Certain personal relationships, like marriages, relationships between parents and children, siblings, other relatives and friends, can be found in most cultures. Friendships however, have different significance in different cultures.
Few good friends
in most countries are subordinate to family relationships. This is the case
in Hungary as well. Surveys conducted in the 80's and 90's showed that there
are a lot of people who have no friends at all (Utasi, 1990, 1991). Unfortunately
the situation seems to be getting worse. In 1993, 25% of women and 14% of men
had no friends and by 1997 the numbers had increased to 35% for women and to
21 % for men. As we can see, the situation of women is always worse than that
of men. Between 1993 and 1997, more women than men lost their friends and 73%
of the people who had no friends in any of the years examined were women (Albert,
The freedom of choosing and making friends is limited by the sources of energy available for people. Time and money are required for making and sustaining friendships. If there is not enough of them, people are not able to make friends and to cultivate friendships. In a Hungarian family usually both husband and wife have to work, but because of the traditional division of labor, women have even fewer chances to make friends.
The "availability of friends" changes according to education and age. The older and the less educated the person is, the less it is possible for them to make friends, and this is true all over the world. Compared with western countries, friendships are less important in Hungary (Utasi, 1991). This is especially true about emotional support coming from friendship, which is at a very low level in our country, it is less important than practical assistance. Hungarian women and men remain alone with their emotional problems much more frequently than in other countries. The main reasons for this are the heritage of the traditional peasant-society to "taking everything lying down", and the effort of the average people in difficult financial conditions to avoid all the uneconomical and unprofitable relationships. How can it affect life, especially that of women, who are in a more difficult situation in every respect. What is the benefit of women friendships, that most Hungarian women miss?
Talking to friends
The most important common
feature of friendships is the pleasure of doing things together. Friends usually
talk, eat or drink, go out, do some sport or their voluntary or obligatory work
together. Women spend more time talking than men at every age (Argyle, 1991).
Their most important subject is obviously their own life. Teenage girls talk
about dates and school, young women in their twenties talk mostly about their
choice of careers and partners, and later on women most often talk about family
and children. At every age personal ambitions, problems and desires are in the
focus of conversations.
Women who have chosen the traditional course of life most often talk about their partners and children (Gouldner, Strong, 1987). Also their choice of friends reflects this need: they make friends with women having a partner and bringing up children. Women having similar life styles have similar schedules as well. They can help each other taking turns in looking after each other's children for example. Also their subjects derive from similar experiences: women having small children can talk about eating and dejection habits of their children for hours without getting bored with them. These conversations are not only for exchanging information. They strengthen their self appreciation and make their world concept and life style valid. Single women and/or women without children look for each other's company for similar reasons.
Women who focus on their career do not have much to talk about with their housewife friends. They spend their free time (if they have any) with women (or men) who share their concept of life and their views, who have similar schedules and spend their spare time in a similar way. I have to mention here that married women do not really feel that they are free to dispose of their free time and the resources of the family. It often stops them to cultivate old friendships or to create new ones (Oliker, 1989). Of course a lot of women do not even feel the need to cultivate friendships, but many of them suffer from isolation. I am going to speak about its effect later on.
As there are a lot of kinds of women, it is impossible to speak about the role of friendship between women in general. Further on I am going to show some important features of this diversity.
First of all I am going
to speak about the most common phenomenon, the so called marriage work (Oliker,
1989). In Hungary most adult women live (or have lived) in marriage and are
bringing up one or more children. Traditionally, their central role is that
of the wife and the mother, even if they work full time. As a result of our
particular patriarchal system, a lot of men do not want to and/or cannot be
emotional partners for their wives. A well known reason for this is the difference
of the individualization process of men and women, as a result of which a separated
self is created in men and an embedded self in women. Another aspect of patriarchy
is the superiority of men and their activities and the underestimation of women'
activities. Housework, bringing up children and emotions are usually the subjects
that women have to discuss with one another, as according to the traditional
view they cannot be discussed them with men. In many cases, women do not immediately
talk about their difficulties in their relationship with their partner. They
often turn to their women friends first to get some advice. In such cases marriage
work starts and it most often means reassurance of the plaintiff, revaluation
of the difficulties and preservation of the marriage and the family in the long
run. In the course of marriage work women rarely tell their women friends fighting
with problems "to leave the guy, to take the child and leave" or "not
to endure any more what he does". Women friendships are characterized by
the respect of private life and the acceptance of the priority of the family.
