We are told to work at our romantic relationships, that if we keep those intact, we will reach the pinnacle of happiness. Love takes thought and attention, marriage requires maintenance. But what about our friendships?
Dr Marisa Franco, a psycho-therapist who specializes in the science of friendship, says that in a world where marriage and romantic partnership is seen as the ultimate aim, friendship can fall by the wayside, and leave us all worse off.
“Our society can be really diminishing of the depth a friendship can have,” she tells the.
Recently, and particularly since lockdown, Dr Franco, whose book Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make – and Keep – Friends is published later this year, has noticed more clients coming to her wanting to repair or improve a friendship.
In a recent YouGov poll, one in five Britons said that they had become distanced from close friends because of the pandemic. Now that the restrictions have ended, there seems to be some reckoning going on.
“People are realizing that one romantic partner cannot fulfill them entirely,” says Dr Franco.
“This has been noticeable even more in the pandemic if you are living with that person, so people have been more open to prioritizing friendships and giving them more attention.
“When we put more importance on romantic relationships we devalue friendships, and are less likely to spend time with those friends or show them we care.”
Dr Franco says: “If you have more friends, that makes your romantic relationship better, and when people go through difficult times they’re often better able to cope if they have stronger friendships around them, romantic partner or not.”
The power of friendship became particularly clear to writer Elizabeth Day several years ago.
“It struck me at that point that they were the biggest, most consistent love of my life,” she says. She dedicated her fourth novel of hers, The Partyto those friends.
“I wrote that book in the aftermath of a divorce and whereas romantic relationships had let me down, my real friends never had. They had always accepted me, even when, at my lowest ebb, I hadn’t accepted myself. “
Day, who married again in 2021, is so interested in friendship that she started a podcast with her best friend, psychotherapist, Emma Reed Turrell, called Best Friend Therapywhich launches on Monday 28 March.
“All relationships require clear communication in order to last, but for some reason friendship gets overlooked,” says Day.
“We’re all used to the idea of ’working’ on a romantic relationship, or a parent-child relationship and we have normalized the concept of seeking outside help when needed in those scenarios. But there’s a sense around modern friendships that they should just come ‘naturally’ in order to be worthwhile. “
There is, however, a rise in people going to therapy with their friend – essentially couples therapy but for platonic relationships. In 2020, Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman wrote the book Big Friendshipwhich detailed that they’d been to therapy together after a rough patch, and that the therapist said she had seen other friends whose communication had broken down in some way.
Reed Turrell says: “In my experience as a therapist, issues in friendship are often about the issues we might have carried forward from our families, so even if the friendship does not continue as a result of therapeutic conversations, there will be some valuable lessons to learn. “
In Dr Franco’s work, she has found that “a relationship is a relationship, so what makes romantic relationships succeed is what makes family or friendship relationships succeed”.
Accessing therapy for friendship issues is not a realistic or appealing option for many, but given that couples counseling is increasingly common and destigmatized, it follows that there are friends who sought counseling together. Therapy or no therapy, it’s clear that friendships might go through difficult patches, just like a romantic relationship can, but that doesn’t mean that this friendship isn’t valuable or worth some effort.
“Find ways to show your friends they matter to you, you value them,” says Dr Franco.
“People can take friendships for granted, and one of the biggest reasons friendships end are because people feel lack of reciprocity. The feeling of ‘I’m there for you but you’re not going out of your way for me, in the same way.’ Ultimately, friendships need to be maintained. “
One of the many reasons why friends sometimes drift apart is someone’s feverish focus on a new romantic relationship, whereby they let their friendships languish.
“If you try with a friend but you don’t feel they are giving much back, it’s up to them to go through their own process,” says Dr Franco.
“People don’t always realize that when they’re out of that initial romantic phase, or a relationship ends, that they may look around and say what happened to everybody in my life?”
Most strong friendships will be salveable when this happens, but if someone isn’t giving you anything back for a prolonged period, don’t work harder.
“I recommend being friends with people who want to be friends with you,” says Dr Franco.
“We deserve relationships with mutual love. However, we may want to take a longer view and see that friendships can ebb and flow. Having a long-term vision can make you still feel close to that person if you’re not seeing them as much. ”
This is something that Day has come to understand more in recent years.
“The older I get, the more I appreciate that friends can be friends for a phase in your life and that just because a friendship goes silent or gets more distant doesn’t mean it’s a failure,” she says.
“It simply means you have loved each other when you needed to, at the time you both needed it and it’s OK for that time to pass. There are different kinds of friends too – lifelong ones; seasonal ones; friendships of convenience that you forge through work or NCT classes. It’s OK to approach them all slightly differently. “
Just as we may feel more aligned with certain friends at certain times of life, there may be moments we feel envious, or jealous, of our friends too. Dr Franco says that those feelings are natural, and do not reflect on the friendship so much as the pressures and tensions that life can bring.
She says: “It’s tricky because it’s normal to feel jealous, especially if your friend gets something you want… But I’d also remind that we don’t feel one feeling, we feel multiple feelings at the same time, so jealousy doesn ‘ t mean you’re not happy for your friends. It can actually be helpful to even express that you feel both and say something like, ‘Oh my God, part of me is so jealous but also excited for you’. Then you’re not having to fabricate some pure excitement for your friend that isn’t there. “
Friendships come in all kinds of shapes and sizes, and those relationships will mean different things to everyone. It’s evident that over the course of our lives our friendships may not always be smooth sailing, but the ones we really care about are worth tending to when the chance arises.
“We need to give ourselves permission to grow as people and allow our friends to do the same,” adds Reed Turrell. “The greatest friendship joy for me has come from taking the risk to show up as myself with friends, and finding that the people who matter had already accepted me unconditionally.”
How to tend to your friends
The good news is that friends tend to be less demanding of our time than relatives, partners or bosses, so tending to our friendships can take up a lot less time than other demands. According to Dr Marisa Franco, research shows that it is beneficial to “date” your friends sometimes, as you would a partner. “Celebrate your friend as someone important to you in whatever way you can,” she advises.
Schedule friend dates. Just as you might line up a romantic night out or a business meeting. It can be something as simple as a quick coffee or a drink after work, it doesn’t need to be something that interferes with your other life commitments too much.
Take a friend out for a drink or meal, or cook for them. You might do it for a romantic partner, so do it for your friend. Sharing food together, whether out or at your place, can strengthen connections and make your friend feel cared for.
Travel with your friendswhether it’s a day trip or something more involved.
Chat to your friend for a few minutes, if that’s all you’ve got. Don’t avoid friends because you can’t devote hours to them. A few moments on the phone or in person can be deceptively powerful in keeping a friendship going.
Start a tradition with your friend. Whether it’s an annual trip to a restaurant you both like, or a film night at one of your homes. It doesn’t matter what it is, but make it something just for you both to enjoy together. It’s a great way to sustain a friendship.
Share a song, article or picture with a friend. Friendship doesn’t have to be about great big dramatic gestures, and just sending something over text or email you think they might like in the middle of a busy working week can help them know you’re thinking of them and keep you close.