Thoughts / love

The purpose of friendship

In the previous post, we looked at the joys and benefits of friendships. It can be one of the high points of our existence.

Yet, in reality it can sometimes be routinely disappointing. We might be at dinner at someone’s house. The host has evidently gone to a lot of trouble, with an impressive spread of food and drink. But the conversation might be meandering. Devoid of any real interest. Maybe the discussion flits from an over-long description of the failings of a local restaurant to a strangely heated discussion about crypto currency (again). We might go home, incredibly touched by the intentions and efforts of the host, but we may still wonder what the whole performance was about.

Let’s consider if we didn’t engage in such performances. What might happen if we avoided human contact?

Alone in an unchanging environment, the sensory information available to us, and the ways in which we process it, can change in unpredictable ways. For example, we normally spend most of our time attending to and processing external stimuli from the physical world around us. However, monotonous stimulation from our surroundings may cause us to turn our attention inward, which most of us have much less experience handling all that well.

No, or limited, human contact can lead to a profoundly altered state of consciousness. We may begin to question what’s going on in our surroundings: Is that creaking sound upstairs just your old house pushing back against the wind, or something more sinister? This ambivalence leaves us frozen in place and wallowing in unease—especially if we’re alone. When we’re uncertain, the first thing we usually do is to look to the reactions of others to figure out what is going on. Without others with whom to share information and reactions, ambiguity becomes very hard to resolve. When this happens, our mind can quickly race to the darkest possible conclusions.

Unpleasant things can also happen when small groups of people experience isolation together. Much of what we know about this phenomenon has been gathered from observing the experiences of volunteers at research stations in Antarctica, especially during the “wintering-over” period. Antarctica's extreme temperatures, long periods of darkness, alien landscapes, and severely reduced sensory input create a perfect natural laboratory for studying the effects of isolation and confinement. Volunteers in these studies experience changes in appetite and sleep patterns. Some stop being able to accurately track the passage of time and lose the ability to concentrate. The boredom that results from being around the same people, with limited sources of entertainment, causes a lot of stress—and everyone else’s mannerisms become a grating, annoying, and inescapable source of torment.

What does this say about the way we’re wired? It’s clear that meaningful connection to other people is as essential to our health as the air we breathe. Given that prolonged periods of social isolation can crack even the hardiest of individuals, it’s probably best we continue to engage in our performances with our friends.

It's been proposed that one of the issues with friendship is that these relationships lack a sense of purpose. Our attempts at friendship tend to go adrift, because we collectively resist the task of developing a clear picture of what friendship is really for. The problem is that we are unfairly uncomfortable with the idea of friendship having any declared purpose, because we associate purpose with the least attractive and most cynical motives. Yet purpose doesn’t have to ruin friendship and in fact, the more we define what a friendship might be for, the more we can focus in on what we should be doing with every person in our lives – or indeed the more we can helpfully conclude that we shouldn’t be with them at all.

It's been suggested that there are at least five things we might be trying to do with the people we meet:

  1. Networking. Before you sigh a collective sigh, consider this, we are all pretty small, fragile creatures in a vast world. Our individual capacities are entirely insufficient to realise the demands of our imaginations. So, of course, we need collaborators: accomplices who can align their abilities and energies with ours.
  2. Reassurance. The human condition can be full of terror. At times we can be on the verge of disgrace, danger and disappointment. And yet such are the rules of polite conduct that we are permanently in danger of imagining that we are the only ones to be as crazy as we know we are. We badly need friends because, with the people we know only superficially, there are few confessions of regret, rage and confusion. The reassuring friend gives us access to a very necessary and accurate sense of their own humiliations and follies; an insight with which we can begin to judge ourselves and our sad and compulsive sides more compassionately.
  3. Fun. Despite talk of hedonism and immediate gratification, life gives us constant lessons in the need to be serious. We have to guard our dignity, avoid looking like a fool and pass as a mature adult. The pressure becomes onerous, and in the end even dangerous. That is why we constantly need access to people we can trust enough to be silly with them. They might most of the time be training to be a neurosurgeon or advising middle sized companies about their tax liabilities but when we are together, we can be therapeutically daft. We can put on accents, dance our hearts out or share our weird fantasies. The fun friend solves the problem of shame around important but unprestigious sides of ourselves.
  4. Clarifying our Minds. To a surprising degree, it can be pretty hard to think on our own. The mind is a bit skittish and squeamish. As a result, many issues lie confused within us. We feel angry but are not sure why. Something is wrong with our job but we can’t pin it down. The thinking friend holds us to the task. They ask gentle but probing questions which act as a mirror that assists us with the task of knowing ourselves.
  5. Holding on to the past. A number of friends have little to do with who we are now, but we keep seeing them. Perhaps we knew them from school or university, or we once spent a very significant holiday with them twenty years ago or we became friendly when our children were at kindergarten together. They embody a past version of ourselves from which we’re now distant and yet remain loyal. They help us to understand where we have come from and what once mattered. They may not be totally relevant to whom we are today, but not all of our identity is ever contemporary, as our continued commitment to them attests.

