Monday, May 18, 2009

Friendship Interruptus

It sound silly, but isn't as silly as it sounds. Friendship is sensitive, and it's those interruptions, past, present, and future, that can make it so ridiculously hard. A can't live with it, can't live without it thing.

But that's not the point of the hottest study at UCLA, which is worth talking about, if only for a minute, because I'd like to get back to that friendship interruptus thing. Gale Berkowitz's piece waxes poetic on friends (thanks J and others for the link). We get it, 100%, those of us who are female, about friends:
They shape who we are and who we are yet to be. They soothe our tumultuous inner world, fill the emotional gaps in our marriage, and help us remember who we really are.
They help us remember our past, shape our identities, fill in gaps in other relationships, and more. Laura Cousin Klein, PhD co-author of the study believes there is a biological reason that friends serve us well when we're under stress. Fight or flight, the old stress response paradigm, is a gross simplification.

Actually, cognitive therapists have known that since the fifties, but okay.

I'll paraphrase:
. . .when the hormone oxytocin is released as part of the female stress response, it buffers "fight or flight. Females don't run, and they don't fight, they turn to tending the children and socializing with other women, which in turn stimulates greater oxytocin production, which further counters stress by producing a calming effect.
So it's pretty important that we do what is natural to us, arrange chick flick night.

Or at least lunch. Or dinner. Guys, apparently, because they're guys, don't get this warm and fuzzy oxytocin high because they are guys and their testosterone mitigates its effect, anyway. Whereas estrogen, the hormone that makes females softer in so many ways, might enhance it.

It does seem that men relate less intimately to one another, although some of us would suggest that this is a response to internal homophobia. Whereas the female brain gets warm and fuzzy at the very thought of shmoozing with other female brains, guys get prickly.

Even guys can be intimate, however, we know that, and we see it quite a bit in cyberspace where it's safe and there's less fear of exposure, thanks to anonymity. Having that sixth degree of separation, male bloggers are just like female bloggers, and master whatever intimacy fears they might otherwise face in life stuck being guys.

The study could be interpreted as a biological proof, the one that some of us have been looking for, that women, as a group, are truly superior in fundamental ways. We certainly score better on social report cards.

Can't wait for the comments. I'm ducking.

But you know it's much better to cry with your girlfriends than to stuff your feelings or throw back the Jack with the guys! Well, some of us think so.

All this and Jeffrey Zaslow's story (WSJ, Sat-Sun) about the Ames Girls. Eleven (now 10) women from Iowa have remained close friends for over thirty years. And they didn't stay in Ames, Iowa, either. They kept the mojo working from afar.

I love so many things about this story, but mainly hate that I don't have this, a minyan* of close childhood friends. Mr. Zaslow finds it marvelous, too, that these "girls" stayed a cohesive social unit, for he spent a good deal of time with them to research his book. The book documents their friendship and may imply that the magic that keeps the Ames girls together has something to do with having no issue with the label girls. Whatever the secret, maybe it's a private school or a church thing, I haven't read the book, or all of the article to be absolutely honest here, whatever the reason, we're jealous.

Because it's true that the people we grow up with are the ones who remember. They remember our parents when our parents were young. They remember how we looked, how we behaved. They're the ones who suffered at our sides or yakked with us on the phone until daybreak when our teachers embarrassed us, or boyfriends dumped us, or our parents spleened us or screamed at one another, shaking the rafters. So having friends around ten, twenty, thirty years later is a blast to the past, every time you meet up. Old friends refresh the old pages.

Now really. Why don't all of us have a group of ten or eleven best friends?

Families on the move are partially to blame. The army brats whose parents have to pick up and move to serve Uncle Sam cart their kids from city to city, post to post. And those brats (how I hate that word) sometimes attend upwards seven to ten schools before they graduate high school. The government should find another way, seriously, to stop this slam dunk to socio-emotional health. Friendship interruptus is in the mental health equation, no question.

Poverty is, too. Parents one step ahead of the wolves tend to be on the move. Bye, bye, class of 2010. We're heading south where it's warmer, west where nobody knows our name.

And then there's normal adolescence, for so many of us. Those of us who suffer from being normal might behave in unorthodox ways as adolescents, one might even say anti-social ways. We get depressed and withdrawn, difficult to socialize with, but we also get curious. And when that happens we want to know what other people are like, want to befriend new kids, ditch the old.

Dropping old friends was an occupational hazard for some of us, not only as adolescents, but as younger children, too, and is thought to be part of the developmental growth process. It isn't smart to ditch people, but some of us do it anyway, can't cop to that girl scout motto, Make new friends, but keep the old; one is silver and the other gold.

And we know which ones are gold.

And when the new kids get boring there are others to replace them, there always are. So kids moves on, socially, don't always care or look back. Until ten, twenty, thirty years later they stop and say, Where did everybody go?

Moving from one peer group to another can be painful to the ones left in the dust. Teenagers, ten-year olds, don't have farewell lunches or termination discussions. They just drop each other. It's assumed if I don't call you that I don't like you anymore. It's painful and it's mean, but this is how kids are.

We have to watch this in the blogosphere because as our social circles grow, it is inevitable that bloggers will feel "dropped" when in fact there is no disrespect, no one is being dissed, it just happens, too many friends, not enough time to read one another's blogs and still write our own and occasionally wash the floor.

But we kind of know that our hearts are still in it, the social game, and we feel the love. We're not dropping anyone and the blogrolls roll on. But we're no Ames Eleven.

So much of this cut-off stuff is in the very fabric of our complicated realities, so much so that parents should warn children:

Life hurts, and it starts with friendship.

There are other reasons that groups of eleven are rare. To even establish such a group implies inclusiveness, the polar opposite of insulting exclusivity, and we need some social maturity, lots of it, and basic human kindness to keep adding members to clubs. Don't you kind of wonder, Who did the Ames Girls leave out?

Once I joined a choir and it was fabulous. We all so enjoyed it until, one day, a new singer joined us, and this person sang so loudly and so off-key that it was impossible to keep the choir going. We had to stop singing, the director had to make up a reason she couldn't work so that we could all save face. But that's social maturity, if not to the extreme, the nth degree.

Social maturity in friendship, keeping friends, having friends, is hard to muster up if you grow up in a family that is incredibly dysfunctional, chock full of neglect and/or violence. It's more likely that you'll be shy and insecure, that you'll develop some bad habits, too. Some of us become aggressive, like our parents, or jealous, insensitive, dependent, avoidant. These are casualties of having lived in emotional chaos.

And we don't want to invite anybody home, let alone eleven others.

In this position it's pretty obvious why having friends feel like a stretch. Friendship requires trust, more than a little risk. The skittish among us don't have that. So we don't have the friends to lose, let alone drop. And those of us who learn to be aggressive sometimes garner aggressive friends. And when we outgrow the tough skin, when we want out of the gang, well, there goes the Top Eleven.

Which brings us to another top-notch way to kill friendship. Get sober. An addict who loses the desire to hang around with people making love to their bottle of beer, will lose them, the beer drinkers. There might have been a history of years of drinking and smoking, shooting and sniffing and BAM! a person decides this isn't the healthiest way to live and off to a Twelve Step meeting he goes and never looks back.

Well, maybe not never.

And don't tell me they weren't good people, the people making love to the bottle of beer or the stick or whatever. Just because people have an addiction doesn't mean they have no feelings, have to be thrown away. I know it feels that way at the time, and surely they threaten sobriety and the whole nasty episode has to happen. But then they're gone, and for all we know, maybe they're sober, too. And you can't repair a relationship just because you say I'm sorry. (check out for more on getting sober and making new pals in the process)

I just hate cut-offs, is all.

Do we have to keep going? Do we have to talk about the fact that as soon as women get engaged they gradually begin to dump their single friends? Or when they have their first baby, or first set of babies, they don't even know where they left their phones, let alone remember your phone number? Or how when they get sick and who doesn't, in one way or another, or depressed, they get introverted and hide, and sometimes, don't you hate this, some people have the audacity to die, to abandon everyone, not just us, to suicide, no disrespect to those who are no longer living. They got sick or were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Or went off to war.

So what I'm saying here is that we're drawn to stories about the Ames Girls, and to Sex in the City, and Friends, and the women on Desperate Housewives, I should say some of us are, because these female clusters have figured it out, how to make and how to keep friends, and we know, at least those of us who are female, how fan blanking tastic it is to have them.

I'm sure there's already a Hallmark holiday in the making to honor friendship. But for those who have lost them, the feeling is going to be bad, just like it is on Mother's Day, because of that oxytocin deficit, and half the time, seriously, nobody's saying goodbye


*minyan rhymes with gin-gone is a quorum of 10 Jewish men.


Wait. What? said...

Great topic to cover - so much of my life has me wondering why i could not hang on to friends, but I was the one on the move replacing them when things got too serious, ahh the things we learn while growing up that we had no intention of learning

therapydoc said...

Another good reason for staying alive. Thanks Cat.

Anonymous said...

