This article first appeared in the July/August 1995 issue.
WHEN LIZ AND DAN TOOK THEIR USUAL PLACES IN RUSSELL Haber’s consulting room, Liz made none of her customary attempts to ease into the hour with small talk. “I’ve begun to wake up thinking of suicide,” she told Haber, a Columbia, South Carolina, family therapist who had been working with the 34-year-old law student and her husband for four months to try to bridge the vast distances and silences between them. She had tried all of Haber’s suggestions for communicating directly, negotiating requests and reversing roles. But no matter what she did, Liz told Haber in her small, exhausted voice, Dan persisted in treating her like a stranger, except on those increasingly rare occasions when he felt like having sex.
“But it’s not just about you,” Liz added abruptly, turning to her husband. In a soft monotone, she began to talk of how utterly worthless and alone she felt, not only because of her husband’s remoteness, but also because nobody who was important to her gave her the support or affirmation she craved. Not her parents, who had always treated her as if she had no needs, nor her younger sister, who seemed to view Liz primarily as an car for her own troubles. Even her own two kids, she said despondently, seemed to prefer Dan’s company to hers Haber listened quietly. He had heard about all of these missed connections before, and was sobered by the accuracy of his client’s analysis. It was time, clearly, to look beyond the family “What about friends?” he asked.
Surprised, Liz admitted that, yes, she did have three friends-. Joanne, a member of her church group; Connie, a neighbor; and Elise, one of her law school instructors. But no way could she expect anything more from these women, she told Haber, because she was sure they already viewed her as “insatiably needy.” In fact, she was surprised they hadn’t already dropped her cold. Since she could give nothing to these friends, why in heaven would they want to give anything back to her?
“Why don’t we find out?” countered Haber “Let’s invite your friends to our next session.”
The following week, with Joanne, Connie and Elise in the consulting room, Haber asked Liz to tell her friends how she imagined they saw her. “Thirsty,” said Liz. “Around all of you, I try to watch myself so I don’t show too much of that thirsty side.”
There was a puzzled silence. “Is she right?” Haber asked the three women “Could each of you tell Liz how you actually view her?” When Liz heard the words the women used to describe her “loving,” “nurturing,” “intuitive,” “empathetic” she shook her head in disbelief. How could her friends use those preposterous words, she wanted to know, when they knew that she was rife with problems and insecurities, and with each of them she felt like a kid in search of a mom?
Joanne spoke up first “Liz, I’m not your mom. I want you to understand something I need your friendship as much as you need mine.” Connie added that she wanted to be closer to Liz, but she couldn’t as long as Liz persisted in viewing herself as unworthy of her friendship. “I want you to see yourself differently and me differently,” elaborated Elise. “You’re allowed to ask for support. That’s what being friends is about.”
Liz listened and nodded, her eyes welling with tears. Later, she told Haber that at that moment, she understood for the first time that she was more than a forsaken, perpetually yearning child; within her might also reside a competent, lovable woman who had something of value to give, and, moreover, to whom others wanted to give Recalls Haber, “Her friends allowed her to see a self that no one in her family not her husband, her parents or her sister had ever enabled her to see.”
Moreover, Liz’s friends offered her a different view of her “thirsty side.” One by one, each woman spoke of how she, too, had been raised by her own parents and by the culture at large to swallow her own needs in the service of others, and how such self-abnegation had contributed to a hidden thirstiness in each woman. As Haber sat silently throughout the discussion, he says, “I saw Liz’s friends do something neither Liz’s husband nor I could possibly accomplish validate her experience as a woman.” At the end of the session, Liz made a contract with her friends: She would more freely ask them for companionship and support. Her friends, in turn, would let her know if she was asking too much of them.
Several sessions later, Liz reported that her friendships with two of the women were becoming more intimate and that her despair had lifted Dan admitted, then, that during the session with Liz’s friends he had felt a spasm of envy, because he realized that he was utterly without friends, without, in fact, any source of intimacy in his life Haber noticed something else: While the relationship between Liz and Dan was still troubled, they had now begun to talk of possibilities in their marriage, rather than only disappointments. In Haber’s view, Liz’s admission of friends into her life had broken the couple’s paralyzing stalemate, both by multiplying Liz’s sources of affirmation and intimacy and by spurring Dan to recognize his own buried need for human connection.