Even Aristotle attempted to figure out the purpose of these social relationships we keep. He postulated that there were three types of friendship:

1. A friendship of utility: Similar to networking, where we derive a relationship based on the benefit we receive from each other. We may share certain interests, hobbies or work.
2. A friendship of pleasure: Normally built between young people and based on our pleasures and passions. We might be seeking something that is pleasant to us presently, and as a result these friendships can be fleeting and easily change.
3. A friendship of goodness: The pinnacle of the friendship chain. When we only wish the best for each other. We love each other for who we are. And I'd agree with Aristotle, that as humans, it may be near impossible for us to maintain a really large number of these friendships. 

If we’re a bit more precise about what we’re trying to do with our social lives, we can bring a greater awareness and understanding to the process of friendship. Bringing more meaning and celebration to the experiences that both enrich our lives and keep us emotionally healthy.

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Understanding love

Happy (belated) Love Day my friends!

Phew! I am exhausted. After a full month of blogging all things relationships, I’m a little drained. And a little confused. And I don’t know if I’m all that much wiser on this thing called love. Are you?

We looked at intimate couple love and fighting and breaking up and being single. And we explored love as requiring components of acceptance and compassion and communication and reality.

But it very much feels like there are some glaringly obvious holes. And I’d like to acknowledge (some of) these. As a single, white, childless, heterosexual woman who has never been married (or divorced), my personal experiences are somewhat limited when it comes to relationships. So my inspiration for the content may have been a little vanilla, or lacking in diversity. Despite this, I believe that everyone deserves to be able to love and be loved. In the respectful relationship of their choosing.

As an example, I never mentioned LGBTIQ relationships. So I’ll quickly mention one thought I have on these relationships now. According to law in Australia marriage is the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life. I think this law is ridiculous. This being said, I believe that the choice to marry should be available to all of us regardless of the sex of our partner. I believe all members of the LGBTIQ community should have the same opportunities to celebrate their relationship and be afforded the same respect, love and recognition from their community as that of their heterosexual counterparts. And I look forward to a time that the law reflects these beliefs that we are all a bit more equal in a more socially just society.

I also didn’t discuss the complexity of domestic and family violence. Because it’s so hard and complex and tragic. And it would have taken me months and months.

So, instead we barely scratched the surface of love and relationships over the past month. And it’s all pretty confusing, but I recently came upon this beautiful definition that might just help us a bit more.

“love is understanding”

For the more religious of us out there, this definition comes from a medieval thinker Thomas Aquinas who was trying to define what Jesus was getting at, when rather than be shocked by particular people around him, he continually embraced them (E.g., apparently in Matthew, chapter 8 Jesus is approached by a man with leprosy. He’s in a disgusting state. But Jesus isn’t shocked, reaches out his hand and touches the man. Despite the horrendous appearance, here is someone (in Jesus’s eyes) entirely deserving of closeness and kindness. In a similar vein, at other times, Jesus conspicuously argues that tax collectors, prostitutes, thieves and adulterers are never to be thought of as outside the circle of love).

In this way of talking about love: if we truly understand love, we could possibly love anyone. In other words: love isn’t specific in its target. It is open to everyone. All of humanity, even (and in a way especially) its less appealing examples.

And we do this often. Express our love as understanding. For some of us, we commonly do this with our extended families. If I had a dollar for every person who upon disclosure of me being a psychologist replied “Oh, you should come work with my family”, I would not be renting anymore. And it is the same in my own family. We’re all highly functioning and get along very well. But things are a little bit weird round the edges. But it’s only because we really, really know the intricacies of our families and what’s gone before for decades and decades that help us to understand. But despite all of this, we still love. We understand and we love.

