My Idea of Friendship

FriendshipOne day many years ago, my friend Ann told me she had scheduled an appointment with a surgeon to discuss whether to undergo a hip replacement. She and her doctor would be evaluating the results of x-rays and a recent MRI. As a candidate for this type of surgery, Ann was young, in her late 30s, but she was in more-or-less constant pain as a result of a car accident many years earlier when her hip joint had been shattered. She walked with a limp. When she told me about the upcoming appointment, Ann seemed quite apprehensive. I knew she was preoccupied with her decision, whether or not to go under the knife.

I fixed the date of Ann’s appointment in my memory and recalled it from time to time as the day approached. Throughout the day itself, I kept her in mind then called that evening to find out the results. She had decided to have the surgery, she told me. We talked at length about what the surgeon had said, the nature of the operation, and how much relief she could expect. A few days later, she left a message on my answering machine: “Know who else called to ask about my surgery? No one.” Besides family members, not one of her other friends had reached out to her. She seemed grateful that I had kept her in mind.

It has recently become clear to me, although I suppose I’ve known it for years, that this is my idea of friendship. A friend holds you in mind, keeps track of the events in your life without reading about them on your Facebook status, has an emotional investment in your future. It may seem obvious, but a friend thinks about you when you’re not there. He wants to know what happened at that job interview. She wonders how the date with your new flame went. Friends follow the events of your life with at least as much interest as they devote to the latest season of Homeland or House of Cards.

In my personal experience, this type of friendship is rare. After working with clients for many years, I’ve learned that most people have few true friends by my definition. This reality doesn’t seem to have struck most of my younger clients, at a stage in their lives when they are continually meeting new people through their careers or an expansive social life. New friendships form quickly and easily. Because they go to clubs and parties with the same people, or regularly have drinks with colleagues from work, it may seem as if they have many friends. Judging from what I read on his Facebook page, my 20-year-old son Paul has hundreds of them.

Marriage and parenthood take a toll on friendship; they demand so much mental space that they leave little room for keeping other people in mind. As we get older, the list of true friends gets shorter. After she moved to Seattle, Ann and I used to have a standing weekly appointment to catch up by phone. Then she filled that hour with a client. With three small children and a practice, I had precious little time for nurturing friendships. Ann and I talk infrequently now and keep in touch mostly by email. True friendship takes effort and we don’t always take the time.

In our 30s, we often strike up friendships with other couples that have children similar in age to our own, but once those children are grown, the friendships don’t always survive. We recently had dinner with a couple we know, David and Caroline, whose children have all gone off to college now. Earlier this year, they sold the family home and moved to a different part of town. Caroline said, “We looked up and wondered, what happened to all our friends?” Who keeps David and Caroline in mind? Who calls to ask about the new house and their adjustment to a new neighborhood? Like mine, their list of true friends is short.

My middle-aged clients seem more keenly aware of this reality than my younger ones. Over two or three decades of adulthood, friendships come and go; we learn that most people don’t make the consistent investment of interest and energy that true intimacy demands, not necessarily because they’re selfish or shallow but often because career and family take up so much mental space. Lee, a former friend of mine, sent me a poignant letter several years ago, asking why I hadn’t kept in touch when I moved away from Los Angeles. “I spent my 20s and 30s forming lots of friendships,” he wrote, “and then spent my 40s losing them.” Lee had so many “friends” that I felt I didn’t matter very much to him; after all, just how intimate can you be with 50 or 60 people? I tried to explain this to him but I don’t think he truly understood.

Over the last ten years, we’ve been especially close with another couple around our age. Of late, one of them has been confronting some serious medical issues and flew out to Arizona to consult with a specialist. At the time of her appointment, I sent her a text: Thinking of you. While I was in New York last week, the four of us kept sending updates back and forth. Back home on Sunday, we went to look at a townhouse for sale because they wanted our opinion about whether to buy it. Each summer when we’re in Colorado, the four of us keep in touch with bi-weekly Skype chats. Without fail. I put this couple on my very short list of true friends.

I’ve lately grown closer with someone I’ve known for ten years or so. Writer, freelance book consultant, and former acquisitions editor, Emily takes an interest in my writing career. She sends me regular texts, wanting to know about my latest submission. Last week when I was in New York, meeting with the team at Touchstone, I know she kept me in mind because I received her emails. Yesterday on the phone, we talked about my trip and caught up on her current projects, too. I’m invested in her career and like to keep up with the negotiations over her new book, her most recent freelance editorial gig, etc. As writers, we offer each other mutual support, but we also like each other. It feels like we’re becoming friends.

And that, as my life has taught me, is a rare and precious thing.

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

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70 comments

    Damn it Dr, this is one of the best I have read from you, and a critical topic. Were I a gal I would kiss you and I expect there are some here who probably would if they focused on the excellence of your writing.

    “Friend” is the most misused word in ANY language because what many call friends, are really mere acquaintances, refusing to “partake in the fellowship of anyone else’s sufferings.”
    That is what a real friend is all about, crying with them as well as laughing, and allowing them to be natural in every way. It is called FREEDOM.

    I have three male friends and three friends of the fairer gender, and the closest is a gal extremely intelligent, principled and logical. It is inadequate to say we are merely close, we are as it goes, “two bodies and one mind” and we are dependent on each the other for emotional needs that are so intense and all consuming that they have absorbed into the emotionally intimate friendship, any and all aspects of physical/sexual involvement. Few understand this. Yet because we love one another, it does not provide danger of sexual interaction, it is because we love each other that protects from physical intimacy as we both love so much the other, we would not dare to initiate such a thing that would be injurious to each the other and complicate each of our separate existences. I have never known such closeness with anyone, and she is an integral part of my existence.

    I call her the ideal woman and so she is, a veritable “daughter of Eve”, so close is she to the perfectivity of the fairer gender.

    The love is an agape love, unconditional in scope and focused on the best interests of the other, pulling emotional thorns so to speak from her tender spirit that are cast there by situations and people in this existence.

    Indeed, Dr, you are a paragon of excellence, keep on keeping on.

    I once had a woman for a “friend.” It turned out I was being used for a fool.