BY NOW, FEW FAMILY THERapists regard the family as a self-contained universe. But for all the lip service paid to extra-family influences, the field has been strangely silent about one of our most enduring links to emotional health and plain old pleasure in living having friends. While therapists may feel deeply the necessity of friendship in their own lives, they are unlikely to stumble on anything in the mental health literature that validates this private experience, or that spurs them to help clients deepen these connections On the contrary Psychoanalyst Helene Deutsch darkly warned back in the ’50s that women who had close female ties after marriage were probably deeply neurotic, and even Murray Bowen focused mainly on the limitations of friends, calling them “poor substitutes for one’s own family” in cases of cut-off from parents. “Friendship is rarely seriously considered by family therapists, either as a system of its own or as a force impinging on a family,” says Charles Fishman, executive director of the Institute for the Family in Princeton, New Jersey. Instead, he says, the field still tends to doggedly overfocus on the marital dynamic, which he calls “the Oedipal Complex of family therapy.”
It is a strange myopia, given the seismic shifts in the social order that have produced a nation of people who, now more than ever, need their pals. These days, marriage, that hoped-for antidote to our existential isolation, takes up less of our lives than it used to. We’re pairing up later, splitting up faster, remarrying less often, and more often than ever before avoiding the entire quagmire in favor of permanent singleness. With fully a quarter of the nation’s households now comprised of a single human being, we are fast becoming a society that is literally home alone. Even for those who enjoy or even prefer solo living, sneak attacks of loneliness can raise that panicky 3 am. question: Who really cares? When the other pillow on the bed is empty, when siblings and other kin are scattered across the continent and steeped in the minutiae of their own lives, one’s best hope may be a good friend.
Even those who have managed to attach themselves to a partner are scarcely immune to friend-hunger. The mid-century model of the “companionate marriage” society’s sweet dream of transforming spouses into each other’s best and only necessary buddies has proved an elusive ideal for many heterosexual couples, who have found themselves mired in gender-based power imbalances that act on friendship like slow poison. In any case, human beings were never meant to put all of their comradely eggs in one basket. “All of us need a broad net to catch us,” says Jo-Ann Krestan, a family therapist in Brunswick, Maine. “People used to get more taken care of by the larger community, and even though everybody knew your business and usually the wrong version of it I think many of us still long for that web. We want the small town, the village green, the lifetime friends with whom we can share rituals and honor birthdays and who are there for us in a very literal way.”
Instead, she observes, we get friendships on the fly. “We’re stuck in a postmodern era in which continuity is always breaking down; I live in Maine and have friends in Iowa and New Zealand and North Carolina and Amsterdam whom I don’t see nearly often enough, and nobody has enough time to keep up with the friendships they have close by. We want badly to be connected, but it’s harder and harder to make that happen.”
So we cope by leaving self-consciously conversational messages on e-mail and voice mail and by watching friendship happen on TV. Among the hottest sitcoms on the tube today are Seinfeld, Ellen and Hope and Gloria, each of which features a passel of unattached pals who regularly barge uninvited into one another’s apartments and workplaces, extricate one another from jams, and display amused and endless tolerance for one another’s most unattractive neuroses. Many of us watch these shows sunk in the same stupor of warmth and coziness that kids succumb to when they watch Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, seduced by the vision of a land of eccentric yet loving folk who take wonderful care of one another, and fantasizing ourselves a member of their club. We want TVs Ellen to be our friend, not only because she is funny and endearing, but also because she shows up, calls back, invites her buddies on vacation, is available It is a disconcerting irony that many people are increasingly experiencing friendships through an electronic medium, whereas their real-life connections with friends have become increasingly virtual in part through the distancing mechanisms of electronic technology.
Many people, of course, do more about friendship than watch sitcoms that celebrate it. In a recent Gallup Poll, more than half of American adults reported that they planned to invest more time seeking “more and better friendships,” while only 42 percent said they would direct more energies into family life. There is a certain logic to this shift, since we are spending more and more of our waking hours with nonfamily peers Harvard economist Juliet Schor has made the disquieting calculation that employed people now work an average of 163 more hours annually than they did 25 years ago the equivalent of an extra month a year. These days, it is often a colleague, not a spouse, on whom we rely for our minimum daily requirement of conversation and companionship, and the workplace itself, replete with deep attachments, ardent rivalries and ever-shifting loyalties, is the locus that absorbs most of our emotional energy. “The friendship system among workers is frequently profound,” says Fishman. “We’re talking about an ad hoc redefinition of the family, in which friends at work and other settings outside the home are becoming our family,” which like any bunch of kin, has the potential to heal us and to make us a little crazy.
But unlike ties with kin, our connections to friends can be exceedingly fragile. Because friendship is an elective bond rather than an ascribed one, there are no formalized rituals, rules or obligations to ground or shelter the relationship. Expectations are often fuzzy, feelings easily hurt and, ultimately, a friend can simply walk away at will, with no legal obstacles to slow the exit, no “friendship enhancement weekends” to shore up the bond, no Greek chorus of family members beseeching us to stop being so damn silly and make up. Even as people depend on their friends as never before, friendship is still considered somewhat expendable by our society.
