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Differences Between Friendship & Family Relationships in Interpersonal Communication

by Emma Wells

“Friends are the family you choose” is a popular maxim these days, when American families often live distant from each other and individuals often express a preference for friends over family. But even though we like to think of friends as our chosen family, we still communicate with friends and family members differently, according to a 2011 study from Oxford University. According to Sam Roberts and Robin Dunbar, who published their findings in the academic journal “Personal Relationships,” relationships between kin were more stable than friendships, based on a study of 251 women. Maintaining friendships requires frequent communication to create even a low-level emotional bond, and therefore friendships may actually be more fragile than family relationships.

More Frequent Contact with Friends

Though Roberts and Dunbar found that family relationships withstand the test of time, participants in their study still contacted friends more frequently than kin. Adults generally tend to expend more energy on friendships than family relationships, knowing that family ties are already strong and that maintaining friendship requires more contact.

Mediated vs. Unmediated Communications

A study by Applications Research at Motorola found that participants in a family household were more likely to control their availability to family members outside the household via phone or email. Participant communication was often due to a sense of obligation, and it often had a goal-oriented focus, such as a phone conversation to determine a meeting time and place. Participants admitted to avoiding communication with specific family members outside of the home whom they disliked or did not want to see. But though the study included close friends, participants did not experience as much anxiety surrounding communication with friends via technology or explicitly avoid communication with friends. This shows that friends are more likely to agree on set boundaries than family members, who may disagree about how much contact they should have.

Choosing vs. Not Choosing

Though family members may have many similarities, some family members are very different from each other in personality, taste or behavior. An article by Dena Kemmet of North Dakota State University’s Consumer and Family Sciences Extension Program argues that teenagers choose peers who are like themselves, thus giving them social units that mirror their tastes and personalities. Though peers provide an important support system for teens, Kemmet says this does not mean that parents grow any less important to their children during the adolescent years.

Family Relationships Predict Friendships

Roberts and Dunbar found that individuals in their study with larger families were likely to have larger networks of friends as well, with a lower level of emotional closeness overall. Individuals with smaller family networks were likely to have a small but emotionally close network of friends. In a similar vein, Andrew Ledbetter of Ohio State University found in a 2009 study that family-communication patterns predicted adult patterns of communication with friends. For example, young adults with more conversational families maintained a greater amount of face-to-face interaction in extra-familial relationships than those with less-conversational families.

About the Author

Emma Wells has been writing professionally since 2004. She is also a writing instructor, editor and former elementary school teacher. She has a Master's degree in writing and a Bachelor of Arts in English and anthropology. Her creative work has been published in several small literary magazines.

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