    Whenever this woman friend had her latest boyfriend dump her (because she’s very eccentric and demanding) she would invite me over to her home for dinner. I’d hear all about her situation. She’d want to cry on my shoulder about all the men that left her, even though she knew I was attracted to her.

    She NEVER contacted me at any other time except when she wanted to complain to someone. All this time I was a good friend… I called her just to see how she was doing. She NEVER extended me the same courtesy.

    The “last straw” was when she called me out of the blue after a LONG TIME and invited me over. After dinner she started complaining about being dumped again. Then she started complaining about the man’s “sexual inadequacies.” I got a bit angry at that and I said I did not want to sit and listen to that kind of thing. I tried to talk about something else and make it a pleasant visit.

    She kept up with her talk and finally I told her, “Look, if you want sex I am standing right here and there is nothing wrong with me!” In reply, she LAUGHED and said, “Rich, we’re never having sex!”

    I lost it. I told her I was sick of her “friend-zone” crap, her “fair-weather” friendship, and all her complaints about the 6 men that dumped her in the last 14 months! I asked her to think about WHY 6 good men left her!

    She was playing me for a FOOL. I will never allow myself to be put in that position again.

    Regarding the man I was replying to; I saw him mention the sexual attraction he has toward the woman who is his friend. There is no way a man can be “friends” with a woman he is sexually attracted to.

    He’s deluded, talking about not allowing a sexual relationship to “ruin” his friendship. Hell, if they had sex they’d be BETTER FRIENDS. (I’ve had sex with a lot of women who are my friends. I know.)

    Believe me, she’s got him just where she wants him and he is a big fool for putting up with it. The sad thing is that she probably knows EXACTLY WHAT SHE IS DOING AND ENJOYS EVERY MINUTE OF THE AGONY SHE PUTS HIM THROUGH! (Even if he won’t admit it!)

    My suggestion to this unfortunate fellow is to GROW UP, stop being this woman’s play-thing, and stop giving this woman all the attention he is giving her!

    I am not saying he should hate the woman. I am not saying he should never talk to her. He’s got to STOP being available to her anytime she wants. She must become an acquaintance, that’s is all she can be.

    Their relationship is NOT NORMAL. He is being taken advantage of at the deepest level. I hope he wakes up.

    Rich, apologies for the delay in approving this comment. I’ll be interested to hear what others have to say about your remarks, whether it is possible for a man to be “only” friends with a woman he finds sexually attractive. Speaking for myself, I have found it difficult but not impossible. It just complicates things.

    Hello Rich

    I regret your unpleasant experiences with the fairer gender and in my profession, I deal with that gender 95% of the time. You are correct about the “using” thing, and I have noted some women tend to try to MANIPULATE me, and I am onto that game, have been for a long time. The ones who do that are usually physical knockouts and as we all know, as they do, they use their sexuality as the manipulative tool to further their ends. Does not work on me, I value intelligence and principles in a woman.

    Jon Gay once said, “A woman’s friendship ever ends in love” True in many cases, but not mine.

    I will tell you a true story about a man married for over 30 years, with four grown children, whose wife shattered his existence by committing adultery…no, not a mistake, but as confessed when cornered by her husband, an 8 month fling characterized by lies, lies and more lies, thefts from his account, and all the other ugly things that go along with the ugliness of it all. The marriage had been in trouble for a few years, and the friend the man had, was a married woman, much younger than he…in fact, he had three married women ALL in committed marriages as friends, all much younger, principled women, who lived thousands of miles away to preclude the constancy of contact and familiarity that oft leads to physical intimacy. I hope you do not suffer what that man and other men, AND WOMEN suffer, by adultery, lies and thefts from failed marriages caused by same.

    One of those three women was especially close to that man, and he swears she represents the finest of her gender in the physical and character departments. Now imagine a man betrayed, and having a woman of unexcelled character and beauty inside and out, move emotionally close to him in terms of support, affection, and understanding. How about this, a neat package, long brown auburn hair, wide set brown eyes, and a clarity of purpose that gently touches the mind, soul and spirit of one devastated by wholesale betrayal. Consider in the midst of all the emotional damage caused by adultery, that man standing in a deserted parking lot in the arms of that unique and sublime woman, with one hand in her auburn hair, the other around her waist, crying over the whole mess. Tell me Rich, do you have any idea what a woman who equates to the best, far surpassing his adulterating wife, in terms of quality, character, principle and beauty, does by the few words among others said, “I love you.” That of course was NOT an inappropriate love, but an accurate description of cherishment she had for him and vice versa. Both genders can be helpful and close without being sexual.

    As others here have indicated, TRUE friends are few and far between but ONE is all that is necessary. In that reality, that one woman and that man have formed a symbiotic relationship that beggars description. They are NOT romantic but closer than anything I have ever seen or known about. Each have challenges, as we all do, and circumstances bring bad things on all of us. It is then the other steps in to steady the footsteps of the other and relieve/comfort the ailing and troubled spirit of the other.

    The one I am close to, does not as Matthew Arnold says,, argue with her heart, not her mind. My girl pal argues with her mind, and is clear, intelligent, logical, astute and articulate.

    You have projected your inapplicable situation unto me, and yes, I do love and cherish her to the point we BOTH know that IN A DIFFERENT TIME AND PLACE we would have been an item though now, time, circumstance, and commitments preclude that from ever happening. Love is not an emotion, it is an action in living. I am there for her as she is for me and will be to the end. She and I have discussed this different times as a means of protecting our friendship.

    That story about the fellow devastated by an adulterous wife after 30 years of marriage is true, for that individual was me.

    This gal now faces some serious challenges that she requires my help with, and I am committed to her best interests, always was, always will be, and she to mine. It is a two way street, and I will repay. Gladly. Why? Because I love her and her happiness is thus important to me.

    It is not a back street affair as they say, and I am a supporter of her happiness which is her marriage, at times, laughing at such things as her and her husband having the odd disagreement and to hearing her voice on the phone when he tells her, “Go talk to ———” I expect he wants me to set her straight but she is always right in discussions we have and has been same with disagreements with her husband, who she loves dearly. I marvel at her intelligence!