Working in a therapeutic role assists greatly with this level of understanding. As therapists we get to ask heaps of questions and listen. And as you hear the stories of a human developing, whether it be through a story of childhood trauma or an unexpected incident, we can begin to understand why a person might be behaving in a particular way. A person is not a ‘sex offender’ or a ‘drug user’, but another human with needs and imperfections.

We’re all flawed. It’s part of the human condition. But we’re social creatures and I reckon that means that part of our job as humans is to love. Not the romantic head over heels love with one person only. The effortful love. The love that takes work to see beyond the outwardly unappealing surface of another human – in search of the tender, interesting, scared and vulnerable person inside. Our minds tend fiercely to resist such a move. For instance: if someone has hurt us we naturally want to see them as horrible. The thought they might themselves be hurting themselves feels very weird. If unpleasant events happen in someone’s life – if they keep on losing their job or acquire a habit of drinking too much– we’re tempted to hold them responsible for everything that happens to them. It takes a deliberate effort to move the mind to understanding. But the more energy we put into looking at love through understanding, the more we might be able to love more people than we initially thought.

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Being our own BFF

Let's do a very quick experiment. Grab a pen and some paper. Go on, this will be good fun!

Firstly, quick as you can, without too much conscious thought, list all of your most favourite things about your bestest friend.

Easy? Got a massive list of amazing qualities? Excellent!

Now, with that pen and paper, list your most favourite things about yourself. Quickly. Off you go.

How was that? A little bit harder? Was your list a little bit more difficult to cultivate than that of your besties? A bit slower to get off the ground? Maybe your BFF’s qualities look a little longer than your own when written down on paper by you?

It’s interesting isn’t it? In general, we are way nicer to our friends than we are to our self. We humans can be much, much better at being able to love the people around us than we are at loving ourselves. To improve our relationship with our self it might be worthwhile to consider the practice of ‘self-compassion’.

At its core self-compassion is about treating ourselves kindly. Extending towards our self the same kindness and sympathy that we might extend to a good friend.

Over the past decade self-compassion has gained popularity as a related and complementary construct to mindfulness, and research on self-compassion is growing at an exponential rate. Dr Kristen Neff a pioneer in the self-compassion field has explained:

Self-compassion involves acting the same way towards yourself when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself. Instead of just ignoring your pain with a “stiff upper lip” mentality, you stop to tell yourself “this is really difficult right now,” how can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?

Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings – after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect?

In essence, compassion for our self is similar to the compassion we feel for our loved ones. When we feel compassion for others, we feel kindness toward them, empathy, and a desire to help reduce their suffering. It’s the same when we are compassionate toward our self. Self-compassion creates a caring space within us that is free of judgment—a place that sees our hurt and failures and softens to allow those experiences with kindness and caring.

To explain it a bit more, it might help to outline what self-compassion isn’t.

Self-Compassion is not self-pity.

When we humans feel self-pity, we can become totally immersed in our own problems and forget that others have similar problems.  We can ignore interconnections with others, and instead feel that we are the only ones in the world who are suffering. Self-pity tends to emphasize egocentric feelings of separation from others and exaggerate the extent of personal suffering. Self-compassion, on the other hand, allows us to see the related experiences of self and other without these feelings of isolation and disconnection.

Self-Compassion is not self-indulgence.

Self-compassion is also very different from self-indulgence. This took me a while to understand and some other (struggling) perfectionists may also have difficulty with this one. I was initially reluctant to be self-compassionate because I was afraid that without my inner self-criticism I would let myself get away with just about anything and everything would fall to shit. This, however, is self-indulgence rather than self-compassion.  Being compassionate to oneself means that we want to be happy and healthy in the long term. In many cases, just giving oneself pleasure may harm well-being (such as taking drugs, over-eating, being a couch potato), while giving yourself health and lasting happiness often involves a certain amount of displeasure (such as quitting smoking, dieting, exercising).  We are often very hard on ourselves when we notice something we want to change because we think we can shame themselves into action – the self-flagellation approach.  However, this approach often backfires if we can’t face difficult truths about our self because we are so afraid of hating our self if we do.  Thus, weaknesses may remain unacknowledged in an unconscious attempt to avoid self-censure. In contrast, the care intrinsic to compassion provides a powerful motivating force for growth and change, while also providing the safety needed to see the self clearly without fear of self-condemnation.

Self-Compassion is not self-esteem.

