Support of Family, Friends Strong Influence on Relationships

When it comes to romantic relationships, most people probably believe that individuals alone determine who they date, the quality of the relationship and how long it will last. However, a recent study suggests that these choices are affected significantly by the level of support the couple perceives from family and friends. The study found that perceptions of support from a couple's social circle were very highly related to feelings of satisfaction, love and commitment, in both men and women, and were predictive of whether a couple would stay together. The study was conducted by Susan Sprecher, an associate professor of sociology at Illinois State University, and Diane Felmlee, an associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Davis. Their findings will be presented Saturday, Aug. 24, at the 86th annual meeting of the American Sociological Association at the Cincinnati Convention Center. Sprecher and Felmlee said that most social science research into romantic relationships focuses on the couple and their interactions, examining areas such as fairness, equity, communication and common interests. The study aimed to examine to what extent these relationships are linked to their social environment. Their findings add to the growing evidence indicating that support or opposition from family and friends exerts a powerful influence on the course of romantic relationships. "It's surprising in the sense that most of us like to think that we control our friendships and our dating and intimate relationships," Felmlee said. The study was based on a survey of 101 couples, most of them students at a Midwestern university. The fact that most of the sample consisted of middle-class college students somewhat limits the ability to generalize the results, Sprecher and Felmlee said, but the sample group does represent the age group that is most likely to consider marriage. Still, they said, it would be valuable for future studies to encompass more diverse couples, in part, to increase the likelihood of obtaining a greater range of social reactions. During the initial survey in 1988, participants were asked to assess the level of approval or disapproval they perceived from their family and friends, as well as their partner's family and friends. One question asked to what degree others viewed them "as a perfect couple that should marry someday." Subjects also were asked to what extent they and their partners shared mutual friends, and how much they liked each other's friends. Another set of questions aimed to measure the quality of the relationships, as indicated by the level of feelings of love, satisfaction and commitment. Subsequent surveys were taken in the spring of 1989, six months after the original survey, and in 1990, one year later. For the latter surveys, couples who were still together completed a questionnaire similar to the original one, while couples who had broken up answered a questionnaire about their breakup. Responses indicated that support from social networks had a strong, positive effect on the quality of the relationships for both men and women. The more an individual perceived approval from his or her family and friends at a particular point in time, the higher the level of feelings of love, satisfaction and commitment were at that same time. The results also showed that perceptions of approval increased the likelihood that an individual's feelings of love, satisfaction and commitment would grow over time. The researchers found that only the female partner's perceptions of social support had a positive effect on the stability of the relationship. Survey answers suggest that the more a woman's family, and especially her friends, approve of a relationship, the longer it is likely to survive. The man's perception of support had no significant effect on the duration of the relationship. In addition, the study found no evidence for the so-called "Romeo and Juliet" effect, the idea, occasionally supported by other studies, that parental opposition to a romantic relationship intensifies the resolve of the couple to continue and deepen the relationship. Although most research on relationships concentrates on the characteristics of the couple, Felmlee said, "This research suggests that in spite of what we think, social networks may have a big effect." Why that may be so is not clear, but, Felmlee said, "In part, it may be because the social network influences us, and in part because our social network is better at predicting what's good for us than we are sometimes. It's possible that there is a little more objectivity among people who know us."

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