“In our culture, kinship falls into the realm of the sacred, while friendship remains in the arena of the secular,” observes San Francisco therapist Lillian Rubin, author of Just Friends, a study of American friendship patterns. “Even though it may be a friend, not a relative, who takes you to the airport or brings you soup when you’re sick, the ethos in our society hasn’t changed kin is forever, friends come and go.” In this climate of mixed messages and largely unarticulated need, how can clinicians help their clients sort out the meaning and place of friendship in their own lives, and help them get the sustenance they seek from it?
IF FRIENDS DO ENRICH OUR LIVES, it is no simple matter to say why. For friendship is an experience of connectedness that undergoes considerable metamorphosis over the course of our lives, in accordance with the developmental imperatives of the moment. From the beginning, however, much of what is sustaining about this bond is embedded in its essential, implacable voluntariness ironically, the same quality that renders it so fragile. Because friendship is secured by neither blood, legal, sexual nor economic ties, but solely by the forces of mutual fascination and admiration, a friend offers a uniquely precious source of affirmation, one we treasure from the first “Think back to your childhood when you first liked somebody outside your family and they liked you back it was like a gift from heaven,” says Albuquerque family therapist Braulio Montalvo. “Here was somebody who was not from your family, who owed you nothing, but who simply cared for you There’s a kind of magic in that.”
Most of us can remember just how necessary our childhood friends were to us, as co-explorers of the exhilarating world beyond our front doors, and as proof positive that we belonged there. “Our need to belong to our ‘second family’ the family of friends is so fundamental that when a child is ostracized by peers, the impact is often as powerful as when the family fragments and the child doesn’t have a place to belong at home,” says Ron Taffel, director of family and couples treatment at the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy in New York City. “This is especially true now that so many children are in daycare and extended school programs, because the world outside the home now comprises an extraordinary number of hours. If a child doesn’t have friends, he spends a huge portion of his day asking himself, ‘Who will I play with? Who will I sit with? Who will not leave me?'”
Who will not leave me? That question can reverberate throughout the life of an individual who was regularly rejected by would-be playmates, leaving many outwardly successful, self-confident adults feeling chronically marginal. “I can still see the girls on the playground suddenly conferring whenever I came near, then running away,” remembers a 47-year-old novelist who was ostracized daily for four years’ running by a particular group of girls whom she desperately wanted for friends. “I began to hide in the nurse’s office at recess, and I’d write down conversational gambits in my notebook to try out on them so they’d like me better. I began to feel there was something deeply wrong with me, something I couldn’t see but was perfectly, horribly obvious to everybody else.”
As a result, she says, to this day she avoids making overtures to the very women who most attract her as potential friends, and ceaselessly monitors those she has for signs of imminent desertion. That she is able to feel worthy of anyone’s friendship now, she believes, can be traced to the fact that “while all this was going on, I made one, very close friend of a girl on my block who was a grade younger than me, so she wasn’t aware of what a reject I was. When I was with her, I felt extremely funny and smart and cool, and we developed this kind of ‘poor-unenlightened-sods’ attitude toward the world at large. If it hadn’t been for her, it’s hard to imagine where I would have gotten the idea that I was likable.”
Many people remember the “best buddy” of their youth in a similar way, as the pivotal playmate whose uncritical admiration bolstered a wobbly sense of self, while also serving as a partner in illicit adventures, sharer of a thousand inside jokes, and keeper of confidences from increasingly nosy and unreliable family members. Less often do we consider the extraordinary developmental importance of the passionate, me-and-you-forever friendships that typically flower in late childhood. Psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan was the first to observe that a close bond with a “chosen chum” spurred a dramatic turning point in an individual’s interpersonal career, motivating a child to move beyond a basically self-centered approach to relationships to one of genuine mutuality and felt concern for a beloved friend’s needs and feelings Should this shift fail to occur, Sullivan predicted that an individual would likely remain forever stuck in a kind of relationship La La Land, viewing other people only as a source of, or annoying impediment to, self-gratification.
As we wander out of childhood into full-blown adolescence, we enter what might properly be called the Golden Age of Friendship. Never before and never again do individuals in our culture simultaneously have the time, the emotional readiness and the relative freedom from life distractions to direct so much energy into the pure experience of having and being buddies. And, fortunately for many of us, never again do we feel such desperate need. At a juncture in life when cataclysmic bodily and emotional changes render us so unsure of our own worth and so exquisitely vulnerable to the responses of others, having friends who obviously think we’re worth their time and who are eager to commiserate about what has become so newly and vastly important in our lives how we look, how we feel, who might or might not like us, impossible parents, good music, good or bad drugs, the opposite sex, sex itself takes on a life-saving importance.
