Love is love: on friendship

Love is love – familial, romantic, fleeting or friendship. And love can be a bugger.

Across ten years of listening to clients, I’ve heard many speak at length about their friendships. One of the first things I ask suicidal clients is “are there are any friends in your orbit?”. This is because friendships are pivotal to our sense of community and belonging in the world. Put another way, ‘friendship is vital to human wellbeing because this form of human love gets under our skin quite as much as any other, for good and ill’, says Mark Vernon, psychotherapist and author of ‘The Philosophy of Friendship’ .

Vernon writes that ‘the causes of social ills – from homelessness, to divorce and obesity – are variously cited as poverty, mobility or unhappiness. But new research from Gallup suggests something else is going wrong: friendship. It seems modern society has overlooked the importance of the relationship that Aristotle noted is ‘more desirable in life than any other good thing’.

Healthy friendships are vital for physical and mental health: some stats

In his book, ‘Vital Friends: The People You Can’t Afford to Live Without’, Gallup Director Tom Rath shares some hard facts: if your best friend eats healthily, you are five times more likely to have a healthy diet yourself. People say friendship is over five times as important as physical intimacy in marriage. Individuals with no real friends at work have only a one in 12 chance of feeling engaged in their job.

More insights: the importance of friendships for wellbeing

Research published in the Sociological Review distinguishes between ‘simple’ and ‘complex’ friendships. The former is what we might think of as fun alliances that we don’t expect to last. The latter, however, are a different ballgame. The study concludes that the ending of complex – or meaningful – friendships can be as painful as the breakdown of a romantic relationship.

For example, between the ages of 30 to 40, Mahdawi writes, is a ‘natural time for friendship dynamics to change: people start focusing on advancing their careers and building families rather than socialising with pals.’ This is a form of loss, plain and simple – or as may be the case, plain and complicated.

Institutional bias and societal norms

Mahdawi goes on to highlight that ‘our culture is based around celebrating romantic and familial milestones: engagements, weddings, christenings. We are not taught to venerate or celebrate friendship in the same way we are romantic relationships. We are not taught that friendships can be just as complex, if not more so, than romantic couplings’.

The fact that there is no ‘institutional life course’ for friendships is underscored by Vernon. For example, in romantic relationships these may include moving in, children and possibly marriage/divorce. These institutions then form part of the support structures when there is difficulty. I would add that they give a language to communicate experiences and to be understood; both vital for mental health.

We are also in the cool and constraining grip of social norms. It doesn’t seem to be the norm for friends – certainly in the UK – to have a session or three together. Is there fear of judgement? Or, not being in the mainstream orbit, does it not occur to friends that are floundering to hit up a therapist? Perhaps sidling up to your mate and saying, “how about it?” is way too vulnerable-making itself.

The fact that friends rarely arrive at my door together is a missed opportunity. Practically speaking, the task of working on relationships with only one party in the room is often bloody hard; and counter intuitive.

Furthermore, if we – and society in general – don’t fully recognise the potential gravity of relationships between friends then we are missing a trick in unlocking better mental health for society at large.

A counter to cultural and societal constraints: phenomenology

During my training to become a therapist I learnt about phenomenology. I learnt that one of the best ways that I could support another is by letting them tell me the meaning of an experience for them. I aim to be aware of and bracket my own expectations or assumptions – sometimes affected by cultural/societal norms – so I am able to hear the entirety of another’s experience, including of friendships.

There’s no knocking Nietzsche: finding some peace in it all

Finally – in the meantime – if your love for a close pal has become tenuous, or lost altogether, perhaps the following from Nietzsche (1882) will soften the way. He talked about ‘star friendships’: serenity in being able to bow to the blinding beauty of what a friendship has been – a star friendship. And, about embracing present distance between two such souls as being part of the universe’s natural order. He writes: ‘we were friends and have become estranged. But this was right, and we do not want to conceal and obscure it from ourselves as if we had reason to feel ashamed. We are two ships each of which has its goal and course … Our exposure to different seas and suns has changed us! That we have to become estranged is the law above us.’

This article is published on Welldoing.org: http://bit.ly/2PPXE8n.

