Speaking up for friendship

Marriages or intimate partnerships are less often “”for life”” than they have ever been. Families are often small or scattered.  For increasing numbers of people, it is friends who provide essential comfort and continuity through an adult lifetime.

Yet my hunch is that too little attention and even respect is paid to friendship. And too often friends are taken for granted in ways that lovers and family rarely are.

The majority of friends most of us make are situational. These are the people we go to school or university with; our next-door neighbours; the colleagues at our workplace. We get to know them well; we share intimacies. We assume we will know each other forever. But when we are no longer nearby on a regular basis, the friendships fall away.

The friendships that endure through times of separation, changes in lifestyle and periods of disagreement or disappointment are rather different and, in my view, as important to our happiness as most intimate relationships will ever be.  They are not honoured in the same ways.  But in terms of what they offer, they can be as rich and may be more enduring than a marriage. Yet the sad truth is that in lives packed with work, family obligations and more work, it is often our friends that we neglect – despite our best intentions.

To maintain a friendship over the long haul, we have to bring to it much the same qualities we would to any experience of intimacy.  We need to be able to offer good humour, loyalty and trust. And we must be ready to forgive ordinary human failings – and move on. Good humour and good will are the hallmarks of an enduring friendship. And the level of acceptance they promote has profound social and psychological benefits.

Countless people over the years have told me how much they value the (usually quite few) friends who accept them unconditionally and with whom they can truly be themselves. One of the negative hallmarks of contemporary life is the fear of being judged and found wanting. Just because most judgements are relentlessly superficial doesn’t protect us from the hurt they cause. In genuine friendships, that fear of being judged is set aside. You can relax, knowing that you are accepted. And you can offer this longed-for emotional security in return.

The best friendships (again like any enduring relationship) also need to be stimulating as well as affectionate and loyal.  This means that each person has genuine curiosity about the interests of the other one. Friendship problems often arise when one person drives the agenda or dominates the talking. It’s surprising how unaware many people are about how much they speak and how little they listen. Problems also arise when someone isn’t interested in anything beyond their own direct experiences (talking about their children incessantly; seldom asking about their friend’s interests or work). And even though one of the great comforts of a friendship is that you can moan freely or complain – even unfairly, when this becomes the dominant topic it also drains the friendship.

The most effective way to discover how much friendship can give is to make your friends a genuine priority even in a high-pressure existence. Dropping your friends when a new sexual partner comes along; talking about friends negatively; playing friends off against one another; holding grudges; seeing friends only when you have nothing better to do; using friends as an emotional dumping ground, or cultivating them for their status or contacts: all these patterns undermine the vast potential friendship has.

Healthy, enduring friendships make such a significant difference to your feelings of wellbeing that if unhealthy patterns dominate, or if you doubt that you have real friends at all, it is worth seeking professional support.  Being a good friend to others begins with being a good friend to your own self.  That, in turn, becomes so much easier when you also feel liked and accepted in enduring ways by other people.

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