When adolescents wail to their parents, “You can’t possibly understand” they are fundamentally correct. Even those parents who believe they can be pals to their child because they can remember and empathize with what it was like to be a teenager, badly deceive themselves. Their adult minds are already too littered with the debris of likelihoods, fallback positions, gray areas and consequences to be a true kindred spirit to any adolescent. Only a teenager’s friends can truly encounter the world as they do, as pure experience, pure possibility.
Much is made in the family therapy literature of the role that adolescent friends play in helping each other “separate and differentiate” from their families, thereby assisting their entry into emotional adulthood. And while family theory officially sanctions this role of friends as family escape hatch, many clinicians nonetheless regard the adolescent friendship bond with a certain measure of distrust, sensing in its tight codes of loyalty and allergic resistance to authority the potential for undermining basic family stability. But in fact, the peer-as uncivilizing-influence scenario may be less common than popular stereotypes have led us to expect. Recent work by James Youniss, professor of psychology at Catholic University and author of Adolescent Relations with Mothers, Fathers and Friends, indicates that most adolescents choose friends whose values are impressively similar to those of their own parents. Adults often miss this reality, he says, because they tend to misinterpret the superficial trappings of youth culture such as nipple earrings or a weakness for Wu-Tang Clan rap lyrics as signs of deeply antisocial values.
Youniss further points out that even when adolescent friends are involved together in high-risk pastimes, they tend to pull each other back from the brink “We have a kind of Lord of the Flies mentality about teenagers we assume that left alone they’ll go nuts. In fact, most adolescents feel very responsible for helping each other when they perceive that a friend is truly endangered,” Youniss says. This makes sense, he adds, when we remember that it is through the crucible of youthful friendships that much adult morality is forged. “Think about how we learn to be reciprocal, to give, to care,” says Youniss. “For most of us, it’s primarily through relationships with friends not with parents.”
That reassuring scenario, however, assumes that kids have parents who have equipped them with a fundamental sense of security and a set of values worth emulating. “The less that parents are able to provide that, the more the adolescent will drift out to the peer group, because children need to feel themselves being held in some environment that has rules, contact and connection,” says Taffel. As parents and their children in our culture lead ever more separate and uncommunicative lives, teenagers’ friends may increasingly provide that primary emotional shelter for one another, a job for which they may be hazardously unprepared Notes Taffel, “The extreme of that is the gang, where an adolescent will go in part to feel held and protected,” but which ultimately does not, and cannot, protect.
The intense concentration of friend-on-friend drops off, predictably and precipitously, when one of them falls in love. It might be said that lust is the enemy of friendship, so suddenly and, at times, callously does one friend disengage from another when sexual attraction and romance intrude on the scene. As we move into late adolescence and early adulthood, we find ourselves playing second fiddle to more and more of our friends’ love affairs, and, of course, when our turn comes, we are apt to behave just as cavalierly. It’s not that we stop caring about our friends, but rather that once we find an intimate partner, our friendships tend to diminish in meaning and centrality, casualties first of pure infatuation, and later on of time crunches, partner jealousies and lingering cultural sentiment about the capacity of “significant others” to single-handedly satisfy one another’s emotional and social hungers.
But since intimate partners are necessarily ill-equipped to provide such one-stop affiliative services, at some point many people begin to wonder why it is that even though they are content enough with their family lives and have perfectly adequate or even satisfying work, their lives still seem oddly wanting, somehow lacking in texture and belongingness and the experience of what Spanish-speaking Caribbean people call relajo, the high-spirited, bantering companionship that allows us to temporarily put aside life’s pressures and live happily in the moment. Indeed, in Robert Weiss’s classic study Loneliness: The Experience of Emotional and Social Isolation, he discovered that even when people were happily married and were connected to numerous other relatives, they remained lonely, bored, depressed and plagued with diffuse feelings of inadequacy if they did not also have friends in their lives. And so at some point along the continuum of middle adulthood, many of us set out once again in search of new friendships, or pick up the threads of those we left dangling years before.
And women and men, it by now seems abundantly clear, seek out same-sex friends for somewhat different kinds of comfort. While the concept that women highly value intimate connection while men flee screaming from it has been overdrawn to the point of caricature, the reality remains that many women crave a level of emotional expressiveness and empathetic exchange with loved ones that is not fully satisfied within their marriages. “It is still accurate to say that for some women, female friendship makes their marriage possible,” says Lillian Rubin, who has conducted research on the impact of friendship on marriage. “When women complain about their husbands’ lack of communication, their impatience with listening, what often makes their lives bearable is the female friends to whom they turn.”