Marriage work is most often directed to achieve or sustain the stability of marriage or the sense of suitability i.e. the commitment of the individual to marriage. Marriage work can be self-oriented, when women friends try to change their feelings by talking about them. When people express their thoughts, they move away from them and can see their effects. Good women friends know when just to listen and let the other express herself and when to say something that helps the other get beyond and clarify the situation. A form of self-oriented marriage work is "changing the frame", i.e. generating empathy for the other person's feelings. The girlfriend looking at the situation from outside can more easily identify with the husband's view and realize his situation. Her feedbacks make it possible to revaluate the situation and to deal with it in a more constructive way. The other frame changing strategy is the exaltation of the partner pointing out his positive aspects, that helps reconciliation to the situation and maintenance of the marriage. And if it does not help, we can still make use of our sense of humour, making fun of difficulties and worries. Irony and humour also help problem solving by alienation and externalization. In the course of self-oriented emotional work the examination and open expression of emotions may help elaboration. It is much easier to express feelings openly to a girlfriend than to the partner because women do not have to fear the other person's reaction, the domination of emotions or the outbreak of the conflict. They do not have to feel ashamed or guilty. Marriage work with a girlfriend in a protected environment helps to clarify and handle feelings without having to be afraid of damaging the marriage.
Marriage work directed to factors outside the individual is called situation-handling It includes a detailed discussion of events and a search for behaviour alternatives. Women friends can help in this with ideas taken from their own lives, with a review of alternatives and with direct guidance. The last one can be noticed in friendships reminding of the relationship of mother and daughter, but sometimes also equal friends give pieces of advice like "you should not endure it any more" or "someone should tell him the truth". We call this type of marriage work influence-oriented, which is usually not so frequent as marriage work helping adaptation. The reason for this is a fear of active steps, the involuntary acceptance of the subordination of women. Women often choose adaptation because they need only their own abilities to it, while a more assertive way of handling the situation requires the cooperation of their husbands as well. For fear of refusal, a lot of women resolve their marriage problems without the man knowing about it.
Women who trust their own resources and possibilities tend to do influence-oriented marriage work with their women friends. This is especially true about educated, gainfully employed friendships where not only marriage work is important but also individual achievements and information about the career. In Hungary most women are still less educated and more underpaid than their husbands. In these cases traditional family roles make women more disposed. As they do not see any choice and keep the safety of their children and themselves in their mind, they strive to sustain their marriages to the very last. Women friends help each other with accommodation-oriented marriage work used for strengthening their commitment to marriage. this work is supported and enforced by social norms. Although women do not say that they can feel this pressure, but they consider it natural and obvious. Therefore they feel the helper gives objective advice if it strengthens the marriage and they think it is distorted if individual interest gets into the foreground. This approach is more likeable if the woman loses more by breaking up the marriage. If the situation is intolerable, women friends have a different task.
"Divorce work" starts when marriage work ends. Women do not usually encourage each other to divorce, but if it happens they support each other after the divorce. Unfortunately, as the number of divorces increases, this kind of work becomes more frequent and necessary. The re-examination of the concept of family and of the frames of family life can make it possible to make the accommodation of single individuals accepted by themselves and by the society and to reinterpret relationships outside the family. As a result, friendships can get more important, as the international tendency of the weakening of family attachments regards Hungary as well.
Single individuals (no matter why they have become singles), with or without children are more exposed to the negative effects of loneliness. The lack of social support may increase directly or indirectly the risk factors endangering health. Lonely people become more often ill at any age. The feeling of being supported decreases this danger, it defends the individual from the harmful effects of stress. According to the results of international surveys, support coming from different sources have a cross-domain buffering effect, not a specific one (Lepore, 1992). Appropriate support in any area of life protects the individual from the negative effects of stress appearing in other areas of life. Friendships, as other forms of personal relations can be important sources of social support (Sarason, Pierce, 1994). The negative effects of the disintegration of the family may be compensated by the appropriate support of friends. Unfortunately, for the above mentioned reasons, the adult population with an average education do not usually have a satisfactory network of friends in Hungary (Utasi, 1991). It is especially true about married women.
Based on the classical example, if a woman has a long-lasting relationship with a man, her women friends gradually get into the background and disappear from her life. In the area of relationships Hungarian women "put all their eggs into one basket", i.e. they expect their partner to satisfy all their emotional needs and focus all their emotional energy on them. Hungarian and international surveys show that this desire is rarely satisfied and that women often get disappointed in their romantic ideals about relationships (Oliker, 1989). But dropped friendships can rarely be revived and a lot of women do not feel like having enough resources to make new ones.
