The Value of Friendship

We all need friends apart from and in addition to our intimate relationships.

Posted Mar 23, 2013

“When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand.”

Henri Nouwen

Before my mother passed away eleven years ago, I spent every weekend with her up at her home in Connecticut, about a half-an-hour from my apartment in a suburb of New York. I went up early Saturday morning and left after dinner Sunday evening. We would typically go to her office (she owned her own computer software development company) for a half-day Saturday morning where I would read while she would work and then we would go to lunch. The rest of the weekend was spent doing girly, mother-and-daughter stuff like shopping, manicures, movies and just spending time together. She was my best friend and I was hers.

Sometimes her boyfriend joined us but my mother’s and his relationship was complicated by the fact that he was married. He also worked on Saturday — he owned a retail business ─ and often spent Sundays with his wife and children.

I thought this was an ideal arrangement; during the week I was occupied with a day program and then avoided being alone by staying with my mother on the weekends. It didn’t occur to me that I had virtually no friends. At my graduation party when I got my master’s in social work, most of the guest were professionals — people I had paid at some point in my life to listen to me complain about how badly everything was going. My current therapist was there, along with my mentor who also the director of a prior day program. My counselor from my old halfway house was in attendance and my one good friend.

I saw nothing amiss — until I entered therapy with Dr. Adena.* She was the one that pointed out how spending every weekend with my mother had kept me from making friends my own age, and now that she was gone I was spending every weekend alone in my apartment. Dr. Adena was the one who pointed out that nearly all the guests at my graduation party had been paid professionals and didn’t that strike me as sad?

I try to impart to my patients how important it is to have a social life and good friends that they can count on. Even if they are in a relationship, many of my patients are dependent on their partner and have built their life around that person. If the relationship breaks down, even becomes abusive, they are afraid to leave because then they will be alone.

I tell my patients that they can feel alone and lonely in a relationship and that is an illuminating thought; something that has never occurred to them. But that is exactly how many of them feel and it as though by verbalizing it, I have given them permission to acknowledge these feelings.

The next step is to encourage my patients to begin to make new friends and the expected response is “how?” I tell them that they have to put themselves out there and that no one is going to come knocking at their door. We identify several interests then try to find an activity that matches an interest. If it is reading, perhaps a book club and/or going to a reading at a bookstore.

We might role play how to initiate a conversation and sustain one. “It’s difficult,” I tell them “and be prepared for rejection but don’t take it personally. Just move on.” The patients verbalize how frightening is will be to make this change in their lifestyle and be among strangers and I normalize that. “Many people have anxiety about walking into a room full of strangers and starting conversations,” I say. “It’s really a universal fear.”

Some of my patients go on to reach out and meet a few people that they do eventually build a friendship with. They then they tell me how much the relationship means to them. Unfortunately, others remain paralyzed by their fear and are still isolated.

My brother threw me a beautiful 50th birthday party at a lovely restaurant overlooking a river. About 20 of my closest friends and family came to help me celebrate and I was overwhelmed by the love in that room. It was almost eleven years after my graduation party and not one professional was in attendance.

*Names have been changed.

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