It is with these friends on the phone, over coffee at the kitchen table, at a restaurant for dinner that many women are able finally to immerse themselves in the rituals and rhythms of mutual self-revelation and support that allow them to feel at once deeply connected and deeply understood. They may also derive a measure of nurturing that they desperately need and is in short supply elsewhere. A 51-year-old dean of students at a small Chicago women’s college, married, with four sons, says “I seem always in the position of listening to other people, making them feel comfortable and understood. Part of that’s my job I’m super nurturer to my school but what it means is that for most of the hours of every day, I’m expected to listen and listen and listen and to smooth over everything for everybody, when quite often I want to say, ‘Oh, grow up, solve it yourselves.’ “But I don’t let most people see that side of me or the part of me that can quite easily get into a turmoil of dark thoughts and get very depressed and start asking ‘What’s the point? Why am I here?’ My husband will respond if he’s able, if I catch him at the right time, but most of the time he needs me to be normal and stable. I remember that, when I was little, my mother provided a listening ear to all of my terrors, and that’s what I go to my women friends for for the mother I had but still need. Somebody who listens to me and lets me know that it’s okay to feel wiped out by a sense of inadequacy or anger or exhaustion, and then says, ‘Let’s figure it all out if you want to, but whether we do or not, / love you.’ “
But while the considerable joys of female friendship have by now been exhaustively discussed and documented, the troubles women encounter in their dealings with each other still need to be spoken of sotto voce, if at all. Perhaps this reticence is a kind of protective response, given the historical denigration of women’s friendships as shallow liaisons punctuated by cat-fights over men or, at best, pathetic substitutes for heterosexual romance. In reality, the difficulties women encounter in their friendships usually have far less to do with their need for men than with their need for each other, which can take the form of clamoring demands for attention and succor. “It can be very difficult for women to have an intimate friendship and at the same time maintain some separateness,” says Rubin “When women become very close, they sometimes transgress boundaries in intrusive ways that end up threatening the friendship. If a friend doesn’t call within a certain number of days, their feelings may be very hurt. If a friend isn’t totally supportive, they may feel criticized. And because women often experience anger as threatening to a relationship, they tend to bury it with their female friends then it oozes out in a kind of leaky hostility.”
Men, by and large, run their friendships quite differently. Popular wisdom has it that men are just plain bad at friendship, crashing regularly and fatally on the shoals of competition, mutual distrust, facades of self-sufficiency and a general terror of intimacy. True, for a brief interlude in the 1980s, the flowering of various men’s support systems across the country seemed to give lie to the prevailing dogma. But if anything, the men-can’t-do-friendship position seems to have been bolstered recently by the rapidly dwindling mythopoetic men’s movement in this country, which hoped to entice men to unite under the banner of shared wound-healing only to discover that most men weren’t interested. “Deepening friendships among men was a big goal of this movement, yet even the most involved men tended to spend most of their time planning the next workshop, rather than becoming intimate with each other,” says Kenneth Clatterbaugh, professor of philosophy at the University of Washington and author of the forthcoming book, Bang the Drum Slowly: The Death of the American Men’s Movement “But ironically, the media image of the movement was a bunch of very New Age, touchy-feely guys, which is exactly what limited its mass appeal among men.”
But some clinicians argue that men get certain therapeutic benefits from their male friendships even when they conspicuously lack an intense emotional dimension. Ken Hardy, professor of family therapy at Syracuse University, acknowledges that most men, himself included, usually do require what he calls “the third thing” basketball or car repair or even intellectual discourse to justify their togetherness. Nonetheless, he believes that many men derive a certain sense of belonging through their shared pleasure in the activity at hand and in the accompanying rituals of ribbing and mock-insults that, he points out, “are usually contingent on a certain underlying level of trust and affection.” Moreover, observes Scott Ailes, a family therapist in Collingswood, New Jersey, the joint activities that bring men together may supply a measure of the sustaining comfort that mutual confiding supplies for women. “Men can sit around a campfire in silence and honestly feel, ‘Boy, this is really great.’ I think much of this comes from our histories with our fathers, where we may not have gotten a lot of touching so we felt close to him when he did things with us. Now, when a man does something for us or with us, that sense of closeness and comfort returns.”