Wow! My childhood has left me avoidant. Outside of my husband and dogs I'm basically a hermit on the edge of the desert. It took me a while to figure out why I felt so different; its because I am.
I have a friend who I try to keep in touch with and its so hard. Her husband has labeled me her "lesbian" friend and taunts her with it. He's taught her children to not give her my messages when I call or email, so its hard to communicate. I recently found out her adult son tells her off and calls her a lesbian. Somehow I thought her children wouldn't be as narrow minded and petty as their father.
It really hurts. I find myself hurting over this and wanting vindication from this label that's not me or her but a way to attack us for caring for each other and being friends.
I also recognize this is what my stepfather hinted at to my mother when I was 9, in a sick twisted way to manipulate me into agreeing to his inappropriate touching.
I wish I could get into therapy.

therapydoc said...

Oh, I've heard the lesbian thing again and again. So pathetic, right? Thanks for writing, Anon.

blognut said...

I love each and every one of my girlfriends and I have some of the best ones out there.

As I get older, I find that I am a better friend back to them, and I love them even more than I did before. I see less of them, but we're always able to pick right up where we last left off, and it feels like we were never apart.

Of course, texting, email, and all of the other ways we communicate make it a lot easier to stay in touch, too.

positively present said...

What a great post on friendship (both the good and the bad aspects of it). I really enjoyed reading this and absolutely related to a lot of points you made here. Friendships can be difficult at times but they are truly wonderful things to have in our lives.

Glimmer said...

Despite moving hundreds of miles away, I have been lucky to keep my own group of Ames girls. My best friend and I celebrated our jubilee -- 50 years. We were not always in sync, spent several years not in touch. But were able to forgive each other and fall back into the old rhythms as though the ruptures had not occurred.

Now, we make sure to make the time for each other despite objections and demands from others, it is that important. Because that is when the fallouts happen and sometimes can't be mended -- when one or both feel they do not matter. Yes, family is first, but as we have seen in this column time and time again thank God it is not all!

Scraps said...

Sigh...this post hits home in so many ways. I've had lots of ups and downs with friendships, often being on the "dropped" end of things. It hurts. A lot.

But then, not having friends at all hurts, too. Whether it is by choice or not, it hurts. It's painful to be shut out, but it's also painful to cut oneself off from the possibility of friendships and love. It's a catch-22 - if you put yourself out there, make friends, become close to people, you also are putting yourself in a more vulnerable position, because the people you care the most about are the people with the greatest ability to hurt you. It's as you said - can't live with them, can't live without them.


therapydoc said...

Exactly, which is why a lot of us don't even call ourselves family therapists, we're systems therapists, try to intervene wherever, with whomever we can.

And thanks in advance to all of you who comment, if I don't get back to you. It's a crazy week.

April_optimist said...

Good post. It's a huge issue, I suspect, for those of us whose parents didn't know how to have friends. We had no model for how to do it successfully. Add to that rules that one couldn't invite friends in or go inside their houses and then top it all off with abuse and it really gets complicated.

Takes a concerted effort to learn the skills necessary to have friends AND to believe one can have friends at all.

As I said, good post.

Lou said...

I'm the army brat. Moved every 2-3 years. Graduated from high school in Germany, 13 kids in my senior class. It was very easy to leave people behind after awhile, to re invent yourself, to take up with a new group and start over.

On the other hand I learned resilience, independence, and a broad world view free of prejudice.

Now when my husband and I talk of moving, I cannot imagine leaving friends I have known for all of 15 years..the longest I have ever been in one place!

Pam said...

After getting out of a marriage that was so dysfunctional I was afraid to make friends because it would mean I'd have to explain myself and my situation too much, I finally decided to put an emphasis on finding more female friends. (I usually tend to have guy friends.)
I'm a knitter and found and joined a local group of knitters on about 18 months ago. We range in age from early 20s to 60s (or more? I'm in the middle of that range.) Making time in my week to go sit, knit, chat and have a coffee is one of the best things I think I do for myself. It is so low stress and so much fun.
Sometimes my partner gets a little jealous because he wishes he had a group of friends like that, but maybe guys really don't socialize like that.
Anyway, I'm thrilled to read studies and research that back up what I already knew anyway-- it's not just fun to have friends; it's important.

therapydoc said...

Thanks, Lou, for the new and so much better spin on moving around as a kid.

And PAM, wow. As soon as I heard about MeetUp I fell in love with the concept and recommend it all the time.

Like knitting? There's a group.
Boxing? A group.
Movies? A group.
Hip hop? A group.
Halibut? Probably a group.

Jackie said...

My mom has her own little Ames-girl-esque group of five women (now almost 60) who have been friends since kindergarten.

