The Pew and Time magazine report generating all those headlines (mostly about how 39% of Americans think marriage is becoming obsolete) set out to look beyond just married people to other family members and family forms. One question participants were asked was this:
“Suppose someone you know had a serious problem and needed either financial help or caregiving. How obligated would you feel to provide assistance if that person were your [name of the particular relationship type was inserted here – there were 9 of them]?” The response options were:
- Very obligated
- Somewhat obligated
- Not too obligated
- Not obligated at all
In the body of the report, a graph was printed showing the percent who said they felt “very obligated” to help. Here’s a less attractive presentation of the information from the graph:
% Relationship Type
77 grown child
64 brother or sister
62 spouse or partner’s parent
60 grown stepchild
43 step or half sibling
39 your best friend
The graph was titled, “Ranking the Relatives.” Of course, a best friend is not the same as a relative, but never mind. This is the heading and the opening paragraph in the section of the report about those findings:
Comparatively fewer (39%) feel a compelling need to help their best friend in times of crisis. In fact, best buddies finished at the bottom of the list of types of people that respondents felt ‘very obligated’ to help – more evidence of the value that people place on relationships.”
Let’s set aside the obnoxious “sorry, buddy” heading. Can someone please explain the meaning of that last sentence? Thirty-nine percent of people say they feel very obligated to help their best friend with a serious problem, and somehow that provides “more evidence of the value that people place on relationships”? Is the report suggesting that a relationship with a best friend is not a relationship? Is there any interpretation that is not offensive?
Intellectually, what bothers me more about this section of the report is its cluelessness about what friendship is all about. It is not, at its core, a relationship of obligation. It is (mostly) voluntary. We choose our friends and we can have them as friends if they choose us back. We spend time with them and do things for them because we like them and care about them, not because we feel obligated. Feeling “very obligated” just doesn’t seem to be the kind of thing you say about a friend. If I were given that set of four response options, maybe I’d pick the next one, “somewhat obligated.” But all of the options would seem wrong, because friendship isn’t about obligation. The better question would be something like, “To what extend would you want to help?”
Or, you could approach the matter from the perspective of being the one needing help in a crisis. Suppose you were asked to name all of the people you thought you could approach in that situation. That study has been done (I described it here) and for single people, the answer is about 6 (5.8, to be exact; for married people, it was 5). I don’t know who those six people typically were, but it seems likely that a number were friends.
Going back to the Pew report, I wanted to know more than what that one graph showed me, so I scoured the appendices for answers, and happily, I found some. Here are the new results from combining all the people who said they would feel “very obligated” (the only category in the original graph) with those saying they would feel “somewhat obligated”:
% Relationship Type
96 Grown child
90 Brother or sister
89 Grown stepchild
84 Spouse or partner’s parent
82 Your best friend
76 Step or half sibling
Sorry, stepparent! Sorry, step or half sibling! OK, I don’t really mean that; I’m just illustrating how snide it is. The differences between the two graphs are not great, but the second one (based on more information than the first) would not allow for the facile “sorry, buddy” heading nor the proclamation that best friends are at the bottom of the list.
Neither graph provides the answer to the question about heart: Obligation aside, whom would you want to help, because you like them and care about them?