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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.’
Just a wee reminder to you and me that not saying or doing something, not making a choice, is indeed doing too. It is an action with attendant responsibility. Silence is a powerful stance; those on the receiving end could be significantly impacted. Continue reading “Silence is a responsibility”
I hope – and don’t think I am – evangelical about ‘the talking cure’. Keeping shtum I’ve found vitally protective at times. For example, when I’ve tried talking and that has been damaging, having not been ‘received’ in that communication. Continue reading “Could NOT talking be the key?”
The artistic giant Anni Albers (1899 – 1994) turned to textile art as her second choice of career; options were especially limited as a woman. I was gorgeously stirred by an exhibition of her work at the Tate Modern in London, not least because her approach has kinship to the therapy world. Continue reading “What Anni Albers taught this therapist”
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
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.