Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Positive, Negative, and Ambivalent Interactions with Family and Friends: Associations with Well-Being

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Positive, Negative, and Ambivalent Interactions with Family and Friends: Associations with Well-Being

Article excerpt

Social relationships have been consistently linked to mental health (Antonucci, Fiori, Birditt, & Jackey, 2010; Bertera, 2005; Rook, 1984, 1990, 1998); however, debate continues on several contingencies of this relationship. First, it remains unclear whether positive or negative interactions are most important for mental health. The relative effect of positive and negative relationships on mental health may depend on which indicators of mental health are used (Ingersoll-Dayton, Morgan, & Antonucci, 1997) and on whether positive and negative interactions are examined separately or included simultaneously in analysis models (Stafford, McMunn, Zaninotto, & Nazroo, 2011).

Second, some research suggests that relationships characterized by both high positive and negative interactions (ambivalence) are particularly likely to undermine mental health (Fingerman, Pitzer, Lefkowitz, Birditt, & Mroczek, 2008). Although the ambivalence perspective has been widely adopted, questions remain about how to best conceptualize and measure the combined effects of positive and negative relationship features (Lendon, Silverstein, & Giarrusso, 2014; Lettke & Klein, 2004).

Third, the strength of associations between social interactions and mental health depends on the source. Relationships with very close network members (e.g., a spouse) tend to have stronger associations with mental health than interactions with more peripheral network members (Chen & Feeley, 2014; Stafford et al., 2011). Furthermore, the relative effects of positive and negative interactions or of ambivalence may be source specific. For example, negative interactions with a spouse may be more important for mental health than positive interactions with a spouse, whereas the opposite may hold for interactions with friends.

To address these issues, we examined the associations between positive and negative interactions as well as ambivalence on two indicators of mental health, namely, life satisfaction and depressive symptoms. This examination was guided by three research questions:

1. Which aspects of social relations (positive interactions, negative interactions, ambivalence) are most strongly related to mental health?

2. Does the relative strength of these associations depend on which indicator of mental health is used (life satisfaction vs. depressive symptoms) and on whether or not positive and negative interactions are included separately or simultaneously in analyses models?

3. Which relationship sources (spouse, children, other relatives, friends) are most important for mental health, and do the associations between positive and negative interactions or ambivalence and mental health vary by source?

Because gender has been linked both to the prevalence of positive and negative relationships as well as to their association with mental health, we further assessed gender differences across all three research questions. Our analyses relied on the 2008 wave of the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), a representative survey of individuals age over 50 years and their spouses (see http://hrsonline.isr.umich.edu/).

THEORETICAL BACKGROUND AND LITERATURE REVIEW

Our hypotheses were informed by four different perspectives: (a) research focusing on the relationship between social interactions and mental health, (b) the interplay between positive and negative interactions (ambivalence), (c) hierarchies of social relationships in individuals' social networks, and (d) gender roles.

Positive and Negative Social Ties and Mental Health

Much of the literature on the effects of social relationships on mental health has emphasized the supportive functions of social interactions. For example, the original intergenerational solidarity model focused exclusively on positive relationship features such as association, affection, or consensus (Bengtson & Roberts, 1991). In general, research supports the assumption that positive interactions contribute to mental health. …

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