Why friendship matters

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 were not social butterflies, most of us can list several people who enrich our lives in some way. Theres the neighbor who collects our mail while were on vacation; the co-worker who shares career leads; the soccer mom who brings an extra thermos of coffee to the games. And if were lucky, we can top that list with a couple of lifelong pals wholl answer our phone calls after midnight when were 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 guideWhen 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 its 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 Its Not Personal: Lessons Ive 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 weve 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 dont 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 youve 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 whove 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.

Facebook: Why I’m back

When we change the way we communicate, we change society.” — Clay Shirky

My husband was the first to deliver the happy news: Two of our son’s best friends from high school had announced their wedding engagements on Facebook last week — within a few short days of each other. As the family reporter, I’m usually on top of these things. But because I had deactivated my Facebook account in January, I was totally out of the loop.

And I felt like one of the Flintstones. I’d been living under a rock while everyone else was throwing a big party in cyberspace without me.

Which is partly why I tip-toed back to Facebook after cruising along happily without it (most of the time) for the past four months.

Before I go on, I need to tell you that I’m not the least bit sorry for taking a break from it. My self-imposed sabbatical from social media — Facebook, especially — helped me appreciate the positive aspects of being connected 24/7 to the Big World Out There. At the same time, I thought long and hard about the difference between online friendships and 3-D friendships and how much attention I can (reasonably) give to each.

During my time away from Facebook, I missed a lot of good news from a lot of nice people. And I rediscovered how much harder it is to communicate with out-of-town friends and colleagues. Facebook makes it so much easier to share announcements of any kind in one fell swoop — writing classes; new blog posts; wedding engagements — something I had taken for granted while using it.  Though posting my updates seemed awfully impersonal at times, that was part of Facebook’s ease and charm. When I wasn’t on Facebook, I was sending more email announcements, which were probably more annoying and more invasive than status updates.

What I didn’t miss about Facebook was its dangerously addictive aspects. Once I got through the initial withdrawal period, I rediscovered luxurious bolts of time to write and sell more essays and articles. More time to meet friends for lunch. More time to catch up on the phone. More time to get my home in order. More time for long walks outside. In other words, after pulling away from the distractions of social media, I felt more focused and balanced — even in the midst of my elderly mother’s ongoing health crises.

In other words, I figured out how and where I’d been wasting all the time I thought I didn’t own anymore.

In other words, I realized I’d been abusing Facebook.

Like any tool, Facebook is incredibly handy. But there’s a right way — a respectful way — to use it. So, this time around, I am setting tighter limits. I’ll be checking in less often, and won’t be leaving as many comments as I used to. I’ll continue to exercise most of my bragging rights — and personal info — here on my blog. I plan to enjoy Facebook for what it is — and refuse to feel guilty if I can’t keep up with it daily.

All said and done, I still believe it’s essential to strike a healthy balance between the time I spend “communicating” online and the time I spend with loved ones in the real world. And yes, I remain conflicted about Facebook — and worried our culture’s obsession with social media. A recent article on Facebook in The Atlantic‘s “Culture Issue” articulates many of my concerns. How about you? How do you use Facebook?— Cindy La Ferle


Updating my address book

We have too little time to waste it in relationships that are not equal and mutually rewarding. Exchanging energy nourishes our souls.” 
— Sue Patton Theole in The Woman’s Book of Spirit

In addition to getting my mother adjusted to assisted living — still a challenge — I’m devoting the month of January to organizing clutter. For starters, I bought a portable day planner for keeping track of my mother’s insurance info and medical appointments, plus dozens of other notes to myself. 

The new planner now combines my personal data with my mother’s, all in one handy notebook that fits in my purse. While transferring names and numbers to the new pages, I remembered the following essay from my book, Writing Home. It was first published in a local column when I was a younger mom with a school-age child.

Address Book 

August 15, 1999; Reprinted from Writing Home.

Some things will always defy our control. Keeping a kid in the same shoe size for more than six months is one example; maintaining a neat, fully updated address book from one year to the next is another. Im talking about the old-fashioned (not electronic) address books that keep us in social contact — the dog-eared pages we’ve crammed with birthday reminders, letters to answer, and cards announcing new addresses for relocated loved ones.

My own address book is a bit confusing, even to my husband, but it does have a system. For example, one page might be scribbled with little arrows and codes referencing another section of the book (“Look under H/Hill”). This usually means that someone has remarried and changed her name, or that a cousin has left for college or moved to his own apartment.

No matter how badly it’s organized, my address book is irreplaceable, especially during emergencies. This hit me seven years ago after my father died. One of the first things my mother and I did was comb through our address books to locate former coworkers, distant cousins, and old friends who needed to be notified of Dad’s passing. Each name, each address, was a chapter in my father’s history.

Your own address book is probably a chronicle of your ever-evolving relationships — an autobiography in progress. And since relationships are inherently messy, it stands to reason that your address book is messy too. Flipping through mine recently, I made the following observations:

— Reflecting the national average, many of my friends are divorced or working on second marriages.

— Divorce often forces us to choose between friends who used to be a couple.

— Having kids makes a huge difference in our social circle, not to mention the restaurants we frequent.

— The more people we know and love, the harder it is to send birthday cards on time.

— As we age, the line between friends and family starts to blur.

Catching up on the phone last week, Margaret, my former college roommate, and I decided that our midlife definition of “old friends” covers people we’ve known and loved unconditionally for at least half of our lives. They’re the first ones we call when the biopsy results come back or our kids win the big tournament at school.

Thats not to say I undervalue the various gifts my newer friends bring to the table. Some are skilled counselors or tireless cheerleaders; others are better at listening than advice-giving. One brings comic relief to every party, while another is the perfect companion for a silent retreat at a monastery. All have expanded my outlook and enriched my life, and I look forward to our future together.

But Ive also found that while most of us change or evolve over time, our friendships don’t always change or evolve with us. One friend and I drifted so far apart in our interests that we might just as well have moved to opposite sides of the planet. Another disappeared without a trace after a heartrending divorce.

While every relationship has its low points, the stronger ones survive conflict as well as change of address. But I’ve learned it’s never healthy to cling to an alliance that has turned draining, one-sided, negligent, or destructive. As Emerson said, friendship should offer mutual “aid and comfort” through all of life’s passages. I think it should be fun, too.

A few people with whom I’ve lost touch or parted company are still listed in my address book. At one time, those relationships filled crucial gaps in my life and helped shape the person I am today. I still feel twinges of regret whenever I pause at the pages showing their names and numbers. And because there are a few good memories also attached to those names, I can’t quite bring myself to erase them. — Cindy La Ferle

Click here to read another column I wrote last spring on the benefits of maintaining healthy friendships.

Writing Home can be purchased at Amazon.com and is available at the Yellow Door Art Market in downtown Berkley, MI. —

You gotta have friends

It takes a long time to grow an old friend.”  ~John Leonard

All too often, we put our social lives on the back burner because we’re too busy with work or family obligations. Or because we think we have to pull out all the stops to entertain company.

Earlier this year, within a very short period of time, several of my oldest friends buried their beloved parents. With these losses fresh in mind, my friend Debbie (in the photo at left) and I made a pact to get together more often — and to keep it simple.

As the old Beatles song goes, we get by with a little help from our friends. But new research indicates that it goes much deeper than that: An emotionally supportive social network brings us several health benefits. This week’s column on Royal Oak Patch.com is a meditation on the tender topic of friendship. It includes some new resources to help you cultivate, nurture, or weed out your own garden of friends. Please click here to read it. — CL