Men get yet another perk from their outward-bound style of friendship rejuvenating intervals of pure play. “A lot of men live lives that are steeped in severe consequences,” says Jeff Ellias-Frankel, a family therapist in Colt’s Neck, New Jersey “If they mess up at work or act like a jerk too long in their marriage, they can pay for it in terrible ways. But when men get together on the golf course or tennis court, it’s just a score, and there’s always another game. Part of the fun is acting as if it matters, but men get it that it doesn’t really matter.” What does matter, believes Ellias-Frankel, is the respite they get from all the spheres of their lives that are so fraught with gravity and repercussions. “There needs to be a place in men’s lives where the consequences are not dire, where the investment isn’t big, where the roots don’t go deep, where there is a kind of lightness. And I think men often get that sense of lightness from each other.”
Still, for some men, a certain level of emptiness accompanies the purely hail-fellow-well-met genre of friendship, because, as Hardy points out, “you end up spending a lot of time with people who have no idea who you really are.” Yet for men who would occasionally like to move beyond squash sets and shop talk to a deeper level of intimacy with other men, the search for a willing partner can require almost Sisyphean persistence John Cerullo, a 45-year-old college history professor in Manchester, New Hampshire, explains, “I can’t just sit down with a male friend and say I feel terrible, or that I’m in love. Instead, I go through this kind of ritual dance of revealing a little at a time, putting out feelers and waiting to see if it comes back to haunt me.” While he has been able to develop emotionally trusting bonds with a few men, he says that “it takes literally years to develop, because it seems almost instinctive with men that you don’t reveal more information than you need to. If you want to be close to another man, I’d say you have to want it pretty badly.”
Gender-based inclinations aside, the reality is that some people want, or compellingly need, sustaining friendships more than others. For people of either sex who find themselves navigating adulthood solo, anchored by neither an intimate partner nor dependable ties with kin, the occasional tennis partner is unlikely to be sustenance enough. Instead, many unattached people rely on or wish for a core group of committed friends who act as surrogate family, ready to provide some of the bottom-line, be-there-when-I’m-hurting functions that relatives typically provide. “This is the situation I have dreaded my entire life,” says Jo-Ann Krestan. “I am an unattached, only child with a broken wrist and a mother who is terminally ill. For the last six weeks I have had to rely on my friends for almost everything, from physical transportation to bringing me food, to cooking that food, to putting my earrings in my ears.” And throughout this nightmare of helplessness, she says, her friends have supplied far more than mere practical support. “My friends are like good brothers and sisters, they’re almost like extensions of me. They feel that necessary. Friendship is my salvation.”
And as we move on through our lives, the friends we’ve made and kept over time take on an increasingly vital role as curators of our emotional histories. The special poignance and meaning that often infuse our friendships with college buddies or other pals who “knew us when” has partly to do with the contact they give us with our past selves the fearless girl or boy in us, or the struggling young adult and partly to do with the power of that perspective to support us through the crises and confusions that continue to confront us. “When I was 50, I left New Jersey, where I had lived all my life, sold my house, gave up my practice and moved up to Maine,” recalls Krestan. “It was a huge, huge risk, and it felt very scary. I could have looked at it as a very discontinuous leap, but my old friends helped me see the continuity. They reminded me that I had taken other risks all through my life left social work for clinical work, did therapy on national television, ran groups for homeless drunks and that I had come out the other side.”
For other people, real friendships begin in older age, when at last they have the leisure, the freedom to shuck off constraining roles, and in some cases an emerging, visceral need to connect with others beyond the world of kin. “When I retired, I thought about the fact that for 30 years I had related to other men as their superiors, or as my superiors, or as competing co-workers, but that I didn’t know any men intimately,” says Jim Warters, 66, a former U S Steel engineer from Pittsburgh “I had played the game at work, but my life wasn’t over. I literally went out in search of a male friend ” This, he learned, was no small challenge Warters spent “four or five years investing a lot of time and energy trying to connect with other men with very little result,” which he attributes partly to other men’s isolationist tendencies and partly to his own inexperience in friend-making, which led him to “sometimes be very clumsy, talking about my feelings too much and making other men nervous.”
Then, at a meeting of a local men’s support group, Warters met Frank, another retired man who shared his interests in movies, politics and the prospect of getting to know another man better. And while the two have spent “a couple of occasions where he’s bared his soul and I’ve bared mine,” the sweetest pleasure of the now seven-year-old friendship has been the way it has allowed Warters to live out a side of himself that until then had remained buried. “At one point we thought it would be fun to take a trip to San Francisco together, so we just took off. We stayed in a cheap motel and just toured around, finding the longest bus routes we could and riding them the whole way just to watch the neighborhoods change. It was the sort of thing I had always wanted to do, but while I was working, all my discretionary time went to my wife and kids. So I’ve gotten to explore places that I would never have without Frank, and it’s been fun and also kind of a neat validation of whom I am Plus it feels good that I did it that I just got up and found a friend.”