    When her and I committed to our close friendship, we agreed to some rules, that have been broken but once in that parking lot when we hugged…NO TOUCHING…NO KISSING…any meetings when I travel in her area to be in public places only…and there are more. We enjoy the pleasure of each other’s company when I can stop on my way through, usually ONCE a year, and at those times take her out to a good place to eat IF SHE IS AVAILABLE as in not occupied with her husband.

    The experts say that being friends with the opposite gender requires BOTH to confront the DANGER of intimacies and agree to set boundaries and to NOT EVER DENY that there is always that danger especially at the beginning. If this is done, there is a high chance the friendship will not deteriorate into a sexual fling.

    We are both onside, and it is important BOTH ARE for the weakest will always pull down the stronger and as we all know, when the will and the emotions battle, the emotions usually win.

    The most important things in life are relationships.

    Some parting advice Rich. “Women are ever in extremes, they are either better or worse than men.” (La Bruyere)

    I warn you that if you fall into the arms of women at any time, take care that you do not fall into their hands.

    One final reason I could NEVER become intimate sexually with any of the three I am friends with, and I told them this, “IT WOULD KILL ME” Yes, I have a sense of humor with them, and to be honest, it is an integral part of our friendship.

    Take care to not boot good learning experiences you encounter in life, for learning is in fact a journey, not a harbor…and I tell many of my women clients that they are all the same, but all different, and that is NOT an oxymoron. It is what one does with the wisdom learned by bad experiences which determines your well being…you fight your fight and I’ll fight mine. (Doug Kershaw)

    Now Dr. B, see what you have started? But hey, that is your job, and do not forget good man that in your profession, “A ship is safe at harbor, but that is not what ships are for.” You are a good man Dr. B.

    Always.

    I believe Dr. Burgo wrote a previous article about people who behave as this woman did. Sometimes people refer to this as “sympathy seeking” and NO it isn’t nice when there is no reciprocity–when they don’t bother to inquire about how you are feeling. If I recall correctly the title of the article was called, the toilet function of friendship. I’ve encountered more than my share of people who behave this way including BOTH genders and their behaviors are INAPPROPRIATE.

    You mentioned that she knew that you were sexually attracted to her, although I feel that is a separate issue and I fail to see how that is relevant when it comes to her sympathy seeking. It sounds like you made a choice to reveal your sexual attraction to her and she isn’t required to feel the same. It’s also not like you didn’t have a choice to inform her that you didn’t care to discuss her past boyfriend’s sexual issues.

    Otherwise it sounds like you were not on the same page. It sounds like she was seeking sympathy while you were seeking a sexual partner–“friend” with “benefits”. It also sounds like she may have felt backed into a corner by your revelation and thus responded as she did. Did you tolerate her “eccentricities” and “demanding” behaviors because you were hoping for sexual intimacy? From what you wrote it certainly sounds like that is the scenario.

    I’ve dealt with plenty of males who have behaved the same way–they would complain about their wives, girlfriends (whatever) and most were bosses or coworkers. I did not like their revealing these personal issues. They were also quite intrusive about my personal life as well. I resented it and felt that it was opportunistic as well as predatory. I did not like their sexual behaviors or being the target of their inappropriate sexual conduct either as I didn’t share their interest. I flat out didn’t feel the same towards them. In fact these were work environments and not only was it extremely inappropriate, but it thoroughly enraged me as well. I felt that it was deceptive, exploitative and manipulative. My point is people do have choices, despite not liking outcomes.

    I LOVED this reading. I am in my *cough cough* mid 30s and am starting to understand and grasp the concepts that you presented in this blog entry. I find that when I remember and inquire about events or occurrences that I KNOW are important to my friends, they express deep gratitude and it strengthens our bond. And the converse is also true. It is HARD to do this with a large group of people. So, even though most of us want to have many friends, I don’t think it’s possible. I have about a dozen that I would put my life on the line for, and vice versa. And I care so deeply for them that I think of them every day and keep the events of their life in the forefront of my mind so that I can follow up with them and see how things are going. I would much rather have these dozen than hundreds that I can’t necessarily count on. I say it all the time, but I have awesome friends and I am so so so grateful for those who stick by me both in the fun times and the times where they or I are really struggling with life’s issues. I am almost certain they are, in part, responsible for helping to save my life during my battle with depression.

    Thinking about lack of friendship reminds me of paper on the psychological costs of capitalism by Kasser (2007). One of the costs was a shift towards profit oriented interactions rather than connection based. If we’re interacting with someone with a goal in mind, such as networking or to feel better, it doesn’t deepen the bond. Deep friendships simply don’t grow from that.

    Bonding, whether in friendship or as lover, happens through unplanned, non-goal oriented activity. You’re there with someone enjoying their presence, curious about what’s really going on and the goal is simply for both people to relax and be themselves. The trust in a bond comes from knowing that the truth in a moment will be welcome. Fears are not treated as something to solve but rather as just what’s there, and the reliable connection is an expression of love.

    Nicely put, Matthew. Your first paragraph taps into some feelings I’ve been having lately about the constant need to self-promote here in the blogosphere … but that’s an entirely different post. Thanks!

    Matthew, you are correct. Capitalism does many terrible things; it oppresses, it exploits, it divides people, it destroys the natural environment. What you spoke about is another very dark product of Capitalism.

    I know of many people who seek friendships based on how that other person can help them, basically, make money. This is one of the main reasons people are so unhappy. There’s also the topic of all the cons/scams that are going on today, with no morality at all. Some people will do anything to other people to MAKE MONEY.

    Since this is NOT a political forum, I will say no more about Capitalism.

    Thanks,
    “Comrade” Rich

    I know people who seek relationships with people who they think will benefit them in some way, yet it isn’t necessary all about money. I’ve met plenty of people with agendas as well and they do not identify themselves as capitalists. In fact many would consider themselves liberals. A good many people rationalize their desire for assistance and help from other people. I meet them all the time–people who want something from me–they want me to benefit them in some way and it is their idea, not mine. I think you may be confusing capitalism, which is a political and economic system, with people who use manipulation to get people to benefit them in some way whether that is through interpersonal exploitation or framed and rationalized as for a “good cause”. Another word for these types of people are users and I agree that they can create a trail of unhappiness given how interpersonally exploitative that they can be. It would be nice if people didn’t resort to deception, exploitation, and manipulation to get their way, but sadly they do. Sadly, I’ve also encountered men who have also behaved in sexually exploitative and deceptive ways as well.

    Your thoughts on friendship and the experience of this particular friendship are right on. I have a female friend who is one of my best and closest friends. We’ve never thought of being romantic or having a sexual experience together. There is another woman in my life with whom the relationship is deeply romantic. There’s no jealousy between either of these wonderful ladies. I treasure both friendships because I know they are apparently unique.

    There are essential differences in male/female friendships than in same gender friendships that lend a power and closeness that are absent in same gender friendships.

    Most people do NOT understand that it is not only possible, but necessary to maintain physical boundaries in opposite gender friendships for it to become emotionally powerful and deep. Most think of opposite genders as impossible without physical/sexual interactivity but if each is committed to the same goal, there is a high chance the efforts will be successful. At a given point, the physical desires are nullified and absorbed into the emotional closeness, and become a pseudo factor in the friendship,

    I talked to different women clients previous to my finding an exceptional woman to become close friends with and was told that their closest friends were homosexual males. hmmmm

    There is an important reason for that which is apparent and the key to a fulfilling, secure closeness that beggars description.

    You said: “At a given point, the physical desires are nullified and absorbed into the emotional closeness, and become a pseudo factor in the friendship…”

    All I can say is that I disagree with you. I am not trying to be rude or unprofessional here, but I must explain. A man who is attracted to a woman sexually is always going to be. This attraction can not be nullified. His penis will respond (erection) when he is aroused by the woman. He will be aroused by the woman in many different situations, even just seeing her in a way that causes this human response.

    How is a man going to nullify (ignore) THAT? How is the woman not going to see it? It’s a road I’ve been down a road I am not taking again. It’s just too painful and the guy stands to be played for a fool.

    I realize you are not being rude, but we are different for many reasons. The big difference is that she is committed to her husband and life, and I am committed also to my life and children/grandchildren with no thoughts of taking up with any woman, much less one who is married and content in that. We both desired the same thing, a friendship/closeness with NO STRINGS ATTACHED and that is what we got. After a year interacting verbally and meeting when I was travelling through to Phoenix to buy a truck body for a 1976 Chevrolet, I stopped on the way back to visit her for the first time. She was quite feminine, pretty, and very intelligent. She was more than I ever could imagine in every way. A few years later she told me she loved me, (not lusted me) and the more so because I had never tried to “put my hands down the front of her pants.” All other males she had met with the intent of being JUST friends did not resist the temptation or were not disciplined enough.
    This gal was and has been chased by males from an early age and despised/rejected that behavior in our gender.

    If you could see pics of her you would know why…she was a California girl with wide set brown eyes, auburn hair down to her behind, and very feminine. Add to that intelligence, balance, logic, and sublimity of mind, soul, spirit and body and you still need more words to describe her other attributes in every sphere mentioned.

    Yet her (and my) focus was and is on a close friendship and that has never strayed. She is a stickler for boundaries and I support that. We both comply and that is what we BOTH want so it works for us.

    I would tell you I am friends with two other women, one half my age. They are all younger.
    I told them all there was never a chance of sexual interaction by me with any of them because any one of them in that context would kill me. They laughed.

    All are married, two have families, all are intelligent and witty and attractive. I am not tempted, for I know their feelings for me come from a place of deep trust that is presupposed on my imposed discipline to keep on my side of the line.
    Why would I want to ruin a situation I have always wanted, being close to three women who are excellent in character and caring, offering me affection and validation, counsel and an interesting aspect of an already interesting life?

    The sexual is but 10% of a relationship, but the emotional is 90% It easily absorbs the sexual for it is greater in scope. Society is soaked in sex nowadays to an extent that is really over rated.
    It could never equate to the emotional closeness I have with three and one especially.

    There is a Chinese saying (from the philosophical work, Zhuangzi): “The friendship between men of virtue is clear like water.” (literally)
    (no flavor, but free of harmful substances — i.e. self-interest. In contrast, the friendship between lesser men is sweet like wine, but lacks true substance).
    meaning: “True friendship between two men of accomplishment need not be overly demonstrative.”

    To me, maintaining a true friendship should not be “hard work”, if you mutually care about each other. You don’t need to meet and talk *all the time*, but when you do, it’s substance, sincerity, and authenticity.

    It seems like the “friend” who blamed you for not keeping in touch had put the responsibility of maintaining the friendship on you only. Why hadn’t he kept up from his side? I’m sure you are not the kind of person to _not_ respond when friends reach out.

    Friendship wouldn’t work if two sides are not on the same page. Hmm. Maybe that applies to *all* relationships…

    (see http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/君子之交淡如水 )

    After putting up that post, I heard from an old friend apologizing for not having kept in better touch this past year, but our friendship is as you describe it: even if we see each other only once or twice a year (we live on different sides of the country). Our contact is about “substance, sincerity, and authenticity” (as you describe it).

    This was quite confronting for me. I have anxious avoidant tendencies and have a fear of intimacy that means I ( often) avoid connecting with people. I live with my parents and though i am ” dating” a girl or too and am very social at university I honestly feel like I have no friends outside my family. I literally cried in therapy recently facing up to the fact that my former best friend ( whom I met when I was two and was extremely close to all through high school) may not even invite me to his wedding. Part of it is my choice ( he made comments that I felt were belittling last time we met) but don’t I feel nostalgic and sad about that choice. Even when in company I often feel alone and disconnected from the concerns of “ordinary people” because I am more analytical and intellectual than most. I try to meet people but it’s often easier to keep myself to myself than risk rejection. I think I have read too many books on philosophy and spent too much time trying to observe my emotions that I come across as schizoid and unfeeling. Ironically I am a very emotional and sensitive person. I wonder if your generation ( imperfect as it is) understands friendship on a deeper level than the age of personality or facebook generation.

    Maybe. We did grow up in an era without FB and Twitter, when you had fewer friendship alternatives. Sometimes it seems to me that friendship has become a kind of commodity, easily exchanged, where you can always connect with someone new. Friends don’t seem so precious when there’s always another potential waiting in the wings. Or maybe it’s just a question of age and “your generation” will narrow down the possibilities as you get older and come to value a close circle of real friends, despite all those FB friends you’ve accumulated over the years.

