Menu Close

Women need friends, men need family: UK study confirms importance of social networks

Research finds men benefit psychologically from having a large family network.

Having a wide circle of friends is important to psychological wellbeing, but a network of relatives is more important for men according to new study from the UK.

The research, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, found the midlife wellbeing of both men and women seems to depend on having a wide circle of friends, with a lack of friends associated with significantly lower levels of psychological wellbeing.

The study, which included 6500 Britons born in 1958, found that a network of relatives is also important, but only for men, and for women, lack of friends had an even greater negative impact on wellbeing.

It found being partnered is associated with large kinship networks, yet only men psychologically benefit from having an extended kinship network.

“It’s interesting that this study, like others before, has found that being partnered or married is more beneficial to men than women,” said Monika Merkes, Honorary Associate at the Australian Institute for Primary Care & Ageing at La Trobe University.

The study states: “The association between partnership status and psychological well-being was present among men only. However, further analyses showed that values of psychological well-being were actually higher in women, especially those who were not partnered, when compared with men.”

Dr Merkes said the study did not go into possible reasons for this, but one might speculate that mid-aged women’s caring role for older relatives and their own children or grandchildren adds stress rather than conferring psychological benefits.

She pointed to a recent Australian study, which examined relationship quality and levels of depression and anxiety that found that only good-quality relationships bestowed mental health benefits over remaining single. The study, published in the Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, also found that for women, being in a poor-quality relationship was associated with greater levels of anxiety than being single.

More information on why those studied were not in a relationship would be useful said Richard Fletcher, senior lecturer in the Family Action Centre at the University of Newcastle.

“They don’t differentiate on unpartnered people whether they’re separated divorced or single.

"You can imagine your networks would be reduced a bit if you were divorced,” Dr Fletcher said.

The study found one in seven had no contacts with relatives outside their immediate household, and around one in ten said they had no friends.

“This study adds support to previous studies that show being socially connected is good for wellbeing and mental health. In this context, it is of great concern that about one in ten people report having no friends at all,” Dr Merkes said.

The researchers asked about the number of relatives and friends with whom the research participants meet once a month or more, but Dr Merkes said it was not sufficiently clear what was being measured.

“Does this refer to face-to-face meetings only, or are contacts via electronic means, such as telephone, Skype or social media also included? I assume it’s the former. But what about people whose family members live overseas and who keep in regular contact electronically?”

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 183,900 academics and researchers from 4,966 institutions.

Register now