How to be a good friend

You can’t stay in your corner of the forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.” — A. A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh

friendsWhile writing an article on friendship last year, I found several terrific resources on the topic. Among them: Shasta Nelson‘s new book, Friendships Don’t Just Happen: The Guide to Creating Meaningful Circles of Girlfriends.

A former pastor, Nelson was a life coach who often found herself helping clients form new friendships when they moved to new cities or entered new life stages. Drawing from that experience, she launched GirlFriendCircles.com, a popular friendship match site for women.

As Nelson reminds us in Friendships Don’t Just Happen, many women have fantasies of what “ideal” friendship looks like. In television shows like Sex and the City and Desperate Housewives, she explains, “friendship is always highlighted as the one relationship that is constant through life’s ups and downs.”

But real-life friends sometimes fall short of Hollywood role models. Real-life friends might criticize or compete, push boundaries, neglect to reciprocate or support, never initiate plans, show up late, or forget to send birthday cards. In other words, real-life friends are human and they will disappoint us.

Not to worry. Nelson’s book provides a map for creating healthy, mutually satisfying friendship circles — and encourages us to ask ourselves what we’re seeking (or expecting) from individual friends.

DSCN0152“Knowing that most friendships aren’t forever invites us to forgive ourselves for those relationships that didn’t live up to the fairy tale,” Nelson writes. It also helps to understand — and value — the various roles that different friends play in our lives. Listing five categories of friendship, from casual friends to committed friends, Nelson explains how each category enhances our well-being.

Nelson’s book encourages us to ask ourselves what we’re seeking or expecting from our friends.”

According to sociologists, most people re-evaluate their friendships every seven years. (Yes, there’s even a seven-year itch for friendship.) Citing examples from her own research, Nelson also explains why some friendships take a nosedive or don’t even get off the ground.

Understandably, introverts can get stuck when it comes to transforming acquaintances into comfortable friendships. But the whole process of making new friendships while maintaining old ones is a challenge for all of us — especially if we lack free time for social activities beyond work and family.

“Time together is the primary ingredient for forging friendships,” Nelson told me in an online interview. “Unless your time together is automatic — meaning you’re both paid to show up at the same job or both attend the same church — there is no other way to foster a friendship without someone initiating that time together. Growing a friendship requires initiation. A lot of it. Repeatedly. And it doesn’t need to be 50/50 with two people taking turns! If you want a friendship then you should be ready to reach out and invite several times.”

We live in a world where relationships shift. Sometimes, through no fault of our own, we will have to rebuild community around us. — Shasta Nelson

0-4Last year was a turbulent, pivotal year for me, starting with my mother’s recurring trips to the ER and culminating in her permanent move to a nursing home. More than ever, I needed to make an effort to have some fun — even in the midst of my family’s medical drama. I needed time with friends.

As much as I appreciate my writers’ groups and book clubs, I still found myself craving conversation that wasn’t about writing, career goals, or the novels I’ve read. I wanted some old-fashioned girl talk; the nurturing energy of women. So I followed one of Nelson’s suggestions and made a mental list of new and old friends with whom I’d been meaning to reconnect, then contacted each with a social plan. It did me a world of good.

Last month, for instance, two of my neighbors and I met for a holiday kick-off dinner. (One had just moved in last year, but we rarely glimpsed each other across the street.) Over a bottle of wine at a local restaurant, the three of us spent several hours getting to know each other better. We had such a nice evening, in fact, that we’re talking about starting a monthly dinner club, perhaps including other neighbors too.

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Friendship sustains, validates, comforts, and supports us through life’s challenges. Writing for U.S. News & World Report, Tom Sightings reported that relationships with friends bring “longer lasting feelings of happiness” than entertainment or educational activities. “Yet paradoxically, the number of friends you have on Facebook or any social network has no bearing on how happy you are,” Sightings wrote.

Other experts claim that having close friendships can decrease our risk of cancer and other health crises. Shasta Nelson even suggests that friendship can change the world, and I believe she’s right.

If you’re ready to build healthy friendships in 2014, treat yourself to a copy of Nelson’s book. You’ll be rewarded with more than you bargained for.

Here’s to a wonderful new year of friendship for all of us!

Photos and original artwork copyright Cindy La Ferle

 

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.