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Friendship and romantic relationship in emerging adulthood

For every emerging adult, friendships and romantic relationships are always bond together, their intricate interrelationship is a natural need for multi-dimensional self-development. There are similarities and differences between these two forms of relationships, but everyone agrees that his/her friends and his/her romantic partners are always the most important people within his/her social networks. Beyond their similarities, friendships and romantic relationships serve distinct functions. “Friendships tend to satisfy social integration needs (i.e., companionship), feelings of worth, and to a lesser degree, intimacy. Romantic relationships primarily satisfy intimacy needs and provide emotional support.” (Furman, 12) Therefore, we might expect their uniqueness to be connected to real adulthood’s qualities. So in what exact quality does a real adult differ from adolescent? From contemporary researches, scholars have clearly defined: “Individuals who perceive themselves to be adults are less self-focused, more family focused, and more certain of the characteristics they desire in a romantic partner compared to those who do not perceive themselves to be adults.” (Erikson, 201) Then, if individuals who are considered to be real adults are expected to have more positive qualities in romantic relationships and fewer positive qualities in friendships, then we might think that the adulthood criteria is negatively associated with friendship, but more positively related to romantic relationship qualities. In this paper, we will first introduce the current status of Chinese undergraduate students studying in America and then we want to explore which relationship (romantic relationship & friendships) is the dominant source for positive individual development towards achieved adulthood criteria among this group of emerging adults, and possible explanations behind this social phenomenon.

According to the Institute of International Education’s Open Doors Report (IIEODR), there were 98,235 Chinese undergraduate students studying in the United States in 2009, which has increased by 21.1 percent between 2007 and 2009. Compared to both their peers in China and Native American students, these individuals are experiencing a very special emerging adulthood period, especially for those who come to the States for their first time. They tend to have very few social networks, therefore a better chance to form more intimate relationships within that Chinese circle. Other potential factors include the influence of cultural & social-historical vale differences, and homesickness. So how do those factors affect the emerging adulthood for such a large pool of people?

Let us first make clear about some special fact of emerging adulthood for common people. “It is a period of development bridging adolescence and young adulthood, during which young people are no longer adolescents but have not yet attained full adult status, during which emerging adulthood young people are in the process of developing the capacities, skills, and qualities of character deemed by their cultures as necessary for completing the transition to adulthood.” (Arnett 331,1998) In short, the transition to adulthood is a special period of time feeling in-between the former status of adolescence and the forthcoming status of adulthood (Arnett 335, 1998). During the period of coming of age, close relationships mostly consist of peer networks, heterosexual adolescents, and romantic partners. The burgeoning literature on this population of emerging adults might serve very good examples to illustrate how friendships and romantic relationships affects future formation as they gradually achieve important developmental markers for adulthood. And as they do so, their behaviors are more commensurate with those of adults. Both positive and negative influences help those emerging adults get to know the criteria of adulthood as we can see in The Chosen. Danny introduces Reuven to his broad yet rigorous method of analyzing Talmud, while Reuven teaches Danny patience and open-mindedness when Danny is frustrated with experimental psychology. As a result of their friendship, Reuven and Danny grow up at the same time. However, when true friendship between opposite sex has achieved certain level of adulthood, then it becomes ill suited. In other words, friendships may become less useful as one approaches adult status and immediately after one has taken on romantic relationship. We can see extremely opposite story happened in I Capture the Castle. Brotherhood and sisterhood are supposed to be a higher level of intimacy than friendships, but Rose chooses to go off with Neil secretly, leaving the family behind. Between sisterhood and romantic relationship, Rose eventually chose the second one even it means ultimate betrayal to the family. Therefore we can say that: “a drop in friendship quality itself might be associated with emerging adults’ focus on more satisfying and intimate romantic relationships.” (Simone, 167) No matter if it is real with those two novels or other similar ones, at least we can find some similarities in western understanding, as young people move from preadolescence through late adolescence, their romantic relationships become increasingly central in their social world, and it affects other aspects of adolescent’s development such as identity transformation, future family relationships, the development of sexuality, and scholastic achievement and career planning. (Simone, 186)

From those tones of western literature describing the specialty about emerging adulthood, we can see that even traditional emerging adulthood is already a special period for every young adult in a familiar environment. Therefore, studying aboard leads to a more distinctive process of coming of age, for those Chinese students have to face the intimacy against isolation crisis. In order to solve it, most Chinese undergraduate students in a foreign country tend to have both close friends and romantic partners. Without any family influence, foreign students spend almost everyday with their friends, and particularly with romantic partners since both relationships have been associated with happiness. Any in-depth communication may develop into a romantic relationship because in reality, to form intimate partnerships is the fulfillment of developmental demands. Except for romantic relationship, friendship is another important relationship during emerging adulthood among foreign students. (Arnett 19,2004) So which relationship for foreign students is the dominant factor?

