Horizontal Relationships: Affection, Ambivalence, Ambiguity

I have spent my career trying to answer the question – how can we build stronger, more effective relationships with each other? This is, of course, at the heart of the profession of social work.

In trying to build stronger relationships I have turned to studying horizontal relationships…Let me explain what these are.  It may be easiest to conceptualize them in contradistinction to vertical relationships. If you think about a family tree or a genogram, these are graphic descriptions of the linear nature of relationships – those that go and grow between generations. Vertical relationships are between parent – child and between grand-parent, parent, child. I have been trying to gain a greater understanding of our horizontal relationships which are those with partners, those with adult siblings and those with adult friends – my focus has been on a sub-set – those that are between siblings and those between friends.

Why is the study of adult siblings so important? These are the longest relationships we have.  Given the typical lifespan, we co-exist with siblings longer than with our parents, partners, children, and, usually, our friends. As we age, the reasons for needing to get along with siblings often shift. When young, we need to get along with siblings because we live in close quarters sharing bathrooms, bedrooms, and living space.  In early adulthood, we may create new families by marrying or partnering, having children, and establishing careers. Siblings may recede in importance during that phase.  But, as our parents age, caregiving decisions, often regarding life and death, need to be made.  We need to collaborate with our siblings to negotiate around our parents’ needs.  There is another reason we need to get along with our siblings in adulthood – and that is so we can role model how our own children should get along.  Not only does that make family gatherings more pleasant, it will make decisions our children make about our own health and caregiving easier.

AND why are friendships important? A large body of research supports the notion that people with friendships live longer, healthier, and happier lives.  Social networks matter. [For personal reasons I want you all to have friends so you will live longer, stay healthier, and remain in social work.  I know the Development Office wants that, too!]

So let me tell you what I have learned that may be helpful to you in making more meaningful relationships with your siblings and friends and in helping your clients strengthen their relationships. What I offer was gained with the research assistance of over 150 MSW students and collaborations with Kathy Deal and Michael Woolley.

FIRST, as I began the research, I learned that the attempt to understand how friendships work is not new. Aristotle, in Nichomachean Ethics, makes four interesting observations about friendship:

1. A friendship is the highest order of behavior and requires so much from one that one cannot have more than a few friends;

2. To be a true friend, you have to have “shared salt” with someone – by that Aristotle meant you had to have shared a difficult experience – like fighting together in a war or, in the case of William Styron, Mike Wallace, and Art Buchwald that significant mental illness can make people friends;

3. To be a true friend, you have to have known each other for many years; and

4. You can only be friends with a peer.  

So in my desire to have you build better friendships, I would ask you to consider who, to you, is a true friend, have you and she gone through a difficult time together that has brought you closer, is he a friend of long-standing, and to what extent are you peers?

SECOND, my sample of women and men reported the essential elements of friendship are loyalty, trustworthiness, and honesty.  If you want to build your social network, understand that these components may be requirements.

THIRD, men and women construct friendships differently – men’s friendships are shoulder to shoulder; women’s are face-to-face…men get together to DO things, and those activities often revolve around sports; women get together and talk…So consider what you like to do you’re your male and female friends;

FOURTH, and moving into couples, Kathy and I were able to group couples into categories of seekers, keepers, and nesters.  Seekers are couples that want to make new friends and are extroverts.  Keepers are open to making new friends but may have highly active family lives and a number of friends – they neither are seeking new friends nor are they closed to making them. Nesters tend to keep to themselves and have only a few close couple friends. They tend to be introverts.  Now partners/spouses are not always looking for the same thing – an introvert may be married to an extrovert. How do you and your partner negotiate how open you are to making new couple friendships? And, borrowing from what we know about face-to-face and shoulder-to-shoulder relationships, what do you and your partner do with your couple friends?

FIFTH, we found broadly that sisters tend to be more active in maintaining sibling relationships than brothers and sisters tend to be more comfortable with sibling to sibling communication – not surprising given what we know about women’s and men’s ways of interacting.  But in digging into the data, Michael and I found that, among younger brothers in our sample, their level of openness in communication looks more like sisters.  In essence, historically gendered ways of relating as siblings may be changing…

This brings me to the sub-title for this talk – affectionate, ambivalent, and ambiguous…This is a frame that gets infused into relationships. 

Almost three-quarters of the siblings we studied said they trusted their siblings.  The majority gave glowing testimonials to the importance of their siblings and the affection they felt for their siblings.  Nice and pretty straightforward, right?

But many also have mixed, or ambivalent, feelings for their siblings that may accompany or even crowd out that affection.  Ambivalence has been defined as “the paradox between closeness and distance, the push and pull between intimacy and setting boundaries.”  It is possible to root for a sibling but still take pleasure in being better than that sibling in something.  It is possible to have a close friend and then something occurs that pulls you away from that friend.  Almost half of our sample, when asked to describe their siblings, used mixed or negative terms. Sociologist Ingrid Connidis writes, “Viewing ambivalence as an ongoing feature of family ties that is never permanently resolved encourages a life course view of relationships as regularly renegotiated in response to changing circumstances.” I believe this can be applied to friendships, too. 

And what of ambiguity? Ambiguity appears when siblings or friends are unclear as to why someone acted as he did.  Do any of you have brothers, sisters, or close friends and sometimes look at their behavior and scratch your head? You wonder, “What is going on with…?” The other way ambiguity operates is that you may feel that those friends and siblings don’t understand you or who you have become as an adult. They treat you like you are still 15. And note that ambiguity can feed the ambivalence in the relationship.

So having shared some thoughts about horizontal relationships, where are we? Here are some things I wonder:

Are ambivalence and ambiguity natural qualities of all relationships, regardless of whether we are looking at the horizontal or vertical axis?  

OR, is it a language problem, that is, we just don’t have the words to further connect us which feeds ambivalence and ambiguity?

Are we living in an era when we want simplistic answers to inherently human, and thus, inherently unanswerable questions about our relationships?

Do some seek political simplicity to deal with the messiness of their own relationships?

My last ten years have been spent struggling to understand and give people a language to describe the roles of siblings and friends.  I say struggling because, while I believe much can be done to integrate our understanding of these relationships into our lives, I just have not found that connection yet. And, maybe, it is, as philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, “The limits of my language are the limits on my world” and I will never figure out a more complete integration of the two.   

Yet, the quest continues.  I do believe that learning as much as we can about friendships and siblings relationships AND getting comfortable with uncertainty and the unknown removes the myths of certainty and clarity from being requirements for a friendship or a happy relationship with a sibling… If we revel in that gray space and accept that the natural course of things is not to find easy answers, we may develop an even deeper understanding of each other and build more loving relationships.  As we become accepting of others we become more accepting of ourselves,



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s