IT IS TRICKIER THAN IT SEEMS, THE business of finding and keeping friends. The emphasis on our “freedom of choice” in making pals, in contrast to the twin snares of chance and obligation that entangle us in family bonds, makes friendship seem a bit like grocery shopping, as though we can simply survey the aisles of potential buddies and pluck a few off the shelf at will, like so many bags of attractively packaged potato chips. But this consumer vision of friendship leaves no room for the realities of shy or abrasive personalities, mismatches of desire, individual abilities to negotiate intimacy and conflict, or being new in town again. Many people desperately want to make friends but haven’t yet learned to do it well, or repeatedly strike up friendships only to watch them fade or shatter. As our relentlessly mobile and self-reliant society renders friendship simultaneously more vital to our well-being and harder to pull off, clinicians are more frequently confronting the complexities of friendship problems in the consulting room and grappling with solutions that propel them far beyond the notions of “family” that they learned in graduate school.
For some people, suffering over friendship begins early in life Ron Taffel recently saw a painfully shy, depressed 8-year-old boy who was being ostracized by his schoolmates, a state of misery that is endured by approximately 15 percent of children. As Taffel talked with the boy about his feelings of rejection and despair, he made a conscious decision not to focus on the familyas the locus for understanding and treating the boy’s problems “For years, because of my family therapy training, I did that, and I often felt like I was talking to half-alive children, that I only had access to one side of their energy,” says Taffel. Instead, he asked the boy to draw a sociogram a kind of friendship version of the genogram in which the boy plotted a detailed map of his peer world. By analyzing the sociogram, Taffel learned that there was one schoolmate whom the boy felt at least marginally connected to, and who shared his enthusiasm for baseball card-collecting. With Taffel’s encouragement, his young client invited this classmate over to his house, and gradually the two became friendly with a larger group of schoolmates who were also sports-card aficionados. Within several months, “his feeling of being utterly lost and bereft changed into feeling very involved with a whole new group around interests he really loved,” says Taffel “It was a transformation If I had only focused on the family, I would have completely missed this opportunity.”
Taffel regularly involves parents in the friend-cultivation process, in part by encouraging them to get to know the parents of their child’s new or potential pal. “I do a lot of creating networks between parents of children’s friends I call them peer groups for parents and the idea is to get parents to realize that their child has two families, their home-based family and their friendship family,” says Taffel. This is a particularly helpful metaphor for parents who might otherwise resist a child’s close friendships, he says, “because parents don’t think it’s odd to stay in touch with a cousin or an aunt, so the idea of staying close to an extended family of friends makes sense to them.” Another effective way to motivate parents to build social bridges for their kids, Taffel has discovered, is to help them remember and re-experience “how vitally important their own childhood buddies were.”
By the time people reach adulthood, most have learned the rudiments of friend-making: how to ask somebody to lunch, share a more or less retouched version of their life story, woo a new pal with humor or intellect or a talent for listening. After the initial connection is made, however, people often turn their attention elsewhere. Many of us still buy into the fiction that friendship simply “happens,” that, unlike marriage, it requires no special effort or consciousness to keep it alive and whole. There is also the embarrassment factor-, because friendship is not deemed a “primary” relationship in our culture and the expectations friends hold for each other are so rarely voiced, we may feel uncertain of our rights to go deeper, to make our needs known, even to directly express our feelings for our friends.
Yet if we take too casual or cautious a stance toward our friendships, they may wither from lack of nourishment and finally expire from what Virginia Woolf called “the sheer inability to cross the street,” or rupture under the pressure of unvoiced anger or hurt. When clients face these hazards in friendships that matter to them, Ken Hardy believes that clinicians should consider “explicitly working with friends to validate and coach them in their relationship.” In this way, therapists can challenge the prevailing cultural notion that friendship is a second-tier, expendable relationship.
Hardy recently played this coaching role for two men, both professionals in their mid-forties, each of whom initially saw Hardy in couples therapy with their respective wives. One of the men, Jack, was in the midst of an affair; only his friend, Walt, knew his secret. Walt told Hardy that he wanted Jack to end what he viewed as a clearly self-destructive liaison, but somehow, he couldn’t bring himself to say the words to his friend. Hardy interpreted Walt’s trepidation as an intimacy issue “a man cares about a man, but can’t tell him” and asked them to come in for a session together.
