A Friend in need? Friendship, emotional wellbeing and higher education

A Friend in need? Friendship, emotional wellbeing and higher education

Kirsty Finn

Despite the many changes that have transformed higher education in the UK over recent decades, the belief in the potential of this experience for producing intense, transformative and often enduring friendships does not seem to have wavered. From The Young Ones, to This Life, Starter for Ten and, most recently Fresh Meat, the particularities of intimacies formed and nurtured within the university context continue to fascinate and challenge our understandings of what it means to be a good, bad, or simply a rather ordinary friend.

Popular culture has drawn complex and uneven university friendships, underpinned by rivalry and bitterness, everyday dishonesty, and an intense and formative intimacy.   By contrast, sociological research has taken a more instrumentalist view, asking instead what and where friendships can take different groups of students and how these non-kin ties translate into resources for (dis)advantage. At a time when there is an unprecedented emphasis on friendship practices, particularly though not exclusively via social media, and when the emotional wellbeing and mental health of students has become a concern, it is important to understand the emotional context as well as the utility of friendships within the context of HE.

The meaning and experience of friendship was explored in a seven-year (2006-13) qualitative longitudinal study undertaken with women students (and later graduates) as they journeyed through HE. The project, initially an ESRC doctoral study that examined the broad constellation of women’s kin and non-kin ties, took relationships and personal life as its starting point, and thus attempted to shift the emphasis away from binary class analysis of family and friend relationships and bring other intimacies into view. The data provide rich insights into the nuances and inter-class similarities with regards to how friendships are imagined and negotiated, day-to-day; the emotional context of friendships at university; and the ambivalent and contradictory feeling rules which govern this area of personal life at this juncture.

Friendships and the imaginary
The longitudinal design of the study allowed for a moving picture, rather than a snapshot, of friendships to be generated. At the outset of the project, but also at other stages too, friend relationships occupied an important space in the women’s imaginary as they thought themselves out of established friendship networks and imagined new and emerging selves at university. Imagined friendships were central, then, to the emotional labour that underpinned decisions to leave home and also the choice to remain closer to established networks. The imagined possibility of relationships with new others, and equally the demise of longstanding ties, was experienced as both exhilarating and daunting; nonetheless, it was part of how the women prepared themselves, emotionally, for the transition to university. Thus, imagining friendships is not an idle practice but a powerful and emotionally-charged process of anticipating new spaces and experiences.

Participants who had difficult memories of school or college or who felt constrained by the imposition of traditionalist sexual or religious identities often had unhappy associations with longstanding friendships; thus, the process of imaging a new start was important for their sense of self confidence and emotional security at this time of heightened change. Equally, some white and many of the ethnic minority participants who had experienced isolation, and even marginalisation, at school and college found the process of imagining new others emotionally challenging and this was a source of anxiety prior to university beginning. These women had difficulties establishing a clear picture of new friendships and the kinds of practices that they would engage in because this was no an area of personal life where they felt confident and proficient.  Moreover, the notion of ‘out with old and in with the new’ had the power to unsettle because it felt at odds with values of loyalty and commitment that underpinned their friendships at home. Imagining new friendships flourish whilst others deteriorated thus triggered feelings of guilt, unease and instability that had to be reconciled.

This research supports other studies which challenge to popular assumptions that friendships are voluntary, flexible and disposable (e.g. Smart et al. 2012). The transition to HE presented particular challenges for the ways in which loyalty, commitment and enduring emotional bonds were managed and understood alongside more individualistic notions of self-transformation and ‘starting afresh’.

Out with the old? HE and the feeling rules of friendship
At school and college, the guidelines for being a good friend seemed relatively clear and workable. That’s not to say friendships were not complex or emotional, but the women were familiar with the rules of the game and, crucially, the distinction between old and new relationships was not as prominent at this stage.  The transition to university, however, is shrouded with expectations of establishing an authentic identity (e.g. Warin and Dempster 2007) and, as outlined above, new friendships are integral to this. Every year student forums and media guides offer advice and guidance on how to make friends and break away from longstanding ties. Thus, HE must be understood more than just another setting within which bonds are established, practiced and relinquished; it is a space imbued with complex and contradictory notions of individualism and intense intimacy.

For the women in the study university was a turning point for the ways that friendships were negotiated and the first real occasion in which the feeling rules of friendship had come under such heightened scrutiny.  This was a highly emotional experience; indeed, regardless of the ways new friendships were imagined and the discursive trend of ‘out with the old, in with the new’, there was a great deal of uncertainty about how friendships would be managed across geographical, social and emotional distance. The women pondered the appropriateness of different emotional responses to and strategies for change; whether they were entitled to feel aggrieved, exhilarated and neglected; and what these emotions said about the person they saw themselves becoming.

Capturing experiences longitudinally allows us to understand the relationship between anticipation and change. Often, the imagined distinction between old and new ties did not translate into real life experiences and participants were able to blend the different personal worlds together, especially when they attended locally-based institutions and with the use of communications technologies and social media platforms like Facebook.  The women described the importance of being able to tap into everyday emotions talk – ‘banter’ – with distant friends whilst at university, and how this brought comfort and security during period of loneliness. This finding challenges claims that ‘home’ friends hinder the process of settling in at university, and shows the creativity with which young women manage and deploy their non-kin ties.

Whilst this blurring of home and away was experienced positively for those who sought connection and continuity, for others who had imagined a new and separate life away from home the lingering of old friendships was messy and unwelcome, causing distress and emotional labour that they were reluctant to invest. Getting the balance right was tricky and often feeling rules were misjudged or actively transgressed. In such cases participants faced accusations of selfishness and lack of care for others which had the power to destabilise identities and feelings of emotional security. This raises the question of whether one can ever really move on from old friendships, even at a time of such intense personal change, and emphasises the uncertainty about the degree of emotional closeness appropriate for friendships in contemporary life (e.g. Holmes 2011).

Embodied and accelerated intimacy
Narratives of friendships formed at university were generally positive, revealing an intense, accelerated and embodied intimacy that the women found difficult to articulate in conventional friendship terms. Despite clearly being formed in the context of HE, university friendships were rarely described as situationally produced, but rather as serendipitous and emotional rather than practical and inevitable. To convey this, participants invoked bodily feelings – clicking, gut reactions – and transcendental, intangible and instantaneous ways of knowing.

This kind of emotional closeness occasionally transgressed accepted scripts about the practice of intimacy amongst friends, particularly in the context of peer-shared living where relationships took on new temporal and spatial rhythms. Movie marathons that ran into the night and back into the day were relayed as indulgent and excessive intimacies. These often took place in private rooms that were opened up to invited others, thus signalling an emotional connection and togetherness. Equally, however, a locked door and ‘too much’ time spent in one’s private room indicated a lack of group spirit and an unwillingness to forge a sense of group solidarity. Relationships in peer-shared living settings were likened to familial bonds but they also constituted the in-between-ness of non-friend intimacies; they were observers, witnesses to relational activities and emotional highs and lows, and very often became mediators. Thus, peer-shared intimacies assumed a powerful status, even in cases where these were not described as friendships. They were important for emotional wellbeing, providing a safety net and sanctuary, but also implicit in many participants’ experiences of isolation and othering as entrenched gender and sexual stereotypes were (re)produced in these settings.

The increasing numbers of young adults attending university each year means that relationality is more diverse but not necessarily more fluid and flexible than in the past. The possibility of new friendships is a powerful tool of the imagination that can help young people to think themselves into new situations and effect personal change. At the same time, however, students at university find that they are compelled to reflect on the increasingly complex and muddy feeling rules of friendship and act appropriately in a diverse range of interactions across time and space. The embodied nature of friend relationships demonstrates the close link between non-kin ties and mental health and wellbeing. It is important not to assume that new friends are always positive for HE experience or that longstanding ties will hinder transitions. As the data show, young people are, today, incredibly creative and proficient in how they imagine, negotiate and make sense of their friendships.


Kirsty Finn is Lecturer in Higher Education in the Department of Educational Research at Lancaster University. A more detailed discussion of the research described here can be found in Personal Life, Young Women and Higher Education

Image: Alessandra  CC BY 2.0