How do friendship and mental health relate to one another, and what can friends provide to affect mental health positively? Read on to find out.
Much has been said about the impact that different roles have on our lives, and particularly our well-being. Research on the effects of social relationships has focused on familial bonds from an environmental and genetic perspective, romantic love, facing a shared mental health condition as a couple, offering support to someone as their immediate caregiver, and the benefits of having a support animal.
Friendships, on the other hand, have often been overlooked, or seen as a stepping stones to more intimate relationships. Yet despite this, psychoanalytic theory, as well as empirical studies, have begun to fill in the gaps when it comes to our collective knowledge of how friendship can affect mental health.
The field of psychoanalysis aims to better understand the human condition from birth, by delving into the interplay between one’s experiences, personality, worldview, self-perspective, and formative relationships. Its acknowledgement of the role friendships may play in one’s life has often been overlooked in favor of one’s earlier relationships with their parents. However, two of the major psychoanalytic theorists, Melanie Klein and Heinz Kohut, have addressed the importance of friendships, and included them in their body of work.
Austrian-British psychoanalytic expert Melanie Klein’s work saw interpersonal connection as the most basic human experience. Her theory of object relations posited that infants (and the adult they grow up to be) must work through their initial tendency to view others as either good or bad, before being able to acknowledge their complex nature, and accept that no one is truly wholly without fault.
Klein described friendships as important for their ability to offer a social setting where one can experience very intense bonds (particularly during adolescence) while still being able to modulate their distance from one another, compared to the lack of sufficient distance within sibling relationships.
According to Klein, friendships also allow for softer emotions, such as fondness, to arise, thereby offering a necessary reprieve from the tumultuous family setting or romantic relationships that one may experience. Friendships can also provide room to revel in a shared passion, with two or more individuals bonding over an activity or area of interest.
Klein further stresses that much like parent-child or sibling relationships, friendships can also include tumultuous aspects, such as envy or jealousy. As such, she states that for a friendship to survive, those involved in it need to take heed to what personal needs they are looking to meet within that relationship, and to make an effort not to demand total and complete consideration for their own thoughts and feelings.
Austrian-American psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut was among the leading voices advocating for the importance of friendship. During the mid-20th Century, Kohut developed self psychology, which stressed the importance of meeting one’s personal needs, as opposed to the altruistic, and at times self-sacrificing tendencies that were encouraged at the time.
Kohut’s self psychology theory described the way one experiences themselves, and their own perspective. He described three types of self needs that are universally sought after, with the third need to develop, twinship, being akin to friendship:
Mirroring: The infant looks to their parent to see themselves reflected in their eyes. At first, they wish to see how impressed their parent is with whatever they do. Eventually, they look to see how their parent truly sees them as they are, with their struggles, achievements, and individual traits and needs.
Idealization: Turning again to the parent, the infant wishes to view the parent as ideal, indestructible, and consistently there for them. This is particularly important as the infant begins to realize they themselves are not all-powerful, prompting them to seek a protector that, at least in their eyes, can provide them with the safety, strength, and encouragement they need to thrive.
Twinship: As the infant develops into a child, they begin to search for a feeling of recognition, through a shared experience. Twinship is therefore a self-need that can be fulfilled through relationships with one’s siblings, or members of their peer group, as they discover other individuals who have gone through similar situations, and know how they feel.
Kohut’s push for meeting twinship needs highlighted the link between friendship and the development of empathy, and not feeling alone in this world. As opposed to both mirroring and idealization needs, which are based on a hierarchic perspective that includes a parental figure, twinship is based on a sense of equality. It also helps solidify the notion that the emotions, hardship, and growth they are experiencing do not separate them from others, so that there is a chance that someone in their life knows what they are going through and can offer them both support and advice.
While theories such as Kohut’s self psychology model offered a mental framework for the importance of friendship, mental health empirical models have more recently been able to provide statistical data on the benefits that such relationships can have for one’s well-being.
As such, studies have shown that friendships can offer the following examples of mental health support:
Friendships have also been found to help protect against a number of physical and mental health issues. Among them are:
Making a new friend, at any age, can enrich one’s life and expand support networks. . The following social settings and opportunities provide the potential to meet and develop friendships: