Sunday, January 5, 2014

Only Connect: A Retrospective on the Changing Face of Friendship

It’s the rare individual that doesn’t fondly remember the close friends of childhood. Through the gauzy haze of nostalgia, we idly reminisce about youthful games of tag, lazy summer days, sleepovers, intense angst-ridden phone calls, and languid hours spent hanging out doing nothing in particular and having a great time doing it. As humans, we are social beings. We have a biological hunger for social connection. This hunger is expressed in many ways, including our penchant for watching movies and TV shows featuring BFFs, such as Thelma and Louise, Mary and Rhoda, Lucy and Ethel or the glittering gals from Sex and the City. Some of our favorite books, like the Harry Potter Series, or the Betsy/Tacy stories, are about close friends who share interests, support one another, spend lots of time together and know each other's dreams, secrets and vulnerabilities. 

I had my first best friend when I was 3 years old. She was also named Jill. Because we were both Jills our middle names were added to our firsts so she was Jill Robin and I was Jill Shari. Jill Robin's mother, Carol was my mom's best friend. We all lived in the same apartment building so our mothers were constantly back and forth, drinking coffee and chatting while we played. Then my family moved to the city. Susie was my new next-door-neighbor. Suddenly, at 4, I had a new best friend and it was Susie!  Once Susie and I started school, we were in different classes and we drifted apart. In elementary school, I was part of a little posse of girls including Andrea, Doreen, Bruni and Joanne. In middle school, high school and beyond, the cast of characters underwent numerous revisions, but the special feelings of closeness, connectedness and trust that characterized these relationships will always hold a cherished place in my heart.

For most of us, as we move into elementary school, we grow increasingly selective and we begin to choose our friends based on common interests rather than proximity or our parent's choices for us. We also become more sensitive to social status and being picked on. We want friends who are "like us." This pattern continues into high school, although most of us experiment with different types of friends as we explore and develop our own self-image. Most high-schoolers fervently pledge eternal fellowship, though in practice, this is rarely realized. In college, friendships tend to grow more complex. Since many college students are starting the friend game over from scratch, they willingly push outside their comfort zone as they explore new types of relationships with a greater diversity of people. Social hierarchies are still prominent concerns and can cause a lot of anxiety for college students. College friendships can be emotionally intense and incredibly close. The devotion and loyalty characteristic of these relationships appears to be the gold standard by which later adult friendships are unofficially measured. Statistically, these alliances have a greater chance of lasting than high school friendships traditionally do. This is partly because personality is better formed and many career and lifestyle goals that might otherwise interfere with the stability of the relationship are more defined by this stage in life.

Friendships among young singles are often dominated by fun and partying. Young adults who are not into drinking, parties and bars may experience significant loneliness at this time in their lives. Once married or in long term committed relationships, young couples without an established social circle often have trouble making new friends, particularly when it's important for all 4 people involved to like each other enough to spend considerable time together.

Many of us have pleasant fantasies about close friends who have children of similar ages who can all grow up together, like cousins or even siblings. The kids will play and be BFFs too. Everyone will help each other through life’s rough spots while celebrating all of life’s joys in happy harmony. Unfortunately, it frequently turns out that the kids actually don't get along, schedules don't jibe, and other priorities interfere. Work, household responsibilities, extended family obligations, school activities, lessons and team sports trump the needs of the relationship.

When we think idyllically about friendship, we imagine childhood pals who never move away and BFFs with similar disposable incomes, interests and schedules. These friends will have spouses and children we adore who will be lifelong buddies with our own spouses and children. Everyone involved will enjoy one another’s company. There won’t be too much stress and there will be lots of fun. Nobody will be too busy, cranky or unreasonable. Dining, troubles talk, encouragement, shopping, vacations, parties, adventures, games, and celebrations will be enthusiastically shared. What could be better? Except things usually turn out to be a lot more complicated than this fantasy predicts.

As it often turns out, many of us disperse around the country, moving far away from our childhood homes and leaving our old buddies behind. Building our careers takes precedence over building our friendships. Roommates don't necessarily progress into BFFs. The reality is that people can be competitive and judgmental rather than supportive and encouraging. When you move to that new neighborhood, the local ladies may not show up with casseroles or welcome you with open arms and party invitations. In the workplace, we are frequently discouraged from forming friendships. It is often against company policy to be friends with people you supervise. The higher up the ladder you go, the lonelier it can get. Old friends may be envious of your success or find they can’t relate to you anymore. Or, it may be that you simply have so little time. If you are a married woman, your husband often considers you to be his best friend. You may not be sure that he is yours but you know any available emotional energy needs to go to him and your kids, not your friends, who may be too busy, competitive or exhausted to care anyway.

Our society seems to place very limited practical value on real connectedness. Even if we personally value our friendships, our actions don’t always approximate our desires and intentions. We may sit in our lovely houses with designer kitchens and large gracious dining rooms fruitlessly awaiting those magazine or movie-style moments when close friends come over, hang out and have a wonderful picture-perfect time. As we move around the country and go through life's various stages, it can get harder and harder to make new friends. In order to be worth our limited time and other resources, it starts to feel like prospective “candidates” have to be as similar to us as possible including the right age, political party, level of education, social class, marital status, and career path. Kids need to be of similar ages. Literary, movie, music, TV, cultural and culinary preferences should dovetail seamlessly. Not only must potential friends have common interests, their pursuit of these interests should be at the same level of expertise and intensity as ours. She should be the right religion (or lack there of) and engage in compatible spiritual practices. If you recycle, so must she. If you don't eat meat, she'd better be a vegetarian too.

Of course computers, smart phones, social media, video games and the internet can either enhance or hinder our ability to make and maintain friendships. This, however, is a topic worthy of its own post, so I’ll be writing that one soon. Be sure to check back so you don’t miss it.

Awareness is the first step towards change. As Ghandi said, "You must be the change you want to see in the world." If you want friends you must be a friend. Decide to make a personal commitment to reaching out and finding meaningful ways to connect with others. Put down your electronic devices and pay full attention to the people around you. Build your listening and conversation skills. Find time in your schedule to develop and maintain friendships. Be patient with the process. It takes time and effort to get to know someone. Make the choice to be sociable an active choice. Go out of your way to get to know your neighbors. Take time to chat. Be more open. Include others in activities you might otherwise do on your own. Invite people over. Make a conscious effort to think beyond your immediate family. Get involved in organizations that will allow people to get to know you and you to know them. Learn to approach people and cultivate your own approachability. Strive to be pleasant and agreeable. Smile, catch someone's eye and strike up a conversation. Dust off your social skills. Learn a few jokes. Take some risks. Allow a little vulnerability. Dwell in possibility and rethink your preconceived ideas about friendship.

I’m sure you know how to do a lot of this already. You probably did it without much thought or special effort when you were younger. What happened to the friendly child you used to be? Reconnect with your quiescent sense of wonder, curiosity and possibility.  Let that fuel the motivation to reach out and make some new connections. Your life will be so much richer for it.

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