This is a really important one. Although self-compassion may seem similar to self-esteem, they are different in many ways.  Self-esteem refers to our sense of self-worth, perceived value, or how much we like ourselves. While there is little doubt that low self-esteem is problematic and often leads to depression and lack of motivation, trying to have higher self-esteem can also be problematic.  In modern Western culture, self-esteem is often based on how much we are different from others, how much we stand out or are special. Accordingly, it is not okay to be average, we have to feel above average to feel good about ourselves. Unfortunately this can mean that some attempts to raise self-esteem may result in narcissistic, self-absorbed behavior, or lead us to put others down in order to feel better about ourselves. We might get angry and aggressive towards those who have said or done anything that potentially makes us feel bad about ourselves. The need for high self-esteem may encourage us to ignore, distort or hide personal shortcomings so that we can’t see ourselves clearly and accurately. Finally, our self-esteem is often contingent on our latest success or failure, meaning that our self-esteem fluctuates depending on ever-changing circumstances.

In contrast to self-esteem, self-compassion is not based on self-evaluations. People feel compassion for themselves because all human beings deserve compassion and understanding, not because they possess some particular set of traits (pretty, smart, talented, and so on). This means that with self-compassion, you don’t have to feel better than others to feel good about yourself. Self-compassion also allows for greater self-clarity, because personal failings can be acknowledged with kindness and do not need to be hidden. Moreover, self-compassion isn’t dependent on external circumstances, it’s always available – especially when you fall flat on your face! 

But the two do go together. If you’re self-compassionate, you’ll tend to have higher self-esteem than if you’re endlessly self-critical. And like high self-esteem, self-compassion is associated with significantly less anxiety and depression, as well as more happiness, optimism, and positive emotions. However, self-compassion offers clear advantages over self-esteem when things go wrong, or when our egos are threatened. Research indicates that in comparison to self-esteem, self-compassion is associated with greater emotional resilience, more accurate self-concepts, more caring relationship behavior, as well as less narcissism and reactive anger.

The bottom line is that according to the science, self-compassion does in fact appear to offer the same advantages as high self-esteem, but with less discernible downsides.

So, how do we focus on cultivating a compassionate and kind relationship with our self? Well according to Dr Neff, self-compassion entails three components and in order to be truly self-compassionate we combine each of the three essential elements.

1. Self-kindness

Self-kindness is being gentle and understanding with ourselves rather than harshly critically and judgmental. Self-compassion entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism.  Self-compassionate people recognise that being imperfect, failing, and experiencing life difficulties is inevitable, so they tend to be gentle with themselves when confronted with painful experiences rather than getting angry when life falls short of set ideals. People cannot always be or get exactly what they want. When this reality is denied or fought against suffering increases in the form of stress, frustration and self-criticism.  When this reality is accepted with sympathy and kindness, greater emotional equanimity is experienced.

The best way to think about being kind to yourself is to think about a friend. Go ahead. Do it now. Visualise your best friend. Again. Now imagine they come to you and say they are hurting because they were passed over for that promotion at work that they’ve wanted for so long. Would you say to them, “Well, it’s probably because you didn’t work hard enough. And you’re too weak. You should have spoken up about wanting a promotion a long time ago.” What? You wouldn’t say that to a friend? Would you say it to yourself? It’s more likely that you would hug your friend and say, “Oh no! That’s terrible. I know how long you’ve been hoping to get that promotion. Come on, let’s go get some coffee and talk about it?” You can be kind to yourself in this way, too. Treat yourself as you would treat a friend who is suffering. Just as you would hug your friend, soothe yourself as well. Put your hands over your heart or locate the spot in your body where your hurt is hiding and gently place both hands there. Speak kindly to yourself. Call yourself by an endearing name. “Oh, honey. I’m hurting because I wanted that promotion so badly. This is a really hard place to be in right now.”

2. Common humanity

This is my favourite bit. Self-compassion requires recognition of our common humanity, feeling connected with others in the experience of life rather than feeling isolated and alienated by our suffering.

Frustration at not having things exactly as we want is often accompanied by an irrational but pervasive sense of isolation – as if “I” were the only person suffering or making mistakes.  But we all suffer. All the humans suffer. Turns out the very definition of being “human” means that one is mortal, vulnerable and imperfect. And yes, that’s shit, but with self-compassion we recognise that suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience – something that we all go through rather than being something that happens to “me” alone.

