When a spouse dies, the surviving husband or wife often will deeply feel the loss of a close confidant.

But a new study, published in the June issue of Health Psychology, finds that they may be better off in terms of their future health by turning to a close friend rather than a close relative.

"Friendships are discretionary while family relationships are obligatory, and past research shows that obligatory relationships can be less beneficial than discretionary relationships during times of stress," study co-author Jamila Bookwala said in a news release from Academy Communications.

Bookwala, a psychology professor at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., and her team tracked nearly 750 Americans -- mostly older women -- from 1992 to 2004. The researchers looked for connections between better physical health and the presence of a close confidant.

Those who received emotional support from relatives didn't fare as well in terms of health as those with friends, the investigators found.

Reliving the death of a loved one can help survivors, researchers say Photo Credit: HealthDay

What's going on?

"Family relationships are more likely to be characterized by ambivalence than are friendships," Bookwala said. "Such ambivalence -- feeling both close and bothered by the person -- may occur even within confidant relationships with family members. This ambivalence may reduce the likelihood of health benefits from confiding in a family member."

But a close relationship with a friend "is likely to be less emotionally complex, less ambivalent," she said.

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"As a result," Bookwala explained, "having a friend to confide in may be more conducive to protecting health in the face of stress, such as becoming widowed. And this may explain why having a family member to confide in resulted in no protective health benefits for those whose spouse died, but having a friend to confide in did."

More information

For more about mourning the death of a spouse, visit the U.S. National Institute on Aging.

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