For me, mobility has been a huge obstacle to friendships. Boarding school, summer camp, college, 2 semesters abroad (in different places), parents moving, new state after college, grad school, new state after grad school, working in a different town than I live... so this is a list of privilege, right? Wonderful privileges... I have friends all around the world. And yet, it is the antithesis of being able to maintain deep, abiding, LOCAL friendships.

therapydoc said...

JJ, I once had a good friend who told me she had sold the house and was leaving town (this was pre-internet).

I said, Nice knowin' ya'.

She was so hurt. In my heart I felt like, how can I possibly keep up this relationship? I basically don't talk to anyone during the week, I see this person on my day off. It's not likely I'll pick up the phone.

And I was used to cut-offs, it's something you start to take for granted.

The irony is that we're still close, we do email and call. But you wouldn't have convinced me of that at the time, and I had to lie (at the time) and say, Not to worry, we'll still stay close.

Thanks for the "privilege" perspective. That'll teach 'em to judge.

Tanya said...

Face. Book.

Yes, the site is like crack. But it's great for finding old friends as well.

I'm just saying....

shaya g said...

"that women, as a group, are truly superior in fundamental ways"

what comments are you afraid of? My wife and mom have been saying this for years. then I just go into my den and turn on a very loud action movie and prove them right......

therapydoc said...

Well of course, Shaya, you're Jewish, and have been hypnotized since birth, but not everyone has been exposed to this way of thinking.

Don't the kids fight for the remote?

Anonymous said...

This post is really relevant to my life right now, thanks for posting it! I grew up in a pretty dysfunctional family, it still is today, which is why I could never fully trust anyone or invite them home, as you suggest happens...but about this article, is it just me or does it reinforce stereotypes of female bonding? I also think it's natural that people often outgrow each other...or maybe this is own justifications coming into the equation. Great post nonetheless!

therapydoc said...

Z, thanks.

That the majority of women really want and have these close relationships and maintain them outside of the family is anyone's guess.

We know that within the family there can be extremely close, loving, healing relationships between mothers and daughters, sisters and sisters, and fathers and daughters, brothers and sisters, too.

Do we want friends?

Who knows?

Anyone out there seen any data?

shaya g said...

MY DEN - MY REMOTE. in the basement, the kids can fight over the remote.

i do though lose to my wife when she wants the computer, or to watch stupid summer olympics gymnastics...arggghhh

Marie said...

Hi, therapydoc -

What a great post . . . this week has been a "reconnect with old friends" week for me. Not on purpose, it just happened. But I treasure my closest friends -- and they are women, of course.

When things got choppy with my therapist (I was wondering if it was me or him who was whacked in the head), I was able to turn to my female friends. They spoke the truth to me (it's you, girlfriend, not him) and got me straightened out. What a blessing.

Then, when I got my stuff cleaned up and it became about his stuff, my girlfriends ragged on him, on my behalf. Cool.

Anyway, I've been blessed with a very best friend from college . . . 23+ years she has been my sister-in-love. If ever I needed to define a "soulmate", it would be her. Really cool.

- Marie (Coming Out of the Trees)

Meansomething said...

Eleven seems like a lot. Two, three, four makes more sense to me. But I enjoyed the article.

Have you read Ann Patchett's essay "Friendship Envy" from the NYTimes a few years back? Easy to find with Google. It's about watching "Sex and the City" and the idea that the central fantasy of the show is not about sex, but about having lots and lots of time to spend with friends.

therapydoc said...

Thanks Marie, Mean.

No, I haven't read that, but I loved Belle Canto, her book about the opera. I'll try to get the article. Makes sense to me!

Lisa said...

I make it a habit to keep those connections I had with friends in middle school, high school, even pre-school! (Going out with our neighbors from the age of 0-5 next weekend even) I think it is important to remind you the foundation of trust and relationships that you came from, as well as those blasts from the past. You learn to be a different kind of friend with those people.. through the teenage angst, now to getting married and having babies. It's an awesome transition to make!

Rachie317 said...


Sorry, it took me a couple days to actually respond to this post! But I've had it 'saved' on Google Reader so that I would remember to do it!

I moved around quite a bit as a kid and never had long term friendships until college. 10+ years later, I don't know how I'd do it without the fabulous women in my life! It was so ironic when I read this because I'd just been having a conversation with a friend who is struggling in a new relationship with a guy. She keeps trying to 'talk' to him and I keep tell her - HE'S A GUY! That's why you have GIRLfriends!

Also, I struggled with depression for years and the isolation was both a cause and effect of it. The day I started really healing was the day I called all my best friends and told them exactly what I was going through. I was sure they wouldn't understand and walk away - not a single one did.


therapydoc said...

No, they love us when we're nuts. As long as we're not TOO nuts. Just saying, in my case.

porcini66 said...

Imagine losing touch with someone you love. They leave the country, you stay in touch for awhile and then slowly, life picks up speed and you each fill the void with the business of living. Time passes and you realize one day that "gee, I haven't talked to her in a very long time. I wonder how she is doing?". Trying to call, you realize you have lost the number. Probably moved by now anyway. It's okay, I'll look later. Later never comes. Once again, life ramps up speed and you get distracted by the day to day. Last night, I found her husband on facebook. He had just opened an account, so I messaged him. What drew me to look for them there? What made me do a search there of all places? Why last night?

He praises the health care system overseas and then he says, "She's been fighting so hard. I think we are nearing the end now." Shit. Just SHIT.

And that, my friends, is selfish and self-centered behavior for you. Get busy living or get busy dying. She was a dear friend and I will miss her.

therapydoc said...

Before I read the rest I was going to comment, It's a lot like me filing someone away as an "old" patient. As soon as I do, that person calls me. It happens randomly, but always spooks me.

This one for sure spooked you, Porccini.

porcini66 said...

It did. I knew she had cancer, and I knew she was sick, but when I last talked to her, she was still strong and vibrant. I am so very sad for her kids and for her husband and for myself. She is a wonderful person and we shared so many "over the back fence" conversations. We shared a lot of laughs. And I will never see her again - she is too sick now. All because I was too self absorbed to pick up the phone or skype her. Clicking on your blog made me realize that this is a HUGE character defect of mine, this propensity for friendship interruptus. Time to do something about it. Before I lose someone else.

Syd said...

Great post about keeping and losing friends. I am still in contact with a friend from grammar school. He was my college room mate as well. I've not kept in touch with many people but those in graduate school are still the ones that I can count on. I've lost a good friend because it was awkward with my wife being alcoholic. I got involved with Al-Anon and my wife with AA. It took time and the friendship foundered. I know that I can count on my Al-Anon group members. My sponsor is there for me whenever I need to talk. I think that recovery has broadened friendship and given it new meaning. I now appreciate the people in my life so much more.

Glimmer said...

I know we're nearing the saturation point with this. But I just wanted to add that one problem with having Ames-style friends is you don't try as hard with new people.

Maybe you (okay I) don't learn to be all that diplomatic and keep blurting out the blunt thing everyone is thinking, even in jest. And the cost is a new intimate who would enrich life. And that person misses out on a friend who would take a bullet for her and her children (figuratively at least). Loss on both sides.

therapydoc said...

There's no way we've reached saturation. And that's a great point.

Actually, I just taught qualitative methods, and I'm thinking, let's flesh this one out to the max.

In other words, anyone with a thought PLEASE chime in. Maybe we could publish something here. Do our own little qualitative study.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic post. I'm a single young woman going through rough patch with my now-married and pregnant college friends. Due to their new responsibilities, they hardly call or email me to ask about my life.

As a single woman, I find female friendships essential to my mental health. Friendships keep me grounded and allow me to exercise trust, honesty, emotional intimacy.

Although I've moved 6 times in 8 years due to career opportunities, I find it is my grammar-school friends who are more likely to make time for me---maybe it's because we're all from the same neighborhood block, cultural background, parents knew each other. These 2 girls are the ones who in spite of life demands, will always know my *true* self.

I feel better knowing sometimes friendships are like the ebb-and-flow of ocean currents. Ultimately though, it's still up to an individual to recognize the value of friendships.

therapydoc said...

I really admire people who hang onto their friends post-marriage (just after) because it's natural to dive into the first years of marriage with all of one's emotional energy. I haven't read anything about this, but it seems to me to be something like symbiosis with a newborn.

That's why I encourage the friends left behind to be patient, seek out some new ones, and knock on the door occasionally.

Married people can be more sensitive, too. Our spouses can and should encourage relationships with old friends. The gold, as we say.

Glimmer said...

To anon: I was absolutely overwhelmed and lost as a new mother, for a long time. I lost several friends because of it, they did not have children and could not understand what I was going through. They personalized my response to them, or my lack of reaching out.

But several friends I had lost, or thought I had, returned to me. These were the mothers. No words about what had happened were exchanged. These mother-friends simply knew. Like you said, they gently came back to me on some kind of ocean current of understanding, love and support. I would not have made it without them. It was the most profound gift of my life.

As for the husbands: No. 1 had no real friends, he depended on me for everything. I was too young to see that as a problem before we married. No. 2 (the Iowan) had good friends from babyhood! Like me. This was one of the things I understood as being absolutely necessary in a mate, no compromises. I had to learn this the hard way.