All mental health programs emphasize the importance of encouraging clients to find and maintain good friendships.
Having a wealth of good friends benefits our health, both physically and mentally. Those with a wide network of friends have been found to be healthier, happier, less stressed and longer lived than those with an isolated life. This is true even for those have close family ties but few friends.
So why, I have been wondering, do so many of my clients report complications, disappointment, pain and suffering from past and present friendships the point that friendships actually hinder instead of enhance their healing and well-being?
After reading several articles recently on the topic of friendship I have given this inconsistency some serious consideration. Friendships seem to come so easily to some. Like my father pictured here with two of his three life-long friends who maintained closed relationships with each other from childhood to death. Also like for my childhood friend Barb who has housefuls of friends stretching over her life time, some of whom she takes an annual vacation with each year that they plan together in the months ahead.
But for others friendships do not come easily. I have concluded this is because friendship means such different things to different people and people seek different things from their friends. As one of the articles I read pointed out, friendship is the most loosely defined of all social relationships. What exactly is it supposed to be? Generally speaking it is relationship of mutual affection between two or more people. But when considered carefully there is no consensus on just what that mutual affection might consist of. There are many possible forms with no practical limits.
An interview in one of the articles revealed that for some friendships are people you hang out with to get away from the problems and responsibilities and just have fun. For others it’s close confidants and helpmates who help each other through life’s up’s and down’s. One fellow in the article reported running through friends like the flavor of the month, while others like my father, spoke of their friendship as long-lasting bonds. Some of the bonds are described as deep and personal while others are focused more on surface activities and current circumstances.
Published descriptions of friendships often suggest that they are characterized as bonds that include affection, sympathy, empathy, honesty, altruism, mutual understanding and compassion, enjoyment of each other’s company, trust, and the ability to be oneself, express one’s feelings, and make mistakes without fear of judgment from the friend.
But in real life from personal experiences and those of my clients and others I know, not all “good” friendships include all those feature. To meet all these criteria would be to achieve near sainthood. More likely they can be any combination of one or more of these traits. Some will run for the hills at the expression of problems or negative feelings, but they are wonderfully reliable buddies to chat with over coffee about work, children. hobbies, etc. Some are going to be perfectionistic or judgmental at times and, while we need to heed those proclivities, we can still enjoy helping, texting or doing things together.
So benefiting and enjoying friendship seems to involve recognizing what you and each friend can share in a reciprocally (or equally) satisfying way and not expecting them to be or do more than they are willing or able to offer.
Even with this caveat, however, friendship not matter of what breadth or depth requires several other necessities that are not always easy to meet:
- Time. It takes time to have friends. It might only be a few minutes here and there to email each other or significant investments of hours spend together in person or it might mean hours or even days of help each other through crises. .
- Energy. Maintaining any a relationship requires an effort to reach out and stay in touch by whatever mean whether that be on a daily, weekly or every few month basis. It is hard to have a meaningful relationship with someone you hardly know because you so rarely interact with each other.
- Some commonality. There needs to be some sort of glue or magnet that draws and holds you together, some shared interest, activity, beliefs or history to relate around.
- Mutual attraction. Both parties must feel drawn to each other in some way. One-sided relationships are not friendships.
- Mutual gratification. Both parties must get some form of satisfaction from the company and interactions with of the other.
- Mutual expectations. Since the bounds of friendship are so open to definition, a mismatch in the expectations the parties have for the nature of any aspect of a friendship can lead to disappointment and the end of a potential relationship.
- Reciprocity. As mentioned above satisfying friendship cannot be one-sided for long. One person can’t do all the initiating, all the talking or all the giving. There has to be a mutual give and take over time, where each person feels valued equality.
- Exposure. Someone who never interacts with anyone nor goes anywhere, virtually or in person, will not be able to find or keep friends.
- Opportunity. There has to be a chance to discover something about each other before a friendship can form. Friendships don’t come, for example, from sitting alone in a large auditorium of people with no opportunity to get to know the others present.
- Means. There must be ways and the resources to interact with each other be that by phone, internet or in person.
In reviewing theses prerequisites it is easy to see how readily friendships can wax and wane, changing perhaps as we transition from one stage of life to another and life takes us down new paths where one or even many of these variables change. The couple with children may “grow apart” from the friends they once partied with who no longer have children. The person who loses his job and undergoes serious financial pressures may “lose touch” with the colleagues he or she once had such easy access to and so much in common with. And so forth.
I have observed that these demands so intrinsic to friendship can be daunting for people of any age who are suffering with serious chronic physical disabilities, mental illness or financial problems. This is particularly true for the elderly who may live alone and have no or limited access to transportation and few resources. Often they don’t feel well enough to get out of the house, reach out to others and reciprocate when friends need them. So they often end up being isolated.
In addition most people who are not suffering don’t have a lot in common with those whose lives are circumscribed by pain or hardship. Even if they truly care for someone, would-be friends are often ill-equipped to know how to respond to someone else’s severe travails. They may be overwhelmed by their own travails and want an escape into friendship not additional concerns.
I believe this limitation accounts at least in part for why so many of folks believe their “friends” abandoned them when they got ill or fell onto hard times. Here are some ways to make and keep life-long friends.
- Reach out to others with who you have common interests and circumstances in venues that are consistent with you lever of time, energy and resources. For example, if for whatever reason you can’t get out to places where you could meet friends in person, cultivate phone, text or online friendship.
- Acceptthat those who would be friends have their own limitations, needs and circumstances. They may not be seeking all the same things from a friendship you are.
- Be opento discover what a would-be friend’s limitations and desires for friendship are and when some match yours enjoy those and cultivate a variety of other friends for other of your friendship needs.
- Don’t expect or accept one-sided friendships. Your time interacting with friends cannot be all about you or all about them. There needs to be a balance. Find friends with whom the relationship can be reciprocal. This means equal time and energy for each person’s interests.
- Check for balance when you have talked about yourself or pursued your interests for a while with a friend. Stop and ask about theirs. If someone discusses or joins you for something you especially enjoy, check how you might switch the next topic or activity to something they would especially enjoy.
- Don’t take it personally when a friend is no longer in the same place as you and your friendship dwindles, cools or fades away. We all change. Our needs, interests, circumstances and abilities change. The reverse is true as well. Don’t feel duty bound to maintain friendships you can no longer maintain rewardingly due to changes in your own life.
- Do not expect your friends to be a therapist. This is one the most common pitfall a friendship can stumble over. When we turn to friends with our problems they may be judgmental; they may try to “cheer” us up or implore us to “move on, tell us to “just get over it.” They might step in with loads of unhelpful advice or become overwhelmed and withdraw. Not because they don’t like you or don’t care but because friends aren’t trained to be therapists and therapists are prohibited by their professional ethics from being friends.
- Be tolerant of your friendsfor who they are and what they can give and gratefully accept whatever they have and can give to you.
- Look about for people who are alone and isolated and if you are blessed to be in a position of sufficient health and well-being to do, so spend some time getting to know them. You may be surprised to find them interesting and discover just how much helping someone else without expectation of anything in return can make you feel really good.
When you considered all the nuances involved, friendship when we find it is trulya blessing.
© Sarah Edwards, 2014.