Many times when we criticise or judge our self, we can feel very, very isolated. It can seem as if we’re the only person in the entire universe with this problem or flaw. And yet, we are all imperfect. We all suffer. And so we are all connected by our shared humanity.

One of the wonderful outcomes of self-compassion is our enhanced sense of belonging, the feeling that we are all in this together.

The next time you are looking in the mirror and not liking what you see, remember that you are an integral part of a flawed, wonderful, wounded, miraculous human tribe.

3. Be mindful

Third, it requires mindfulness—that we hold our experience in balanced awareness, rather than ignoring our pain or exaggerating it.

Self-compassion also requires taking a balanced approach to our negative emotions so that feelings are neither suppressed nor exaggerated. Mindfulness is a non-judgmental, receptive mind state in which one observes thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them. We cannot ignore our pain and feel compassion for it at the same time.  At the same time, mindfulness requires that we not be “over-identified” with thoughts and feelings, so that we are caught up and swept away by negative reactivity.

How will you know that you are suffering if you are repressing your pain, rationalizing it, or busy with problem-solving?

We can allow awareness of our pain to enter in. Being mindful is about noticing what is happening in the moment and having no judgment about it. Notice our hurt and just be with it, compassionately and with kindness. And note that trying to make pain go away with self-compassion is just another way to repress pain and hurt. Self-compassion is about being with your suffering in a kind, loving way, not about making suffering disappear.

Taken together, the research suggests that self-compassion provides an island of calm, a refuge from the stormy seas of endless positive and negative self-judgment, so that we can finally stop asking, “Am I as good as they are? Am I good enough?” By tapping into our inner wellsprings of kindness, acknowledging the shared nature of our imperfect human condition, we can start to feel more secure, accepted, and alive. – Kristen Neff

It does take work to break the self-criticising habits of a lifetime, but at the end of the day self-compassion is just asking us to be friendlier to our self. Asking us to relax, allow things to be and love our self with a little more kindness.  

For more good stuff on self-compassion, check out the website of one of the lovely ladies I completed my psych training with here. Dr Brooke is a self-compassion guru and she's got an awesome #bemyownbestie Insta campaign going to keep your practice on track!

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In sickness and in (mental) health

Over the previous 8 blog posts, it’s been pretty clearly established that relationships are not the easiest of things to manage. They generate a bit of work for us. But overall, having people in our lives is pretty worthwhile. (I cannot believe I’ve just summarised all those words into 3 piddly sentences).

In a very similar vein, when we love someone who is experiencing a mental illness it can be bloody hard work. Bloody hard. But probably worth it in the end.

I’m a bit loathe to write this post because there are plenty of articles floating around titled “how to love someone with a mental illness” or even “why you should love someone with a mental illness.” And it makes me cringe up a bit. For a number of reasons:

  • It perpetuates the “us versus them” mentality. People who experience a mental illness may have specific medical and psychological symptoms they have to deal with, but that doesn’t mean they’re something other than human. Would you love some with diabetes differently? Or need advice on how to love someone with athlete’s foot?
  • Doesn’t’ everyone have their own shit to deal with? Experiencing the symptoms of a mental illness may require certain lifestyle adjustments and more care at specific instances, but so do other things in life. Like when we take on way too much stuff at work. Or when the kids are really sick. Or when we change jobs. Lose our job. Are struggling financially. Lose someone in the family etc etc. Dare I say we all need specific care at certain instances in our lives, mental illness or not.
  • Even if there are unique ways in which people who have mental illnesses need love and care, that’s largely on an individual basis. We all have specific needs at certain times in our lives. These needs have to be communicated with the people around us — our friends, family, significant other, colleagues, etc. Because articles with “tips” about how to care about someone who has a mental illness may not be what every individual person needs nor wants. The person with the mental illness is responsible for knowing what they need to stay well and being able to communicate that.
  • Stigma is usually why these kinds of articles exist. I wouldn’t have to write about this if social stigma didn’t exist because then we would realise that we don’t need to try to love someone who is perceived as different in one way or another. We would simply love people because we are humans and we should care about each other's welfare.

Having noted all of that though, sometimes when we love someone who is experiencing active symptoms of a mental illness there’s particular things that are a real struggle for us. We might be worried we are not saying the “right” thing. We could be constantly concerned for their safety. We can be frustrated that they’re not improving. Or that they’re not seeking treatment. Or that they can’t see that there are any problems with their health at all.