    Cameron, you sound just like me, its ok, but try to accept that it might not change a lot, and just grow into it…. dont fight it.

    I feel the same, like my way of thinking makes most people my age feel uneasy around me (maybe I’m projecting that?). I don’t know why… maybe a bit too cynical or too nuanced in my thinking. Maybe I unconsciously come up with arguments as to why they are wrong in an effort to scare them away so they never get too close.

    Just turned 29 and I have been looking back. And it’s clear that real friends are rare. Most people are fair weather friends. I think better friends can be found in certain situations like school, or hobby groups. It takes effort to find good ones.

    I have known many people who refer to everyone they know as their “friends” & sometimes “my good friends” when I can see that their relationships with those people are simply casual. There is a specific term for so-called friends who fit that category. It is “acquaintances.” Your story of keeping friends in mind & caring about them reminds me of a phrase which I think differentiates between the two categories: “Let me know if you need anything.” Usually it’s the last thing you hear from that person about your needs. A friend doesn’t wait for you to call & ask for assistance.

    This topic has consumed me for most of my adult life. I have a pretty big hole that I thought could be filled with friends. No matter how many I had, it was never enough. I tried quite hard and ended up with lots of people who would disappear as soon as I stopped reaching out. Now that I am in my 40’s, the number of friends is low due to family obligations that mostly everyone has now, except me.

    This year has been a very difficult one and I have reached out to many people for support. It has been hard to deal with the fact that most of these people know my life is challenging at the moment, but very few bother to check in with me. I am tired of worrying about this, so am instead focusing on the few who do actively care. This will have to be good enough. I have done everything I can to change this situation and yet it persists. Time to accept and move on.

    Thank you.

    Maybe if there are a “few who do actively care,” that can be enough. Reading through some of the other comments, it seems that most readers have only a few true friends in their lives.

    …all it takes is ONE TRUE FRIEND TO FILL THE VOID and it is worth the bother looking CAREFULLY for one, somewhat like a lifetime investment that you contribute to but which pays back big dividends

    I liked this a lot. “… has an emotional investment in your future” resonates with me. While trying to build my own business, I lost touch with more people than I can count, just because I was always “busy” and is their anything more pretentious than “I can’t, I’m so sorry, I’M SO BUSY.” But I also realized that when I did squeak out a few moments, it was a couple of friends that got my brain space. This post was eye-opener, for sure. Thanks.

    I have recently realized that most of my true friendships were forged before I was forty. What I do gives me a bit of prestige and thus a small supply of willing “friends”, many of whom I have helped to achieve a modicum of celebrity and career success. The interesting thing is that those who succeed very well cease to be friends.
    I lived in Europe for many years, where I learned that you have one or two “Friends” and count the rest as good acquaintances (Freund / Bekannte). Europeans tend to think of Americans as superficial partially due to their vast and shifting networks of connections.
    My younger friends are very entertaining and lovely, but were I to need a ride to the hospital, I doubt that they would step up.

    One of my clients was going through her list of friends in session; her criteria for a true friend was someone you could call in the middle of the night because your car had broken down. She had serious doubts whether any of them would crawl out of bed to come help her. Here where I live, I know two couples I could call on for just about anything. That seems like a lot.

    You’re right a good friend is a rare thing – I’ve learnt that in the last few years. I’ve also realised that for many years when I was younger and deeply troubled I wasn’t a good friend. I didn’t really know what being a good friend was. Anyway ironically now (I think) I do know and I have very few friends – well tbh one good friend and several acquaintances. It’s hard. I thought that when I changed I would suddenly attract all these wonderful people into my life. Not so!!!… hope this is some sort of transition phase… but I probably was being unrealistic…I think as you said many people my age (late 40’s) are too busy for friends. I think things change again in peoples 60’s when the children are reared and people are retired (hopefully).

    Think your friends are lucky…you sound like a good friend!

    Yes I think most people are happy with something less but then so was I prior to ‘waking up’ – now that I have ‘woken up’ I see everything with new eyes including other people. My standards have gone up and I can’t seem to accept less than what I believe I would give. (It’s not that I haven’t got deficiencies myself). Sometimes now I think my standards are too high. Also it’s hard to say this but maybe many years of psychoanalysis had made me more emotionally mature than most. Another problem is that I see things that others don’t and that’s lonely. I don’t expect most people to see things how I see them but I would like one or two such people in my life at some point.

    I think it’s a generational thing. Most people don’t know that kind of friendship, possibly because they are distracted from the intimacy of speaking to people and focusing on them.
    Technology enables engagement avoidance.
    The irony of BFF (until next Tuesday) is a texting based phenomena.
    When I have coffee at cafes I watch the tables around me and see nearly every group focused on their screens. I went to Peets to enjoy the white noise while I completed an online lesson in nutritional chemistry yesterday. A father played with his phone his eight year old son shouted for his attention. Younger groups all had phones out. Older groups paid attention to each other. Generational.
    Oddly some of my very good friends came from the early days of the internet – a New York cheese maker, a Texas Pie entrepreneur, a hotel manager in New England. We began with common issues (all dealing with food in some way). The group we grew into was a pre browser communications portal which required effort and some money to access. Our discourse was focused and intense or frivolous. We somehow developed a remarkable community. We met much later or have not met at all.
    I now use Facebook a lot for business. Discourse there is rare and generally superficial. Pontification trumps revelation. The trivial displaces substance.
    Things change.