Almost as soon as the two friends sat down in the consulting room, Hardy knew that his hunch about intimacy avoidance had been correct. “There were a lot of distracting behaviors laughing, joking, jockeying for control of the conversation, with no real communication beyond last night’s 49ers’ game,” he recalls. But when Walt finally told Jack he was concerned about the affair, the mood in the room changed abruptly.
Jack angrily accused Walt of being judgmental, to which Walt retorted that Jack never listened to anybody about anything. After trading a few more barbed rebukes, each man began to talk more quietly now, and for the first time of the myriad ways he had been disappointed or hurt by the other. Gradually, it emerged that each man bore considerable resentment toward the other about the state of the friendship itself. The two had been frequent companions during their post-college years, but as so often happens, once they settled into their marriages, each felt pushed to the periphery of the other’s life. But until that moment, says Hardy, “the resentment had been expressed in a typically male way, which meant that after a couple of beers they’d begin to shoot jabs at each other, as in ‘If you weren’t so henpecked, you could go out Thursday night.'”
Sensing that the men’s direct airing of feelings “had cleared an artery in their friendship,” Hardy encouraged Jack and Walt in the next session to describe to each other the ways in which they cared for each other. They responded, on cue, with a barrage of wisecracking and subject-switching. Hardy knew the men needed some way to viscerally experience the depth of emotion they so clearly felt for each other So he upped the ante, asking each man to directly tell the other: “This is what it would be like to lose you.” Jack began speaking first; almost immediately, tears began to gather in his eyes At first he tried hard to control his emotion, wiping his face and joking about his quavering voice. Then, all at once, he buried his head in his hands and began to weep uncontrollably. At this, Walt, too, began to cry.
That moment, Hardy believes, marked the beginning of genuine trust between the two men and with it, a depth of pleasure and sustenance in the friendship that neither had encountered in their earlier, purely laugh-a-minute bond. Several weeks later, Jack reported that when he and Walt had driven together from New York to Boston to see a Patriots game, they talked for the first time about what was worrying each of them in their respective businesses, what it felt like to grow older, and what it was like for Jack to have his daughter his first child away at college. Jack had also ended his affair, in part because Walt had helped him to see clearly the costs to his family and to himself of continuing the relationship. Moreover, Jack had begun to realize how much his aching sense of loneliness the absence of anyone to be deeply himself with had contributed to the affair itself. Says Hardy-. “Because these men really pushed themselves to be vulnerable with each other, they found out that they didn’t have to go it alone in the world My sense is that they now have a friendship for life.”
So often, the depth of feeling we have for our friends merely slumbers beneath the surface until an unplanned moment a phone call when we most need it, an episode of helpless, rib-bruising laughter over something only the two of us can possibly understand, or the sudden, terrible threat of loss jolts us to an understanding of just how powerfully we are bound to our friends, how much, in fact, we do love them. And how badly we want to keep our friends in our lives, even when they persist in understanding us imperfectly, or demand too much of us, or otherwise make clear to us that the match is not perfect and will continue to require plenty of allowances on both sides.
The fact is that we need our friends, and we will continue to need them whether our family ties are plentiful or few, strong or tattered. That they hold us up when we are falling, that they persuade us that things will get better when we are feeling sad or rejected or crazy, is only one strand of the sustenance they supply. Our friends also free us to be ourselves. Because they care for us outside the emotional force field of kinship, our friends have the extraordinary capacity to both champion our changes and to insist on none at all. The friends we treasure most persist in thinking us funny, smart and admirable even when we seriously doubt it, and their generous belief in us gives us the freedom to sometimes also be bumbling and moody and occasionally a bit of a bore; in short, to step off the stage. At its finest, friendship offers us love without pressure and this offering may be, finally what is most deeply and enduringly healing about our connections with our friends. For it is through them that we discover, with gratitude and great relief, that we are irrefutably individual and that still, we belong.
Photo by Katherine Lambert
Marian Sandmaier is the author of two nonfiction books, Original Kin: The Search for Connection Among Adult Sisters and Brothers (Dutton-Penguin) and The Invisible Alcoholics: Women and Alcohol Abuse in America (McGraw-Hill). She is Features Editor at Psychotherapy Networker and has written for the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, and other publications. Sandmaier has discussed her work on the Oprah Winfrey Show, the Today Show, and NPR’s “All Things Considered” and “Fresh Air.” On several occasions, she has received recognition from the American Society of Journalists and Authors for magazine articles on psychology and behavior. Most recently, she won the 2021 ASJA first-person essay award for her article “Hanging Out with Dick Van Dyke” on her inconvenient attack of shyness while interviewing. You can learn more about her work at www.mariansandmaier.net.