References

BBC., (2018). I want my bestfriend and me to get couples therapy? [online]. BBCThree. 30 July. [Viewed 18 October 2019]. Available from https://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcthree/article/e12bb84a-00e1-478a-bdc6-64c56cbd0cbd

Mahdawi, A., (2019). Why are thirtysomethings lonely? Because society doesn’t value friendship. The Guardian [online]. 7 August. [Viewed 21 August 2019]. Available from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/aug/07/why-are-thirtysomethings-lonely-because-society-doesnt-value-friendship

Nietzsche, F., (1882). The Joyful Wisdom. New York: Random House Inc. pp225-6

Vernon, M., (2006). Amity is the best policy. The Guardian [online]. 10 July. [Viewed 18 October 2019]. Available from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2006/jul/10/comment.mainsection

Vernon, M., (2012). Lovers come and go. Friends stay for ever. That’s the myth, anyway. The Guardian [online]. 5 May. [Viewed 18 October 2019]. Available from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2012/may/05/friends-for-ever-myth

 

If you are in a position of power – that is, any kind of leader – therapy may well be a great idea

You may not be prime minister, but having power at all is a tricky business. I know that therapy and supervsion certainly support me to act with integrity and rigour given that I have some power from my role alone. Although the following article relates to having vast power within politics, I suspect we could all learn from this: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jun/12/prime-minister-therapy

Today

If you need permission to do or to be just as you are – or less – today, here’s your ticket. I love this poem – ‘Today’ by Jean Little. 

TODAY I will not live up to my potential.
TODAY I will not relate well to my peer group.
TODAY I will not contribute in class.
I will not volunteer one thing.

TODAY I will not strive to do better.
TODAY I will not achieve or adjust or grow enriched
or get involved.
I will not put up my hand even if the teacher is wrong

and I can prove it.

TODAY I might eat the eraser off my pencil.
I’ll look at the clouds.
I’ll be late.
I don’t think I’ll wash.

I NEED A REST.

A dollop of self-care, please and thank you

These are tricky times, I think we may agree that. The political backdrop to our lives is having an unsettling effect. Add to that the inescapable force and pace of social media, and what this psychotherapist sees is anxiety aplenty.

Cue, depression. Anxiety and depression can be a dastardly duo. The good news is that addressing one will often quieten the other. They – like most mental health difficulties – may be eased by looking at both symptoms and root causes.

More good news: there are some daily choices (for most) that can support mental health and resilience. Perhaps you are already well-versed in aspiring to the below, but just in case:

1. Eat well.
2. Sleep well.
3. Exercise.
4. Be aware of what you enjoy, and do those things – small or big. Let’s assume they aren’t self-destructive please people
5. Be aware of and don’t do (too much) of what you don’t enjoy
6. Be able to say ‘no’ when needed
7. Download the ‘CALM’ or ‘Headspace’ App – and use it

Granted, some of these are biggies that you may need help with. For example, ‘being able to say no’ may open a whole conversation about how you see yourself. But oh so worth looking at – not least because these kinds of roots of difficulty often hold us back in various ways, some of which we may not even be aware of.

I find it unnatural to draw lines between anxiety, depression, roots, symptoms, etc. From nearly a decade of working with clients, I see that working with the whole person, rather than trying to compartmentalise difficulties, is beneficial. People are not linear, so neither is the therapy I offer. 

I hasten to add that sometimes it’s necessary to prioritise symptoms – and I think what the NHS provides often does just that. However, this is only part of the work with anxiety, depression, and indeed mental health problems in general. 

If your mental health is difficult to manage alone at the moment, symptoms or biggies or otherwise, I hope that you will seek help. The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy is a good place to start: www.bacp.co.uk . And I am contactable via the ‘contact tab’ or on 07802510491. 

O do not love too long

This morning I flicked open ‘The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats’ – a gift from some lovely friends – and stumbled upon this beauty. It speaks to me and I hope it will you too.

Sweetheart, do not love too long:
I loved long and long,
And grew to be out of fashion
Like an old song.

All through the years of our youth
Neither could have known
Their own thought from the other’s,
We were so much at one.

But O, in a minute she changed – 
O do not love too long,
Or you will grow out of fashion
Like an old song.