Study Shows Ambivalent Friendships are Bad for Health


    By Lindsay Cook

    Lying on his twin-size bed raised by cinder blocks, Dave Green tossed and turned a million times in the middle of the night. There was a constant clicking noise in the back of his head – the sound of fingers typing rapidly on his roommate”s keyboard.

    He thought if he tossed and turned enough, his roommate would get the clue, be courteous, and quit the noise, which went on for hours. Green did not know how much more he could take of his roommate, who was on a completely different sleep schedule and played computer games through all hours of the night. It was almost unbearable.

    What was Green supposed to do? A polite request for courtesy did not work. He could not kick his roommate out of the apartment and it would be too inconvenient for him to move out.

    The only thing Green could do was concentrate on the good parts of the relationship-playing basketball, watching sports and doing other fun things with his roommate.

    In a recent study, BYU Psychology Assistant Professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad, found that friendships similar to that of Green and his roommate, are bad for a person”s health.

    Previous studies only looked at relationships as either negative or positive. Holt-Lunstad analyzed less known relationships that have both positive and negative aspects to them.

    “The type of friend we are talking about is someone we may really love or care about,” said Holt-Lunstad in a news release. “However, they can also at times be unreliable, competitive, critical, or frustrating. Most people have a few friends, family members, or co-workers that fit the bill.”

    These relationships, also called ambivalent friendships, make up about one-half of a person”s network of friends, based on the participation in this and previous studies.

    Holt-Lunstad observed participants as they interacted with different friends and found most participants to be more anxious and less able to relax in the presence of people for whom there were mixed feelings.

    These observations helped explain her discovery in a previous study that a person”s blood pressure is higher around ambivalent friends.

    Holt-Lunstad also observed that participants avoided discussions of positive experiences, which in turn, robbed participants of the health benefit normally gained by sharing good news.

    “It is possible that ambivalent relationships may be a source of stress themselves and may not be a good source of support,” she said.

    Some wonder if it is best for their cardiovascular health to get rid of friends for whom a person has mixed feelings.

    Holt-Lunstad said she is working on research to answer that very question. Most people keep those friends and she said it is still unclear why, but there are a couple of speculations.

    She said it might be because a person feels he or she cannot end a relationship with someone that should be close to him or her, or that some people feel committed and obligated to ambivalent friends because they have been through a lot together.

    “It may not be realistic for a person to quit a job and move, stop attending church, or completely cut social ties when they still need to have contact with that friend,” Holt-Lunstad said.

    Especially in the situation of roommates or co-workers, it may be very difficult to eliminate contact. If it is not realistic for a person to end the relationship, Holt-Lunstad recommended distancing; either spending less time with that person or limiting contact and avoiding frustrating topics. By doing this, she said, relationships can have less of a negative effect in a person”s life.

    “It is important to identify aspects of the relationship that are upsetting,” Holt-Lunstad said. “Clearing up misunderstandings and changing your own response in a situation are things you have control over to reduce your stress and protect your health.”

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