We are powerfully bound to our friends, as their leaving painfully reminds us. Following too many departures, we may be inclined to pull back from further efforts to establish significant friendships.
But denying yourself the companionship and intimacy a friendship offers can be more debilitating to body, mind and spirit then their leave-taking. Our friends are our safety net, acting as a counter when feeling sad, rejected, enraged or crazed. In study after study medical researchers are finding that people who have friends they can turn to for advice and assistance, have lower risks of depression and addictions, and a greater capacity to cope with radical changes and reversals in their lives. Regardless of the hidden agendas that may shadow a friendship, it cannot compare to the complexity of expectations and emotional baggage that are part and parcel of pair-bonding relationships. While adjusting to the idiosyncratic needs, habits, foibles and differences of one’s partner requires steady work, accepting the differences in friends takes little, if any, work.
We need our friends to be simply our friends, not our partners, which frees us to be more our spontaneous selves with them. Friends can also provide emotional support and respect and so can help to reaffirm our self-worth.
But friendship can also be a drag, taking on pathological elements that are emotionally and sometimes physically draining. It may be prudent to terminate a friendship when friends become overly clinging or dependent on you for emotional well-being. Also draining are the friends who seem to get themselves into a never-ending series of crises from which you feel you must rescue them. For friendships to be fulfilling, they should make you feel better, not worse.
A friend is not a therapist. Few friendships can survive the openly honest, often intense and always client-focused work that is the very heart of therapy. Therapy works in part because, unlike friendship, it is not mutual. Within the safety and confidentiality of the therapist’s office, a client is free to explore and reveal their most private selves without risk of judgement or rejection.
When a person is feeling too depressed or overwhelmed or work stressed and challenged to respond with the reciprocity required of friendship, the therapy relationship exists explicitly to support them through their turmoil and assist them in unearthing the sources of their own resources, abilities and potentials.