For young adults, future success may depend more on friendship skills than romantic skills

Bella DePaulo

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People who seem to be skilled at romance are admired and celebrated. When they are young, their prom pictures attract lots of likes. If they marry, they are showered with engagement gifts and wedding gifts, plus tons and tons of attention. People with friendship skills, though, are rarely acknowledged in such effusive ways.

From the way that romantic skills, but not friendship skills, are celebrated, it might seem reasonable to assume that romantic skills are more important for future success. But is that really true?

A team of researchers decided to find out. Here are the questions they addressed: If you are good at friendship at age 20, are you likely to be doing better in your work life at age 30 than if you were not good at friendship as a 20-year-old? What about your romantic talents at age 20 – how relevant are they to your success at age 30? They published their results in the journal Child Development.

How the study was done

Social scientists have been studying 205 Minnesotans since they were between the ages of 8 and 12 years old. Around age 20 and then 10 years later, they assessed how skilled and successful the participants were at friendships and romantic relationships. At age 30, the researchers also assessed success at work: “a clear track record of reliably holding and successfully executing the responsibilities of paid positions.”

To measure friendship skills and romantic talents, the researchers used the participants’ own reports (from several sources, such as validated self-report measures and, at age 20, in-person interviews), reports from their parents, and the evaluations of clinical psychologists who saw the participants’ self-reported data. For friendship, the assessments were designed primarily to assess whether the participant had “a close, confiding friendship,” though other indications of having a social life were included, too. For romance, the key question was whether the participant “had engaged in a close and positive reciprocal relationship with a romantic partner for more than a brief period.” The 30-year olds were asked whether they had such relationships within the past 3 years.

What they found

Friendship skills at age 20 matter for success at age 30. People who were good at friendship at age 20 were more likely to be succeeding at paid work 10 years later than those who were not good at friendship. Unsurprisingly, those who were especially good at friendship at age 20 were also especially good at friendship at age 30. And guess what? They were also good at romance.

Romantic skill at age 20 did not predict any successes at age 30, not even romantic ones! The 20-somethings who had had “a close and positive reciprocal relationship with a romantic partner for more than a brief period” were no more likely to be successful at work 10 years later than those who did not have such a partner. They were also no more likely to be successful at friendships. And, those who had a good and lasting romantic relationship at age 20 were no more (or less) likely to have such a relationship 10 years later!

So if you are a 20-year-old and you think you are good at romance, good for you. Enjoy it for its own sake. But if you are a 20-year-old and you are good at friendship, you have something to be truly proud of – something that will last and may even predict success in the future.

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Expert on the profound rewards of single life. Author of “Singled Out.” Popular TEDx speaker. Harvard PhD.

Summerland, CA
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