Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Best of Ties, the Worst of Ties: Close, Problematic, and Ambivalent Social Relationships

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Best of Ties, the Worst of Ties: Close, Problematic, and Ambivalent Social Relationships

Article excerpt

This study builds on research addressing intergenerational ambivalence by considering emotional ambivalence toward the wider social network. Men and women ages 13 to 99 (N - 187) completed diagrams of their close and problematic social relationships. Social ties were classified as solely close, solely problematic, or ambivalent, based on network placement (n = 3,392 social contacts). Multilevel models revealed that individuals viewed certain close familial ties (e.g., spouse, son or daughter, parent, sibling) with greater ambivalence than they viewed more distal family ties, friendships, or acquaintances. Participants classified more acquaintances than other relationships as solely problematic. Feeling closer to a social partner was associated with increased ambivalence. Older adults were more likely to classify their relationships as solely close than as ambivalent, in comparison with younger adults. Discussion focuses on tension and closeness in familial and nonfamilial relationships.

Key Words: ambivalence, emotion, intergenerational relationships, kin, social network, spouse.

Positive consequences of close family ties and negative consequences of problematic family ties have been well documented (e.g., Antonucci, 2001; Fingerman, 2001a; Rook, 1984). Mixed sentiments (i.e., positive and negative feelings) toward social partners may present unique challenges to individuals, however (e.g., Fingerman & Hay, 2004; Rook; Uchino, Holt-Lunstad, Uno, & Flinders, 2001). For example, loving family members who become overly involved with an individual's stressful life events may exacerbate those stressors (Fingerman & Hermann, 2000; Morgan, 1989; Rook, 2003). A burgeoning literature has brought intergenerational ambivalence to the fore of family science (e.g., Connidis & McMullin, 2002b; Luscher, 2002; Lüscher & Pillemer, 1998; Pillemer & Suitor, 2002; Willson, Shuey, & Elder, 2003). Yet, studies have not addressed ambivalence in the broader social network. In this study, we consider the types of social partners whom individuals experience as primarily close, primarily problematic, or with mixed sentiments.

Definition and Measurement of Ambivalence

In examining ambivalence, it is important to consider variability in definitions and measurement across studies. Lüscher and Pillemer (1998) distinguished between sociological ambivalence and psychological ambivalence with regard to intergenerational ties. Sociological ambivalence involves incompatible normative expectations (e.g., with regard to status, roles, or norms) that present structural challenges in social relationships. Much discussion in the family literature has focused on this form of ambivalence (e.g., Connidis & McMullin, 2002b; Lüscher, 2002; Pillemer & Suitor, 2002). Psychological ambivalence occurs at the subjective individual level and has to do with contradictions in cognitions, emotions, and motivations such as holding contradictory opinions or feelings toward the same object (Hodson, Maio, & Esses, 2001; Petty & Wegener, 1998; Priester & Petty, 2001; Weigert, 1991).

In this study, we examined psychological ambivalence by assessing the types of relationships that people define as primarily close, primarily problematic, or mixed. Prior studies have shown that perceptions of closeness in a relationship are associated with positive sentiments such as feeling loved and cared for (Antonucci & Akiyama, 1987; Newsom, Morgan, Nishishiba, Rook, 2003; Rossi & Rossi, 1990). Relationship tensions vary in definition but appear to be associated with negative feelings such as irritation and annoyance (Birditt & Fingerman, 2003; Hingerman, 2001a). Theorists argue that all close tics include at least some degree of conflict (Deutsch, 1973; Sillars & Scott, 1983). Yet, these conflicts may be fleeting and may not taint the relationship on the whole. In this study, we examined overarching sentiments about relationships as close and problematic-or some combination of both sentiments-rather than brief emotional experiences. …

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