Maintaining our friendships (even when we don't feel like it)
After 18 months of being apart from friends, it may turn out to be quite a challenge to reconnect when we do meet up face-to-face. Communicating by video conferencing or text can maintain contact of sorts but sometimes we yearn for the face-to-face, personal experience. Communicating remotely often requires less effort on our part - we can talk to our friends without leaving the sofa and exit the conversation with a press of a button.
Studies suggest friendship may be harder to come by these days. To my mind, it is troubling to learn that the proportion of people who can name six close friends has dropped in the last couple of decades and those people who have no close friends has increased.
Single men, it seems, are especially prone to having no close friends.
Some of these changes might be due to the pandemic which has inevitably created a global increase in loneliness. From my own therapy room, people are increasingly talking about the struggles they have in finding or maintaining friendships. This affects both the old and the young.
Friendship gives us a purpose to exchange critical interaction: for the old it can have a positive impact on the ageing process and for the young it can bring a sense of belonging and identity.
Each of us has a different level of contact with which we feel comfortable. Some of us are okay with one good friend. However, friendship is not about numbers (we can spread ourselves too thinly and then it can risk being a popularity contest. To my mind, friendship is about good quality, meaningful connections.
To have good friendships we need to work at it - getting to know the other person, disclosing information about ourselves which may make us feel 'vulnerable', learning to disagree. All of this sounds risky. We may be rejected, get into conflict, feel outdone or found wanting. Such feelings can seem impossible to overcome.
Loneliness is a topic which often occurs in the therapy room and seems more prevalent now; people have felt adrift from their friendships for so long and are experiencing anxiety and isolation.
A common theme which has emerged is when we are lonely many things seem to take on a different perspective and we tend to get things out of proportion. So we become hypersensitive (understandably in the current circumstances) and place undue emphasis on what we perceive to be difficult, hostile encounters.
In other words, we focus on the negative and overlook the parts which are working well. We may decide it is not worth the risk, so withdraw and return to our isolated state.
Many of my clients have spoken of 'awkwardness' when they have met up with a friend after such a significant period of time has passed. We can become paranoid and full of self-doubt, wondering if we are going to be able to reconnect. We may talk about how different life is now, the ongoing uncertainty and the many losses we may have encountered. We need not be surprised if there is a heightened sense of tension - in these circumstances, this is to be expected.
Which leads me on to another aspect of friendship - we often place a lot of expectations on our friends which can be unrealistic. Friends will let us down and friendships often come to an end - both experiences can feel every bit as devastating as the end of a romantic relationship. In my experience, people are often taken by surprise by their feelings of distress when a friendship is either not working or has come to an end. When we invest it is likely we will experience feelings of loss.
Even so, friendship is vital for good health and well-being. I often help my clients to learn how to be a good friend (which of course, starts with being a good friend to themselves) which includes support and compassion balanced with reality and understanding. There is a saying which states we can choose our friends but not our families; I would add the very fact we choose our friends, so when we lose them it can be hard to bear because it was a choice we made.
Friendship is a two-way street, we need to make allowances for our friends, as we would for ourselves. This is self-compassion.
So, as restrictions lift and we begin to reconnect it is more important than ever that we prioritise our social interactions and work on strengthening our relationships even if we don't feel like it. It is all part of our recovery from what has been a long period of isolation and disconnection and may turn out to be well worth the effort.
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