All of these struggles though come from a place of love. If we didn’t feel these things about the person close to us, then we wouldn’t feel so strongly about them. And here’s a really, really, really important thing when someone is experiencing a mental illness, love is really, really, really important.

In the book A General Theory of Love (2001), a trio of psychiatry professors, Lewis, Amini and Lannon, describe love as an interaction of neurotransmitters and hormones in our body:

“Our nervous systems are not separate or self-contained; beginning in earliest childhood, the areas of our brain identified as the limbic system (hippocampus, amygdala, anterior thalamic nuclei, and limbic cortex) is affected by those closest to us (limbic resonance) and synchronizes with them (limbic regulation) in a way that has profound implications for personality and lifelong emotional health.”

Interestingly, we can actually see evidence of these connections when we explore research in this area related to stress management, depression, anxiety.

The ability to adequately cope with stress, is one of the protective factors against mental illness. British psychiatrist John Bowlby, known for his seminal work in the area of developmental science, defined attachment as a “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.” In Attachment (1969), Bowlby showed us the crucial importance of the secure relationship on the development of adaptiveness and coping capacity. And throughout our lifetime, this remains true.

‘Allostatic load’, a psychological term coined in the 1980s, represents the physiological consequences of chronic exposure to stress. Positive social experiences and higher levels of social integration and support are associated with lower allostatic load in both young and older cohorts. From childhood until old age, being connected to others in secure and loving relationships helps us better deal with stress.

Currently depression and anxiety disorders are the most common psychiatric conditions that are experienced in the Western world. And social isolation is clearly linked to higher rates of depression and anxiety. According to a Health and Human Services report, getting married and staying married reduces depression in both men and women. And research in the areas of physical health has shown that high levels of social support may actually improve prognosis in such conditions as cancer and myocardial infarctions by reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression that can often be associated with these illnesses.

And when people seek treatment for depression it will often focus on interpersonal relationships as a way to improve depression as is the case in attachment therapy in children and interpersonal therapy in adults. In addition, Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), which focuses on transforming relationships into ones that feels safe, secure and connected, have also been found to be effective in significantly reducing the symptoms of depression and anxiety. Ultimately, encouraging our people with a mental illness to be involved in loving and stable supportive relationships can potentially help in their recovery.

Though there are times when people need to “take a step back” from someone experiencing active symptoms of their illness, this generalises to any situation where one simply needs to create boundaries with another person in order to maintain one’s wellness.

Mahatma Ghandi once wrote, “Where there is love there is life.” Loving and stable relationships can help to improve a person's ability to manage stress and can help to decrease anxiety and depression. We are all social creatures, whether we experience mental illness or not.

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You've got to have friends

In the hierarchy of relationships, friendships are usually somewhere toward the bottom. Romantic partners, parents, children—all of these tend to come first.

This is true in life, and in science, where relationship research tends to focus on couples and families.

But our friendships are pretty unique relationships because unlike family relationships or working relationships, we choose to enter into these networks. And unlike other voluntary bonds, like marriages and romantic relationships, they lack a formal structure. You wouldn’t go months or even a year or two, without speaking to or seeing your significant other (hopefully), but you might go that long without contacting a friend.

Despite all of this, the smart people doing all the research and the surveys that all the peoples continue to do repeatedly show us just how important our friends are to our health and our emotional wellbeing.

The reality is the people who have close friendships appear to be happier.

In 2002, two pioneers of Positive Psychology, Ed Diener and Martin Seligman, conducted a study at the University of Illinois on the 10% of students with the highest scores recorded on a survey of personal happiness. They found that the most salient characteristics shared by students who were very happy and showed the fewest signs of depression were "their strong ties to friends and family and commitment to spending time with them." 

But I was a University student once. And I reckon I was probably in that top 10%. My friends were without doubt my priority. I was very committed to them. And the shared experiences/regular binge drinking excursions with them. More so than anything else. My part-time job at Donut King. University. My liver.

As we get older though, we tend to have more demands on our time. Many of them more pressing than friendship. After all, it’s easier to put off catching up with a friend than it is to skip your kid’s recorder recital or an important business trip. Or in my case the other day, writing a grant application for work. The ideal of our expectations for friendship is always in tension with the reality of their lives.

William Rollins, Professor of Interpersonal Communication at Ohio University has studied friendship for decades.

