Variability in the Quality of College Students’ Friendships: Associations with Loneliness, Belonging, and Representations of Friendships

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Having a high-quality friendship has been consistently related to lower feelings of loneliness and greater feelings of belonging in college. Yet many students report having several close friendships and the contributions of the quality of these additional close friendships, and the variability between them, for loneliness and belonging in college is unclear. Furthermore, students’ representations of friendship may help explain variation in friendship quality across multiple friendships and between college students. This dissertation examines the quality of and satisfaction with three close friendships in college using both variable- and person-centered approaches to characterize within- and between-person friendship variability. It also considers connections between these friendships and loneliness, belonging, and representations of friendship. Both studies are drawn from a larger survey-based study of college students’ relationships (N = 674 undergraduates). Study 1 first provides descriptive information about the quality of and satisfaction with college students’ three closest friendships. Between- and within-person variability in friendship quality and satisfaction are examined and person-centered analyses are used to identify different profiles of multiple friendships. Study 1 considers the implications of each of these friendships, of within-person variability (range scores) across these friendships, of between-person variability in average and of maximum quality across friendships for loneliness and belonging, as well as examining person-centered friendship profile differences in loneliness and belonging in college. Findings from Study 1 indicated that college students’ friendships were generally high in positive quality and satisfaction. These friendships are similar in many ways, but the very best friendship also stood out in terms of positive friendship quality and satisfaction. Gender-specific friendship profiles were identified for positive quality, shared activities, and conflict, but not satisfaction, and having certain friendship profiles also corresponded to differences in loneliness and belonging. Additive effects for the quality of and satisfaction with additional friendships beyond the very best friendship in predicting loneliness and belonging were consistently found. For positive quality, the range of positive quality across friendships moderated the effect of the mean level of positive quality in buffering against loneliness, but no other within-person variability effects were found. Average and maximum quality across friendships did predict well-being, however, these aggregate metrics of multiple friendship quality and satisfaction were not better predictors of well-being than the quality of and satisfaction with the very best friendship alone. Collectively, these findings suggest that multiple friendships matter for well-being and to some degree, variability across friendships is also associated with well-being. Study 2 considers two types of friendship representations—friendship beliefs and friendship feature value—and their connections with between- and within-person variability in friendship quality and satisfaction. Overall maladaptive beliefs and average friendship feature value are examined as predictors of average quality, range in quality, maximum quality, and covariates of friendship profile membership. Additional exploratory analyses examine whether specific beliefs or features especially predict friendship quality or satisfaction. Findings indicated that beliefs and feature value were each unique predictors of between-person differences in average and maximum friendship quality and satisfaction across friendships. Furthermore, when looking at certain beliefs, the associations between those beliefs and friendship quality and satisfaction were stronger for men than for women. To a lesser degree, beliefs or feature value (depending on the friendship feature) were associated with within-person variability (range scores) in friendship quality and satisfaction. Beliefs and feature value also covaried with friendship profile membership. Collectively, this dissertation highlights the importance of the quality of and satisfaction with multiple friendships in college, links the quality of and satisfaction with multiple friendships with loneliness and belonging, and demonstrates the relevance of friendship representations for the quality of college students’ closest friendships.





Yust, Paula Kathryn Schutt (2021). Variability in the Quality of College Students’ Friendships: Associations with Loneliness, Belonging, and Representations of Friendships. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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