Do friendships provide a training ground for adolescents’ romantic relationships?

If friendship is a training ground for romantic relationships, what happens to teens with low quality friendships?

How do adolescents learn to form high quality romantic relationships? There are no doubt many factors, but friends may be a particularly important influence as interactions with friends provide a “training ground” for the development of skills that adolescents will need for romantic relationships. An exploration of the influence of friendships on romantic relationships is especially important because the quality of adolescents’ romantic relationships have been associated with a sense of self-worth, mental health status, and well-being (see here, here, here, and here), for better or for worse.


To answer our question, we conducted a meta-analysis. A meta-analysis is a statistical method used to estimate an overall effect based on multiple studies. We searched the literature and found 28 studies that measured friendship quality and romantic relationship quality in adolescents 12 – 18 years of age.

As expected, we found that the quality of adolescents’ friendships and romantic relationships were robustly related. For example, adolescents who experience more intimacy or conflict in their friendships also experience these qualities more in their romantic relationships. Interestingly, the associations between negative experiences in friendships and romantic relationships were stronger than those for the positive qualities. Perhaps this indicates that adolescents more selectively store and retrieve memories of negative relationship experiences than positive experiences, and therefore negative interaction patterns with friends may be more likely to carry over to and influence later relationships (see here for research on this idea).

Although we expected friendship quality to be related to romantic relationship quality, we were also interested in exploring differences in the quality of these close relationships. Interestingly, we did not find differences between friendships and romantic relationships for the positive qualities, which may indicate that adolescents’ friendships and romantic relationships are more similar than different in terms of what they qualitatively provide, at least for adolescents below age 18 years.

There were differences in adolescents’ reports of negative quality experiences. Specifically, adolescents reported experiencing more negative quality in their romantic relationships than in their friendships. It is possible that the features of romantic relationships that separate them from friendships would explain this difference. Romantic relationships are distinct from friendships in that they can involve intense love and attraction; this unique intensity may lead to higher levels of negative quality because adolescents are more invested in the relationship, and thus feel they have more to lose. Surprisingly, we did not find that adolescents’ experiences of friendships and romantic relationships varied for younger vs. older adolescents.

In terms of implications for parents and adolescents, we believe it is important to emphasize the lack of evidence found in our meta-analyses for the popular idea that finding love (i.e., getting romantically involved) might help adolescents who are struggling to find support and acceptance in their friendships. It appears that adolescents who are having friendship difficulties who seek romantic relationships may simply replicate their (poor) experiences and further undermine their confidence in navigating the peer world. Past research has shown that social skills training programs may help peer-rejected grade school children improve their social behavior and increase positive peer interactions. The robust associations between friendship quality and romantic relationship quality in our meta-analyses indicate that these social skills training programs may not only improve the quality of friendships, but also the quality of romantic relationships.

Our results also indicate that the associations between friendship quality and romantic relationship quality are stronger for negative qualities. It may be more useful for school counselors and clinicians to use social skills training programs that focus on conflict resolution skills and the reduction of other negative interactions rather than those programs that focus only on positive relationship qualities such as intimacy or prosocial behavior.

Our Research

Logan Kochendorfer, M.A. is a graduate student researcher in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Kent State University. Her research focuses on how adolescents’ experiences with parents and friends, as well as their relational competencies (e.g., ability to manage conflict) can help them to acquire what they need in order to pursue high quality romantic relationships and ultimately experience increased well-being.

 

 

 

Kathryn Kerns, Ph.D. is a Professor Emeritus in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Kent State University. Her research explores how and why children’s relationships with attachment figures and the parenting children experience are related to their social and emotional development (e.g., emotion regulation, anxiety, peer relationships), with a focus on children 9 – 14 years old.