The Friendship Doctor

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5 Ways to Improve Your Friendships in 2010

As you begin the New Year, take stock of your friendships~

Whether it's the occasion of a birthday or an anniversary, or the passing of another year or of another decade, it's human nature to periodically take stock of things. Turning the page on the calendar means looking back and looking forward, which often brings into bold relief those aspects of our lives where we think we've fallen short and want to do better. Most people (and resolutions) focus on health, finances, family and career---but our friendships also warrant some thought and close examination.

Here are 5 suggested ways to go about it:

1) Take stock of your inventory and rid yourself of any excess

No one relishes having a cluttered closet or overstuffed chest of drawers filled with so much "stuff" that they don't know what they have or can't access what they need. It can be as daunting as facing an empty closet or one with clothes that don't fit. Similarly, having too many friends (even good ones) or too many questionable friendships (Think: frenemies) can be a distraction that weighs someone down.

So, to start, I would suggest that you spend some time this week, perhaps a half-hour, assessing which of your friendships are true ones and decide to make them a priority. It might even help to make a list on paper. Because time is so finite, the trick to living a good life is skillfully balancing your family, career, friendships and private time so that it meets your own goals and desires. Consign the less rewarding friendships to a top shelf in your virtual closet where you don't often go and keep the treasured ones in view where they can be enjoyed and nurtured.

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2) Examine whether you've been spending your time and energy with emotional vampires

Do you have a roster of toxic friends or frenemies in your life? (Caution: Having just one of them may be too much.) Do you have close relationships that are filled with ambivalence and hostility and that seem to drain your energy and leave you feeling stressed? Do some of your relationships feel one-sided and simply take too much work? Is your friend judgmental or competitive, by nature?

While most research on friendship and health focuses on the positive relationship between the two, some relationships are simply too stressful to be rewarding. One study (see reference below) suggests that the stress of unpredictable, ambivalent, love-hate relationships can lead to elevations in blood pressure. According to the researchers, a relationship with a friend who is "unreliable, competitive, critical or frustrating" would fall into this category .

In her final column in the Washington Post, columnist Ellen Goodman wrote about the importance of "letting go," reiterating thoughts she had written some 30 years earlier: "There's a trick to the Graceful Exit. It begins with the vision to recognize when a job, a life stage, a relationship is over -- and to let go. It means leaving what's over without denying its validity or its past importance in our lives...It involves a sense of future, a belief that every exit line is an entry, that we are moving on rather than out."

Are you only hanging on to one or more friendships only because of your reluctance to let go of a shared history? Perhaps, you need to let go.

3) After you look carefully at your friendships, entertain the possibility that even with the friends you have, you may be lonely

Like our lives, friendships are dynamic and change over time. The friend you made in high school, the mom-friend you made when your children played together, or the woman you shared an office with may have little in common with you now. Each time we grow or make situational changes in our lives, it impinges upon our friendships. That's why we need to be open to making friends at every age and stage of our lives-whether at work, at school, or in your neighborhood.

It's easiest to form friendships with people with whom who have something in common. If you don't come into contact with many people (perhaps you're a new mother, in middle-age sandwiched between caregiving responsibilities, or have just moved to a new town where you don't know anyone), create opportunities to meet friends by pursuing your own interests (creative, athletic, political, spiritual). Join a gym, a book club, or a meetup group.

4) Make sure you have at least one "best friend"

It's far easier to acquire hundreds of Facebook "friends" and scores of Twitter followers than it is to develop a sense of intimacy and caring with a far more limited number of people that you would consider "best friends." Each of us needs at least one close friend with whom we feel open and trusting enough to bare our true selves; more than one is even better. These intimate relationships help affirm whom we are and whom we want to become.

Initially, two people "click" and feel comfortable together but a close friendship builds over time. There are no guarantees that these relationships will last forever but the risk of them withering away increases greatly if they aren't nurtured with time and caring.

5) Resolve to be a better friend to others

Do you give as much as you ask for? We may feel so comfortable with our closest friends that we take them for granted. Or we may be so set in our ways that we aren't sensitive to them.

I've been blogging about female friendships on The Friendship Blog for almost three years and have written nearly three hundred posts during that time. The most widely read post was written in February 2009 on the topic of "needy friends." Readers said they resonated to that post because they either felt that their friends demanded more than they were able to give or else that they, themselves, recognized that they were needy people who alienated others.

So perhaps a reminder is in order that in order: To have a best friend you have to be one. People need to be attuned to their friends' needs and give as much as they get. Although the balance shifts from day to day or from year to year, overall, a relationship needs to be reciprocal to have staying power.


Best wishes for the New Year! May it be filled with precious friendships that bring you health and happiness!

 

Reference:

Holt-Lunstad, J., Uchino, B. N., Smith, T. W. & Hicks, A. (2007). On the importance of relationship quality: The impact of ambivalence in friendships on cardiovascular functioning. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 33, 1-12.

Irene S. Levine, Ph.D., is a psychologist and professor of psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine. Her latest book is Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup With Your Best Friend.

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