It takes a long time to grow an old friend.” — John Leonard
More than ever, sociologists and health professionals are studying friendship and how it impacts our physical and emotional well-being. New studies show that having a circle of close friends will improve our odds of surviving cancer and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and cardiovascular disease.
In fact, failing to develop true friendship can be as bad for us as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day. (Take the test linked at the end of this post to determine if you’re a good friend or a neglectful one.) According to research cited by the AARP, Facebook friends and other “online relationships” don’t count. To reap the full benefits of connection, we must turn off our electronic devices and meet face to face.
Even if we’re not social butterflies, most of us can list several people who enrich our lives in some way. There’s the neighbor who collects our mail while we’re on vacation; the co-worker who shares career leads; the soccer mom who brings an extra thermos of coffee to the games. And if we’re lucky, we can top that list with a couple of lifelong pals who’ll answer our phone calls after midnight when we’re worried about a biopsy.
Along the way, we’re also likely to encounter a few promise breakers, snipers, competitors, users, freeloaders, and emotional blackmailers, notes Jan Yager, Ph.D., a sociologist who has researched this topic since the 1980s. In her best-selling guide, When Friendship Hurts: How to Deal with Friends Who Betray, Abandon, or Wound You, Yager describes the 21 types of toxic friends and explains how to deal with them. The most durable friendships, she discovered, are always supportive, responsive, and reciprocal — and can weather minor transgressions.
Of course, in a highly mobile culture like ours, some friendships are built on the shifting sands of proximity and aren’t meant to last.
But if we’re not mindful, Yager warns, our closest relationships can wilt or wither from neglect. (Even family ties loosen and unravel when we do little more than take them for granted.) In other words, your best friends shouldn’t have to remind you that birthday cards, get-well notes, phone updates, souvenirs, and other tokens of affection or appreciation are fuel to the bonfire of enduring friendship.
On the other hand, as Yager and other experts point out, sometimes it’s necessary to weed out other types of toxic friends who make us feel used, bullied, or invalidated.
“When I pay attention to my feelings, I know when people are draining my energy,” said Cindy Hampel, a Royal Oak resident and author of It’s Not Personal: Lessons I’ve Learned from Dealing with Difficult People (Orange Sun Press; $14.95). “If someone consistently tries to make me feel guilty or afraid, then I’ll just seek out other people who treat me more reasonably.”
Once we hit midlife, we realize there are only so many years left for the pleasures we’ve postponed – including more time with friends.
Several years ago, I learned one of my hardest life lessons while watching my dear uncle lose his three-month battle with pancreatic cancer. The terminal diagnosis was made on his 65th birthday. Newly retired from Chrysler, my uncle had looked forward to spending long afternoons on the golf course with his best buddies – but ended up in hospice instead.
Which is partly why I agree with the experts who advise making friendship a priority, even when we think we don’t have time for it. The more stressed out or overbooked we are, the more we need to reconnect with supportive people.
So, call your best friend or look up an old room mate. Check in with someone you’ve been meaning to phone for ages. Plan a lunch date, send a card, throw a potluck, or meet some pals for a round of golf. Make time for the treasured friends who’ve been there for you – and think of them as good health insurance. — Cindy La Ferle
Are you a good friend or a bad friend? Take Martha Beck’s quiz, following her article on friendship in “O” magazine. Click here.