Negative Effects of Close Social Relations

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Negative Effects of Close Social Relations* Toni C. Antonucci,** Hiroko Akiyama, and Jennifer E. Lansford

This study examines close social relations among older married adults with children. Results indicated that women named more close relationships than did men and were less happy the more people they named, though this was not true of less close relationships. People who reported negative feelings about network members were less happy. Specifically, men who wanted more people they could depend on and who felt their network was too demanding were less happy, while women who felt that their network members got on their nerves were less happy These results suggest that not all aspects of close relationships are positive and that women may not necessarily be advantaged by having more people with whom they feel close.

Key Words: gender differences, negative support, social support

In recent years a great deal of research has focused on social support and support networks both in the population at large (Cohen & Syme, 1985; Cutrona, 1996; House, Landis, & Umberson, 1988; Pierce, Sarason, & Sarason, 1996; Sarason, Sarason, & Pierce, 1990) and with older people specifically (Antonucci, 1990; Chappell, 1992). Empirical evidence has begun to accumulate which documents some popular beliefs, while "debunking" others as myths. In this paper we sought to continue these explorations through an examination of two significant issues in the field: (a) gender differences in the presence and meaning of close social relationships; and (b) gender differences in negative aspects of social relationships and their effect on well-being. The literature details a relatively long tradition of recognized gender differences in social relations (Antonucci, 1994; Vaux, 1985). It has been suggested that women are simply more "social," that they enjoy interactive exchanges more than men do (Eagly, 1987; Maccoby & Jacklin, 1974). Social psychological research has provided interesting specifics about the nature of women's social relationships compared to those of men. For example, it is well documented that women are more self-disclosing and more intimate in their relationships (Cutrona, 1996; Duck, 1990). It has generally been assumed that these are assets and that women benefit from their social ties. However, some researchers (e.g., Troll, 1988; Turner, 1982) have suggested that women's close social ties might not always have a positive effect on their well-being. Belle (1983) found in her in-depth study of young adult women that their most significant sources of stress were close relationships, especially husbands or partners. Similarly, Troll (1988) noted that the role of kinkeeper (the person who maintains family ties, remembers birthdays and organizes holiday dinners) which is often ascribed to women, might easily be more of a burden than a pleasure.

In a series of studies Rook (1984, 1990; Rook & Peitromonico, 1987) has shown that social ties can have a binding, negative side for older women and that while more positive than negative interactions are likely to occur, the impact of negative interactions on well-being can be considerable. In an innovative longitudinal study using the daily diary technique, Rook (in press) has shown that negative social exchanges are related to more life stress and less supportive networks. Her findings led her to conclude that both personal characteristics such as daily mood and self-esteem as well as life context such as the experience of stressful life events, influence older people's vulnerability to negative social exchanges.

Several others have examined positive versus negative effects of close social relationships. Riley and Eckenrode (1986) explored differences in the costs and benefits of social ties among younger women (women in their thirties). They found that women with more personal and psychological resources benefitted more and experienced less stress from their social ties. …