Let us then consider the differences in beliefs towards emerging adulthood between Western and Eastern worlds. For most American students, they pay more attention on active self-exploration rather than identity foreclosure that is more common among Chinese groups. Most American parents encourage their kids to experience real romantic relationships at least once before college. By doing so, American students are more likely able to forge their own path in search for individualism during that process. It is the process of autonomy seeking that lead to a consolidated understanding of independent decision-making, emotional independence, and assertiveness in the relationship with others. (Furman, 26) Within such a new environment, Chinese undergraduates move through transition to adulthood in a similar but a faster pace: study aboard leads to a distinctive developmental process that interferes with self-exploration during emerging adulthood because at the same time, Chinese students will experience both active self-exploration like other American youngsters, and re-organization of themselves in the new environment. Most research data gathered from comparison studies on these special groups from the American psychological association has strongly indicated that foreign students in emerging adulthood not only have a more disorganized sense of themselves, but also a higher level of autonomy and relatedness in both relationships (romantic relationship and friendship). (Sophie, 418-420) Their successful transition normally begins with a strong connection to a certain groups and later moves towards higher level of relationships. Most of those researches also find out that this special trend within the Chinese group has connection to their growing background. Most Chinese high school gradates have never been through a real romantic relationships because of society traditions and family perceptions. When they first fit into a new circle, they are more easily affected by emotional turbulences within that circle due to their lack of experience. Another interest thing is that current college students prefer flexible relationships to serious marital relationships; foreign students therefore have an easier access to a larger pool of people, which greatly increases the chance of meeting someone they favorably inclined towards. When foreign students become relatively easy with American society, culture and living-style, they are more inclined to move certain relationships to a high new level, as first discovered by Erikson in 1968. He concludes, “Higher level of self-identity exploration and commitment is associated with higher intimate relationships with romantic partners.” (Erikson, 98) During real romantic relationships, Chinese students will develop relationship maturity primarily through three stages: self-focused, role-focused, and individuated-connected. Each of them is associated with the practice of independence, interdependence, role transitions, norm compliance, chronological transitions, and family capacities. (Erikson, 75) It is quite interesting that dramatic changes in those qualities tend to associate with less positive friendship qualities, but more positive romantic relationship qualities, and previous scholars have also discovered similar coming-of-age process within Native American student groups. At the beginning of adolescence, friendships intimacy is the most obvious component. Other fairly higher lever of intimacy becomes the dominant part as people move into early adulthood and their primary goal is to become independent, to secure a relationship with good alliance, intimacy, aid, and emotional support. (Sophie, 421) Possible explanation behind such a social phenomenon is that Chinese students value the friendship and feelings of satisfaction from years of a shared history, especially at the beginning when they first entered U.S, but when they adopting new adult roles in the society, something like companionship and nurturance is likely to be gone. What is more is that when comparing to one’s romantic partner, one’s expectations towards his time investment may adjust tremendously.

All of those researches are based on horizontal study of international students in U.S because of lacking statistics directly gathered from Chinese students. But all of the researches have reached similar conclusion. Studying aboard in a totally different country is a unique experience during emerging adulthood. Because of social, cultural, or even religious difference, foreign students tend to move through transition of adulthood in a relatively faster pace comparing to native students. For most Chinese students study in America, scholars have discovered that students’ future identity formation and achieved adulthood criteria such as independence and interdependence is positively associated with romantic relationships which consists of companionship, worth, affection, and emotional support, but is negatively associated with any friendship qualities. On the contrary, having achieved considerably more adulthood criteria such as family capacities, norm compliance, and chronological transitions is associated with poorer friendship qualities, particularly with respect to relationship qualities that depended upon a substantial time investment in the relationship (companionship and nurturance). (Simone, 19) All of those researches also suggest that the transition to adulthood has important implications for emerging adults’ social adjustment. That is, as Chinese students begin to take on adult roles and responsibilities, they experience a developmental need to shift their focus from friendships to romantic relationships, thus impacting qualities of these relationships. (Sophie, 421) Of course, emerging adults have other important persons in their social network beyond best friends and romantic partners, and the interplay of these relationships has been shown to relate to their adjustment too, therefore, further research on Chinese students studying in the US should be conducted in order to reach a more conclusive conclusion.

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