    Joe,
    hmmmm…after reading this I thought about how devastating this year has been for us,
    and so few people called or cared…while Ted & I were both trying to recover from surgery
    going to Physical Therapy, and somedays it was all we could do to just get threw a day, and take care of the dog, it’s beomes a “short list” of who you know you really cares.
    …..Yeah….true friends are RARE

    I understand your point. I would love for someone outside of my family to be so thoughtful that they give you the support you need at exactly the right time. But I believe those friends are rare and special. And I would have to invest a similar amount of time and thought into such friends….. I think I only have one who fits this category. And of the opposite sex, so in some ways not ideal. However I have recently rediscovered a group of old school friends from my teenage years ( about 40 years ago) and we have a strong if geographically distant bond of loyalty. They might not know all the ins and outs of my life, but they have shared experiences with me that we treasure and we are rediscovering and redefining our “friendship”. I feel more tolerant towards their difference from me because of our shared past. I have a strong desire to grow and maintain these renewed friendships. A group of them came to stay with me and we had an amazing time together. Social media is really helping us to share news about our grandchildren, holiday and other experiences. It feels as if in our later fifties, we have become more similar than before. I think if I needed to ask for an honest opinion about a problem I would get better help from them than from nearer “friends”. They may not always “be there” but somehow it doesn’t matter. They ARE there if I choose to ask. I feel connected enough with such friendships, and my family are what actually gives me my Raison d’etre. Having said all that, I recently experienced the death of a dear elderly neighbour. Of all the people who left him voice messages when he had gone to hospital, one elderly female friend who he spoke to every day was the most distraught that he was not answering his phone. I don’t think she was invited to his funeral by the family. But she probably cared about him more than anyone and I felt guilty on behalf of his family that this wasn’t recognised. This neighbour had few friends but she was one of those who bothered to keep in touch regularly. I would like to be like her…..

    There’s something about those long-ago friendships for people of our age, isn’t there? I have a good friend who’s been reconnecting with people he hasn’t seen in 35-40 years and it has been a powerful and moving experience for him.

    “In my personal experience, this type of friendship is rare.”

    I’d agree with that assessment as it has been my experience too. I offered that to other people, less now than what I did previously, yet my efforts and interest in my life was not returned. I just don’t feel like giving so much of myself and time and energy when it is not reciprocated.

    In one of your previous posts I wrote about a woman who had contacted me by coming to my front door. It was UNEXPECTED and it triggered a flood of painful and complicated emotions. It was’t the first time that they had initiated contact in what feels very much like out-of-the-blue. They had written a previous letter and I responded. And then there was SILENCE and I never heard from them again until all these years later.

    After their unexpected they followed up with another letter, which I initially hesitated to read given that I was still dealing with the triggers and I have a completed existence right now anyway. They wrote a long explanation and said many times that, “you were a true friend”. They also wrote about how they met people who approached them with what they thought was friendship only later to learn that it was an agenda. Their last communication said that they “set me free” and “missed me” and then wrote that “they have always loved me.” They also wrote that “…and at one time you were my only happiness.” It’s hard to read those messages as they are confusing given the circumstances. Their behaviors and no communication demonstrated just the exact opposite of someone who says that they have always loved me. It doesn’t feel loving when people do not communicate with you. Confusing, so confusing and hurtful in its own way. They were unreliable, but unlike her I’ve written responses to their letters as I did not want to hurt her–I absolutely did not want to give her the silent treatment, having experienced it myself, courtesy of her and other people. I haven’t heard from them yet, but I wonder if I will given their past behaviors.

    The relationship was a mix, but it became toxic for me as they were self-destructive and made poor choices and that had an impact on me and it exposed me to horrible people and trauma. Yet they described me as “fragile and sensitive”, something that I used to hear all of the time. Yet here they were out-of-the-blue at my front door. I’m still working through all of these triggers and their unexpected visit (I didn’t recognize them) was 5 months ago.

    I felt that their behavior demonstrated quite clearly that I had little value in their life, which is how I’ve felt about most people, except one really good friend of mine–a platonic friendship that I have with a man. I would never trade his friendship for millions.

    So yes, I agree that few people have true friends by your definition, which is also mine. It has also seemed to me that friendship has become a kind of commodity, but then I’ve always felt that way. They wrote in their first letter following the unexpected visit that, “…whatever happens that they would always love me for the true friend that I once was.”

    Thank you for your response. I suspect that the “sentimental nonsense” that you are referring to is her written references to the past history that we shared which I feel that she romanticized with the glow of nostalgia. Yet at that time she did not prove she cared for me or was respectful by her actions which demonstrated otherwise.

    My experience of all of this is so very different from your previous commenter (Songbird). There is some similarity as this woman is also someone from my formative years, so in a sense I have a shared past from long ago, yet it has also been a long time since they’ve bothered to communicate. Some things that they wrote were nice, but it also brought up a very painful past which was left unresolved for how it was handled on their end. One could refer to the situation as estrangement. Most of the people that I knew in high school I wouldn’t want to hear from again. I’m certain most of those people would deride and dismiss me as being “too sensitive” or “holding a grudge” or “holding on to the past”. Yet, I re-evaluated most of those relationships–mainly because most of those people were self-destructive and just destructive in general and I was exposed to horrible experiences knowing them. I let go of them and moved on as I was searching and hopeful to find people who were better suited to me and those who would be able to respond in more caring and connected ways. It was very odd as maybe about 5 years or longer after no communication of any kind I received letters within the span of a year from 3 different people and truthfully at the time it felt like an invasion. I was not happy to hear from these people because I had moved on. This woman was the only person that I felt compelled to write and that was due to having a shared past with her, but I was also reticent for many reasons. I think reconnecting is a sensitive undertaking which demands not only that people think of themselves and their needs, but also carefully consider the needs of the other person too and in my experience that seldom happens.

    Hello Karen

    Same old same old, eh gal? People generally want from others, but do not RECIPROCATE. Guard yourself well, protect your tender feelings, reserve the uniqueness of you for only those who care about you, your unselfish motives, and make your first priority YOURSELF when such people seek to intrude upon your existence. If you do not look after yourself, nobody else will, unless it is that other man you have as a friend. I do envy him.

    The one man friend in your life indeed is fortunate, for I see some things about you that are unique. Yes, conversation always gives vent to character and I see that is true by inclining myself unto your words…and those of Dr. B…and to those of others here.
    True friendship as you have learned, is LOVE WITHOUT WINGS.

    “I felt that their behavior demonstrated quite clearly that I had little value in their life, which is how I’ve felt about most people, except one really good friend of mine–a platonic friendship that I have with a man. I would never trade his friendship for millions. ”

    —————————————-

    That individual is fortunate to have you as a friend. Actually you are each fortunate to have found each other.

    My comment to you previous was just the truth, and while it benefitted/validated you, it kicked most of the typical selfish and manipulative mindless grazing herd between the rear pockets. I am teaching my grandchildren the lesson that generally people are out to get what they can from others with no regard to the best interests of their targets.
    I have some selfish and bottom feeding relatives who I am embarrassed and ashamed of, aided and abetted by a cult church of similar twisted selfish peons pathetic pedantry and religious leaders who are little more than jellyfish.
    Seems the older I get the more angry I become as I see the nonsense and games being played by people and the system.

