Friendships in Flux

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Nov 24, 2015

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“I wonder what will happen to my friendships after I get married next month.”

I was speaking with a 25-year-old woman at a recent workshop, and she was torn – excited about her marriage, yet worried whether it would enhance or undermine her other relationships.

It’s a common concern. Marriages, divorces, kids, cross-country shifts and career changes all disrupt the careful ties we’ve made to others. “Anytime you have a major lifestyle change all your friendships are in a flux,” explains Marla Paul, in her book The Friendship Crisis. And with today’s overscheduled lifestyle, which prioritizes career and family, we’re often left exhausted, with no time or energy for others. “We just grew apart,” we think, and sometimes that’s true. But more often than not, we have to make time for friendships in the same way we make time for a partner, children and work. A few years ago, as I was juggling my career, my husband’s busy travel schedule, and my daughter’s care, a friend gently reminded me, “This time shall pass. You need friends who understand, support and are present. Choose to make time for them.” Over years, I have realized the timeliness and poignancy of that piece of advice. Adult friendships are incredibly important, even when they’re difficult to maintain.

And even when they’re difficult to make. Thomas Joiner, in his book Lonely At The Top, writes of how men pay a price for professional success, power and ambition; in the process of achieving these goals, he says, they are left with very few close friends. While Joiner’s work focused only on men, I think the same can be true for women, too. Differences in financial standing and lifestyle and past experiences of betrayal can also impede initiative in both genders. Also, for couples, finding friends that both partners like may be a struggle.

But friendships are worth the effort. Aside from the obvious emotional and mental support they offer, friendships also improve health. Stress has long been linked to increased risk of hypertension, heart disease, and a host of more middling infections and allergies. But oxytocin, the ‘love hormone’ released when people bond socially, mitigates stress.

Interestingly, women are more likely to experience this health benefit than men. A study led by UCLA’s Shelley Taylor and Laura Klein explored the long-accepted ‘fight-or-flight’ response to stress, finding it a uniquely male reaction. Women, they found, instead have a ‘tend-and-befriend’ response, that is, they cope with stress by taking care of one’s children and others (tending) and consciously reaching out to other women (befriending). This scientifically supports Jane Fonda’s famous quote: “I think that is one reason why women live longer than men. Friendship between women is different than friendship between men. We talk about different things. We delve deep. We go under, even if we haven’t seen each other for years.” It also suggests men need to be even more mindful of maintaining and creating friendships, for while it may come less naturally, the benefits are the same.

As we become older, we have all kinds of friends. There are friends with whom we deeply connect and find answers in some of the most random conversation; these are friends who know you intuitively and understand you. There are also what I call ‘activity friends’; you may not be closest to them, but you still want to catch plays together or go shopping sometimes.  In my case, some of these friendships began through my daughter’s play dates and grew out of proximity and ease of access. The reality is that I value both kinds of friendship and invest in them by giving my time and emotional presence.

Just as we choose to set time aside for a date night with our partner, we need to consciously schedule time to meet friends, maybe over coffee or a drink. If you find yourself lacking friends, join a structured activity, such as a gym or a hobby class, or volunteer and attend events. Write to an old friend. There are plenty of ways to keep old friendships alive, and find new ones – and a lot of people interested in doing the same. Take the initiative, choose to connect, and prioritize the time. Allowing friendships to touch you and consciously surrounding yourself with kind, genuine people will go a long way to helping you live a long, happy life.

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Written By Sonali Gupta

Sonali Gupta is a practicing clinical psychologist with 10 years of experience. She conducts workshops to enhance the emotional well-being of couples, parents and children. She can be reached at sonaligupta297@gmail.com. You can find more of Sonali’s thoughts on Twitter (@guptasonali) and on her website, guptasonali.com

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