Friendships in the individualization-process
Women graduates whose career
is an important part of life have a different situation. In Hungary family is
the most important thing for qualified women as well. The Yuppie life style
of highly qualified ambitious women who do not have children and live alone
has only recently appeared. Few surveys have been conducted about their lives
in Hungary. Professional women having children can cultivate their friendships
to a very limited extent. It is almost impossible to co-ordinate career and
children. Most professional women can spend very little time with their friends.
When they meet, they talk about their partners, their self-actualization and
Friendship is one of the best area for the expression of identity and for personal development. As it is not so regulated and institutionalized, we can express ourselves and individualize more freely within its framework. Talks to friends and feedbacks from them are important factors in the development of the personality. Plans, desires and fantasies about the future are often discussed by friends. A lot of women share also their career ambitions with their women friends and not with their husbands. Fantasies about the future of their relationship are even less frequently discussed with their husbands. Women friends play a unique role in supporting ambitions, in the process of self-evaluation and self-expression.
According to some theoreticians friendships and marriages contribute to two important aspects of the development of women: identity and intimacy. According to this theory there is no relationship that could promote all the aspects of the development of the personality (Paul, 1991). Most probably, all the different important relations contribute to the development of the personality. If intimacy can be created with the partner, the questions of identity: "Who am I? Where am I going?" will arise outside the marriage, talking to friends. Another practical reason why women share their personal ambitions with their women friends is that according to their experience, while a question is in the phase of analysis and planning, it is better not to burden the relationship with the tension arising from it.
While most relationships still function according to the patriarchal, unequal division of labour, friendships based on free choice contribute to the autonomy of the individual. A prevailing limit of this autonomy is that women friends share the view of the priority of family and marriage. Therefore, the principle of freedom can come across only until it starts to endanger the harmony of the family. In families where there are well paid, qualified women, the division of work in the family is more balanced and husbands have a more supportive attitude to women's independence. It has been noticed that if partners respect each other's freedom more, intimacy is less expressed. To compensate for this, women who live in freer relationships contributing to self-actualization, focus on emotional bonding in their friendships.
An important component of the individual's identity is the question of self-esteem. It is also a social form created by feed-backs coming from the outside world. Our friendships contribute to its formation to a great extent, as reinforcements coming from friends can be considered objective and subjective at the same time. They look at us from outside, but through the distorting-glass of their friendly feelings. We accept even criticism from our best friends and in the framework of the loving relationship, we do not feel it as offending as in other situations.
According to the self-evaluation maintenance theory (Erber, Tesser, 1994), we choose our friends so that they influence our self-esteem in a positive way. If a certain question is important for the maintenance of our self-esteem and it is also important for our friends, we wish to win the social comparison process. "I am better than she is". If it does not work, our friendship cools down. If the question does not effect our self-concept, we enjoy our friend's success, without being jealous or envious. This reflection process increases our self-esteem and makes us strengthen our friendship.
Empowerment through the relationships
friendships can lay the foundation of the relation-oriented form of power, which
stands closer to women (Surrey, 1991). It emphasizes the ability to change and
not to control and dominate. As a result the person gets empowered and it is
realized in relationships. Psychological empowerment is a kind of motivation,
freedom and ability of the individual to use their resources, strength or power
in order to attain their goals. This empowerment can only be interpreted within
the context of mutual relational empowerment. Relational empowerment means that
we take care of our relationships that empower us. This creates a common power
that serves the cultivation and the mutual empowerment of the participants.
In relationships based on this principle learning is involved: the individual
is able to assume the other person's point of view, to learn from each other
and to expand their experiences and relationships. Empathy and tolerance arising
from this may bring about changes at a social level as well.
Women friends influence the individual, the family and the society as well. As we consider the traditional, the modern and the post-modern family concept, relationships outside the family are getting more and more important in the life of the individual and in the functioning of the family system. The change of the concept of family, the loosening of the structure makes it more and more important to revaluate the concept of family dynamics and its interpretation in a wider range. The spread of families with single parents and homosexual families questions the idea of a normative development and the aim of a "normal" functioning. The strengthening of the relationships outside the families makes it necessary to extend the focus of prevention and therapy. A possible way is to involve friends and other resources outside the family in the assisting processes and to emphasize the importance of friendships in mentalhygiene, in education and in therapy.
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