    It is thus pleasing to me to see people like Dr. B and yourself, and some others here on the same side.

    Rich; sounds like it’s best this rude, insensitive woman is out of your life. I do think men and women can be friends and transform a sexual attraction, if acting on it would not be appropriate.
    Cameron. I do understand what you say. I feel I put so much into my marriage and kids, that now my marriage is over and kids moving along, I realize I didn’t take care of friendships along the way. Didn’t help that my husband was very neurotic and narcissistic around any friendships I did try to have.
    I find I do have three friends, two females and one male, that somehow I kept going thru the turbulent times. Cameron, just trust that your people will come along. I do think the secret to connecting with people is to accept yourself. Be comfortable in yourself..

    one aspect of growing into an adulthood of having few if any friends, is to make friends with myself…. and really work on this. this, in many ways became more of a focus rather than filling my life with things to do, with people, (friends etc ).
    i suspect, that any friends i do make later in life, will be the lasting kind…… no more carousel rides, please.

    I felt a huge sadness when I read this post. My recent life has been colored by a friendship that went so wrong. I am a gay woman and I met this wonderful woman some years ago. I felt so attracted to her and told her. Anyway, she didn’t feel the same way back but wanted friendship. It was so hard for me and I battled it so long…trying to just be a friend when I felt so much more. In the last 12 months I’ve had to walk away. I still see her socially but I avoid her eye as I feel so weak and hurt by things that transpired. All sorts of things transpired. But the most painful thing was that I felt like I met the one (my feelings were that strong!) and she didn’t feel the same way back. When I see her now I just feel immense pain because I know she thinks I’m a bad friend with poor values. I’m really not that kind of person. I wish I could prove that but I know she thinks otherwise. I just couldn’t take our dynamic any longer. In January when she told me of a guy who’d been flirting with her and that she’d hoped something might happen it was the last straw for me. We would have all these times together, sharing so much and I couldn’t help but always feel hope.

    Even as I write this I feel so sad and tears easily come to my eyes. I hate that I let someone down who mattered so much to me. I wonder if this pain will ever leave me. It’s an awful thing to feel so poorly thought of by someone who mattered so much…and someone who you wanted to matter to so much.

    Hello Forever Sad

    I think you might not be aware of the song, with the line in it that goes, “It’s not knowing who you want, it is knowing who wants you, that matters…” and I expect we ALL have been rejected by others for various reasons.

    I know how you feel relative to rejection and I encourage you to consider the words of La Bruyere when he said, “Love and friendship exclude each other.” Some will diasagree but I have seen and lived this personally. The word “love” he uses could better be replaced by “romance.”

    Do not think you let anyone down, for you did not, and take care to not let yourself down in thinking you did. I suspect this “other” person, if she was aware of your lifestyle probably was not looking for romance and felt you might have been tracking on that line. The rejection then was NOT about you but about HER choice as following the line of heterosexual romantic links. Consider it this way, you yourself might reject any male who had romantic designs on you even though he might not have manifested them in wanting to be friends with you.

    Do not feel personally rejected for I doubt that it was a rejection of you, but a living choice of the other woman to seek romance in her heterosexual existence.

    I am a heterosexual male, but I met a transgender individual online years ago who I found to be one of the most courageous, humble and astute persons I have ever met. I saw this individual perform acts of sheer courage that awed me. Character and worth are not blocked by whether one is homosexual or heterosexual and I do not think form where I sit, that the situation was anything to do with any perceived flaws in your character.

    Do not be hard on yourself and do not think tha you as a person were rejected, because of your character…it was and is not that all.

    The thing/things we long for are often denied us for reasons known or unknown. Further along, we sometimes find out it was all for the good but at the time, we see it not.

    Nobody will in the least fault you for wanting what seems can never be, for we all have unattainable longings within, but I encourage you to move the focus of blame off yourself because it does not at all belong there.

    Dr. B, this column touched my heart. I kept thinking of friends I haven’t reached out to in their times of need, but also of those who keep walls up when you do try to get closer. I guess all you can do is try, and then accept what the friendship is and what it isn’t. There are various degrees of closeness. Even so-called best friends can let you down, but all you can do is forgive, centre yourself, and be ok with where they are. I think the next time I see my friends that I have kept in touch with for the longest time I will tell them how much I love them.

    To Rich,
    I know this was very painful for you to confront this woman, but at least you got real and honest and that is what truly matters – honoring yourself. That woman was using you and you recognized the unhealthy dynamic. But maybe you stayed in denial too long before being honest with yourself as to what you really wanted – a deeper connection, and she was never going to provide that.
    The two of you could not be close platonic friends because she was constantly bringing ex-boyfriends into it, reminding you on some level that she was available to be courted. If keg does not feel like a fool and his lady friend is not playing these i-am-a-victim-to-be-rescued games then his life is richer for having her in it.

    I really liked your article on friendship. I have a sad story, though. I have been friends with a guy ( I am female) and it was a good friendship. Then, he needed work and I had work that needed to be done. So, I paid him to do work on my home. That friendship has evolved into a work only deal, so it’s no longer a friendship. He only wants to visit if he can work for money. I am sad about the entire thing. I do like his work and he’s better and cheaper than a stranger, but I miss the friendship only aspect. And, it’s truly gone. He calls sometimes during the week after his regular job, but it’s nothing like it was before he starting doing odd jobs here.

    I never knew not to mix pleasure with business, so this is a first reminder. At age 57, 4 successful siblings and successful parents, I am wondering how i missed that cue. Can money ruin family relationships, also. Money has played an important part in all of my life. How do I suddenly or gradually change that?

    I don’t think you can do it suddenly. You have to recognize this truth about yourself and then, when it inevitably comes up again, you try hard to make a different and better choice.

    Can money also ruin family relationships? Money has been a prominent life since day one. I am not sure how to unlearn that. I am old, but that is the first time anyone has ever told me not to mix money with friendships. I am stunned and experiencing a “wow” moment. Wow.

