It’s Research Wednesday! Where I share the latest, or most fascinating, in the science of friendship.
“Older adults report better marriages, more supportive friendships and less conflict with children and siblings. … While physical and cognitive abilities decline with age, relationships improve. So what is so special about old age? We found that the perception of limited time, willingness to forgive, aging stereotypes and attitudes of respect all play a part. But it’s more than just about how younger people treat an older person, it’s about how people interact.” (Current Directions in Psychological Science, “It Takes Two to Tango: Why Older People Have the Best Relationships” June 2010)
I’ve often wondered about intergenerational friendships—whether or not I could be real friends with a woman who had about two decades on me, or if I would be too ancient for a post-grad. And while I still don’t have answers to those questions (not for lack of trying—I emailed my older cooking friend from a while back but still haven’t gotten a response), this study provides interesting insight into the effect age does have on friendship.
Basically, friendships improve with age because we’re less confrontational and get less worked up (“people get better at regulating their emotions when something upsets them”) as we get up there, but when there is a negative interaction, the younger folk are more forgiving of the older generation’s behavior.
This makes me wonder about the friends I’m making now and whether we’ll still be buddies in old age. Once we have kids, put them through college, and send them off into the world, will we be sitting on our front porches (which will obvi be next door to each other), perhaps with declining physical and cognitive abilities, laughing at the young’uns who bicker and overreact about nothing? And, on the off chance we behave poorly ourselves, will we be forgiven because, come on, we’re old? ‘Cause that would be awesome.
The other reason friendships improve as we age, so says the study’s author, is that “people are going to be more pleasant if they perceive that there is little time left in a relationship.” It sounds kind of morbid, but I don’t think it’s necessarily an “oh, you’re going to drop dead tomorrow so I better be nice to you now” thing. When I was a teenager I, like so many 16-year-olds before me, was sometimes (oftentimes?) mean to my mom. I lived in such a me-centric world that there was no consideration of any limit to how long she’d be around. Today, it’s not that my mother’s going anywhere anytime soon (she’s just a kid!), but I’m more aware of the fact that we don’t have forever. I’m nicer, thus our relationship is vastly different. Better.
The limited time thing doesn’t just apply to the old folks. It goes for everybody, “even young people who may not see each other because of life changes such as moving out of state or serving in the military.” So, if you’re soon going to be like me—in a new city on a search for a BFF—at least take solace in the knowledge that things between you and your buddies will be peachy keen until you leave. Just love me some silver lining.