The Heart of Friendship (Or, What the Pew Marriage Researchers Just Don’t Understand)

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

83        parent

77        grown child

67        grandparent

64        brother or sister

62        spouse or partner’s parent

60        grown stepchild

55        stepparent

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:

Sorry, Buddy

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        Parent

96        Grown child

91        Grandparent

90        Brother or sister

89        Grown stepchild

84        Spouse or partner’s parent

82        Your best friend

80        Stepparent

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?

    4 thoughts on “The Heart of Friendship (Or, What the Pew Marriage Researchers Just Don’t Understand)

    1. @gryq2001b

      … Hell-hound May Cry? I know that Ninja Theory may not have the best confidence, but this … I have no words.

      (Sorry Bella. I couldn’t help it. Great post, but my brain just broke.)

      • Yeah, the spammers seem to have discovered this site. I’ll just delete their comments now and then and keep all the others.

    2. Well, I recently had a devastating accident that left me temporarily disabled and without benefits (I’m self-employed), and my self-employed friends have rallied to help. I’ve received significant checks from several friends. My favorite uncle dumped a huge amount of money on my parents to help them fly back and forth to take turns “nursing” me; that was a wonderful relative contribution, but my friends have really stepped up too. It will definitely make me more inclined to do the same for a friend in trouble.

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