    My very successful father had very good friends and some or most were also business partnerships. That’s really all I know. How could that have worked for him and your seemingly blanket statement indicates that it just doesn’t work at all.

    Dr. Burgo,
    This blog post came up when I searched “therapeutic relationship.” I am struggling with believing that my therapist is some kind of friend. My therapist uses self-disclosure in therapy when illustrating points. Through many years of therapy, I have shared much of myself, my thoughts, fears, beliefs, dreams. And in the therapeutic relationship, my therapist has heard me, I have felt attunement, bearing witness. I have also learned much about my therapist through the disclosures. It defies categorizing, this relationship. I have lost through death my closest friend, mentor, several years ago. I have lost relationship with an adult child. My spouse and I, though working in couples’ therapy, have great difficulty communicating. We haven’t quit, and don’t intend to quit, but we are far from attunement. Is it fine to categorize my therapist as some kind of friend? Not someone I’d call in the middle of the night with car troubles, but I sure would consider, and hopefully resist, calling in the middle of the night if I were at the end of my mental reserves and seriously needed to talk. A friendship would mean the benefits go both ways. I recognize no benefit my therapist receives from our relationship. Perhaps you can speak to any sense of “friendship” you, the therapist, has toward any clients. I have struggled with feelings of guilt over this, but just now, I am sitting with a peace about just continuing therapy, and letting the relationship be this indefinable something healthier than I have available at the moment in my “real,” day-to-day, available to pick up the phone and call, “friendships.” Is this at all coherent? Hope to hear your perspective.

    What you say makes sense to me, and I don’t disagree. As for what I as a therapist get from my clients, I feel it’s a privilege to be intimate with them, to get to know them deeply in a way I find much more satisfying than many social relationships I have. My contact with clients feels profoundly meaningful, and it gives meaning to my life.

    I have always found it difficult making friends, possibly due to the very reason that other people have so many. They don’t place such deep meaning on friendship so find it easy to have a lot of friends, whilst I have always been reluctant to become friends with people unless I felt that we had some sort of connection. Unfortunately, I think this probably meant that I came across as over-eager, maybe a bit creepy, with people I genuinely wanted to be friends with. Also, I sometimes became friends with unsuitable people in desperation and they trampled all over me because I let them.

    The result of this is that I am in my late twenties and don’t have anybody I could genuinely call a friend. I do have good relationships with my family but I really do wish I could have a few good friends. I find it’s even more difficult to make friends when you don’t have any due to the shame of them finding out that you don’t have any other friends. I know there really isn’t an easy answer to this, but is there any advice you could think to give me?

    Lately I’ve been thinking about a post that would be called “expect less.” That sounds like simplistic advice, but the less I expect from people, the more satisfied I seem to be in our interactions.

    I definitely think we use the word ‘friend’ too fast. I posted a comment on another much older article but I find that I’ve had to learn to put the brakes on new friends. I love creative, out going people who are deep thinkers, but a lot of the time I’ll speak openly with them and then all of a sudden, only a few weeks into knowing them, they’re dumping problems on me and trying to talk to me for hours on end or come to my home all day.

    I sometimes wonder if people crave such quick connection with people because it gives them a sense of satisfaction they aren’t getting from themselves. I need alone time. I’m always working on an endless list of personal and work projects. Hanging out with friends is great for me if it’s once a week or less. My closest friends who I feel most comfortable around are actually people I see only a few times a year, but I know if I called any of those people to help me at any time, they’d be there, as I would for them.

    My other ‘friends’ exhaust me and when I gently offer ideas for them to find enjoyment in themselves, finding a really good hobby they love or maybe taking a class at the community college, they’re typically offended or tell me it’s not possible for them.

    As for the comments above, I’ve had male friends who were sexually attracted to me and it’s only caused problems once. He was unhappy in his marriage and began clinging on to me. I even spoke to his wife about it and she laughed and claimed nothing was wrong and I must have been over reacting. I cut him off after a while because I couldn’t allow him to continue to tell me I was pretty while he’d insult his wife right in front of me. My other male friends I know for a fact have been sexually attracted to me, but I think there are levels of this. It depends on if your male friend could really see themselves in a relationship with you or not, and it also depends on their experience with friendships like this.

    I actually had a female friend once who was living with her fiance and she was the one sexually attracted to me. It evolved into an extremely bizarre friendship where very suddenly I told her I could no longer speak to her because she thought it was okay to tell me she was fantasizing about me. She knew I had dated women in the past and she thought perhaps I would sleep with her. She then told me she asked her husband permission to have sex with me. All of this discussion happened before she even said she was attracted to me, and it disturbed me so much that I cut ties.

    When we use the word ‘friend’ too soon around someone it gives them liberties they sometimes shouldn’t have. I get along so well with people who can get together, talk deeply about life, check in on each other, truly care, but then leave each other alone most of the time!

    Dear Dr Burgo,

    I really enjoy reading your blog whenever I have a bit of free time at work/home. I wanted to make a comment on a long term friendship I have obtained over past decade or so. She is a lovely and genuinely supportive person who have been there for me over the years and it is a mutually supportive friendship. However I also feel some kind of envy and competitiveness there especially when it comes to romantic relationships. She always gave me blank cheques on offering to ‘introduce’ someone whenever I got out of a relationship but it never happened in the past decade. In the mean time she has been asking me to share my resource with her. Unfortunately I am not willing to share anyone with her as I perceive it as ‘unfair’. Interestingly I have introduced my guy friends to other girlfriends but I refuse to do so with her. She freaks out if there has been any friendly contact from her partner to me within boundaries of friendship, i.e. when her ex-partner tried to add me on social media she rang me and interrogated me regarding why would I approve him as friends on social media. I thought it was quite irrational. I wonder if it has anything to do with shame and self-esteem?

    The examples in the last two paragraphs of your essay are the essence of true friendship. When I was younger I recall reading the necessity of friendship in the writings of Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato. The Ancients had it right. Today, too many people think friendship, or at least friends, are the followers on social media or the passing parade of co-workers. It may be difficult to define true friendship but I know it when I experience it. True friends are both men and women without regard to sexual attraction. A friend is a friend is a friend……… and to be cherished.

    Thank you for your always insightful and thought-provoking essays and commentary.

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