disputes among adult friends, the tensions between friends and their romantic partners, and jealousy in close relationships. A very recent and intriguing site for examining the dynamics and complexities of friendship is the study of friends with romantic intent or even the “friends-with-benefits” relationship. There are endless research frontiers for the study of friendship in the discipline of communication.
So Aristotle got it right: Friendship is both a bit obvious and extremely hard to understand. Our familiarity with it in our daily experience blinds us to the difficulties faced by researchers seeking the best methods to understand how it actually works. The fact that we deal with human subjects makes the topic very hard to study. Although friendship is based on the emotions of liking that can explain how people are attracted to one another initially, those same people actually have to make a friendship work and so have to behave together (i.e., talk and perform or enact their behavior of relationships) in ways that both they and society recognizes as “friendship.” Communication researchers have a major role to play in the furtherance of our understanding of friendship because they now have developed some excellent techniques for finding out what is really going on in the dynamic performance of friendship in daily life—something over and above the emotions that bring friends together in the first place.