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.

12 thoughts on “Why friendship matters

  1. 21 kinds of toxic friends?? One is too many! Good friends are hard to find and when we do, we need to work to keep our friendships alive and loving.
    I agree that friends are necessary to good health. “A burden shared is a burden halved.” It has helped me so much just to know that friends are praying for me when I need help and it’s an honor to pray for them.

  2. Jan, yes — 21 of ’em! If you click on the top book link in the post, it will take you to the author’s Web site, where you’ll note a section that lists all 21 toxic friend “types,” from “The Competitor” to the “Abuser” and more. I suspect these problem-friends are more common when we’re much younger and willing to tolerate a lot more crap from people. 🙂 As we reach midlife, I think we end up with the friends we want and deserve.

  3. I agree that friends are essential to our well-being. I don’t agree that they have to be face-to-face friends. I am not lucky enough to have my friends living within regular visiting distance. Friends I have made in person are now scattered about the country, so phone calls, cards, emails, Facebook, and blog comments are how we stay in touch during the months or years between visits. There are women I’ve met through blogging who are good friends who keep in touch regularly ~ we have as much in common and I look forward to catching up as much with them as I do with in-person friends. I don’t think the AARP research is not taking into account the number of people in 2013 who have computer skills and benefit greatly from social media.

  4. Good points, Sharon … but I am just reporting what I read from the stats from the various studies 🙂 Some of the studies were done by others, in addition to AARP, who reported them. I will try to remember to repost the link for the findings. And I should add — any kind of social connection is wonderful. But I do notice that I get a special lift after having lunch with a friend — a lift that I cannot compare to anything else.

  5. Yikes! I know people in all 21 categories. I may even have some of these traits myself 🙁
    We do learn to weed out the toxic friends, but it’s a whole lot harder when we’re related to them. I guess that’s a topic for another book.

  6. This was so very nice to read – and not an intimidating way to look at friendships. Sometimes, articles that focus on friendship almost veer into unrealistic expectations. But this is sane, reasonable and well-thought. Nice!!

  7. This was a very insightful post. I have been reading Women I Want to Grow Old With, and it really has made me feel like I still have so much to learn about maintaining friendships. So I supplement my reading with posts such as these and it has really helped me. I definately recommend womeniwanttogrowoldwith.com as we always need to remember to keep friends for life, we have to evolve and learn to grow with them everyday! Thanks for this post!

  8. Tania — Thank you so much for the link to Women I Want to Grow Old With … I am not familiar with the book or the site, but will definitely check it out. Thanks for joining the conversation here, and Happy Valentine’s Day!

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