Reciprocity in middle aged women's same-sex close friendships: a qualitative study

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Virginia Tech


Reciprocity in friendship has been identified as necessary to developmental stages of friendship formation in children and adolescents. Studies of young adults and older adults in reciprocal friendships have focused on gender differences, communication, and social satisfaction, including social supports. There has been little research on the role of reciprocity in same-sex close friendships of middle aged women. Eighteen interviews of women ages 40 to 56 years were qualitatively analyzed to explore the importance of reciprocity and how it is expressed in middle aged same-sex close friendships.

The Jones and Vaughan (1990) categories of self-disclosure, emotional support, tangible assistance, and social initiatives were used as a starting point for coding the interview responses. Shared values, acceptance and trust, feedback, and similarity/mutuality over time were additional themes that emerged from the data.

The women in this study expected reciprocity from close friends. Tangible assistance and social initiatives did not seem to be important whereas shared values and self-disclosure were the foundations of their friendships. However, there were contradictions and reservations about sharing problems and successes. Self-disclosure, feedback, emotional support, and acceptance and trust were found to be interrelated and reciprocal.

Two different levels of listening emerged from the data. The first level was expressed as listening when a close friend self-disclosed with the expectation of being "heard" and "accepted." The second level was expressed as listening when a close friend shared with the expectation of providing feedback. Acceptance and trust emerged as being reciprocally related, while similarity and mutuality emerged as being developmental over time. A relationship between feedback and self-esteem also became evident. The middle aged participants valued reciprocity in their friendships and expressed it with complexity and richness that was multi-dimensional.