“The real bittersweet aspect is young adulthood begins with all this time for friendship, and friendship just having this exuberant, profound importance for figuring out who you are and what’s next,” Rawlins says. “And you find at the end of young adulthood, now you don’t have time for the very people who helped you make all these decisions.”

The time is poured, largely, into jobs and families. Not all of us couple up or have kids, but we’re all likely to have friendships affected by others’ couplings.  “The largest drop-off in friends in the life course occurs when people get married,” Rawlins says. “And that’s kind of ironic, because at the [wedding], people invite both of their sets of friends, so it’s kind of this last wonderful and dramatic gathering of both people’s friends, but then it drops off. You find at the end of young adulthood, now you don’t have time for the very people who helped you make all these life decisions.”

In a set of interviews he did in 1994 with middle-aged Americans about their friendships, Rawlins wrote that, “an almost tangible irony permeated these adults' discussions of close or ‘real’ friendship.” They defined friendship as “being there” for each other, but reported that they rarely had time to spend with their most valued friends, whether because of circumstances, or through the age-old problem of good intentions and bad follow-through: “Friends who lived within striking distance of each other found that… scheduling opportunities to spend or share some time together was essential,” Rawlins writes. “Several mentioned, however, that these occasions often were talked about more than they were accomplished.”

But if you plot busyness across the life course, it makes a parabola.  So for those of us who might be in this peak period of busyness now and our friendships may be at the bottom of the pile, we might have a bit more time later on. Once people retire and their kids have grown up, there seems to be more time for the shared living kind of friendship again. People tend to reconnect with old friends they’ve lost touch with. And it seems more urgent to spend time with them—according to socioemotional selectivity theory, toward the end of life, people begin prioritizing experiences that will make them happiest in the moment, including spending time with close friends and family.

But when there’s so many benefits to cultivating loving and meaningful relationships who wants to wait til then? Not I.

Like romantic relationships, sustaining and nurturing true friendships in the present requires time and effort. But the reality is that it’s well worth it, because having good friends can:

  • Improve your mood. Spending time with happy and positive friends can elevate your mood and boost your outlook.
  • Help you to reach your goals. Whether you're trying to get fit, give up smoking, or otherwise improve your life, encouragement from a friend can really boost your willpower and increase your chances of success.
  • Reduce your stress and depression. Having an active social life can bolster your immune system and help reduce isolation, a major contributing factor for depression.
  • Support you through tough times. Even if it's just having someone to share your problems with, friends can help you cope with serious illness, the loss of a job or loved one, the breakup of a relationship, or any other challenges in life.
  • Support you as you age. As you age, retirement, illness, and the death of loved ones can often leave you isolated. Having people you can turn to for company and support can provide purpose as you age and be a buffer against depression, disability, hardship and loss.
  • Boost your self-worth. Friendship is a two-way street, and the "give" side of the give-and-take contributes to your own sense of self-worth. Being there for your friends makes you feel needed and adds purpose to your life.

And just because you’ve been friends with someone since you were both in nappies, doesn’t mean they will be there forever either. Whether we hold onto these old friends or grow apart seems to come down to dedication and communication. In a longitudinal study of best friends, the number of months that friends reported being close in 1983 predicted whether they were still close in 2002, suggesting that the more you’ve invested in a friendship already, the more likely you are to keep it going. Other research has found that people need to feel like they are getting as much out of the friendship as they are putting in, and that that equity can predict a friendship’s continued success.

Technology has indeed shifted the definition of friendship, but the research vividly points out that our most important and powerful connections happen when we’re face-to-face. There is significant evidence that talking to people face-to-face, even via Skype, is much more satisfying than text, email and Facebook. This in itself isn’t surprising – as humans we respond to visual cues that can never be replaced by emoticons. So make it a priority to stay in touch in the real world, not just online.

Relationships are one of the biggest sources of happiness in our lives. Yes, we get busy and it’s so very easy to get caught up in our responsibilities and other relationships, but losing touch with the people we have chosen in our lives can be one of the most common end-of-life regrets. Let’s make an effort to stay connected and nurture our relationships. Because lovers may come and go, work may carry us half way around the world, but friendship tends to be a point of stability in an otherwise rapidly changing world.

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The 'satisfyingly normal' relationship

The decision whether we should stay in our intimate couple relationships or leave them is one of the most consequential and painful any of us ever has to make. On any given day, many millions of us could well be secretly turning the issue over in our minds as we go about our daily lives, with our partners beside us possibly having little clue as to the momentous decision weighing upon us.

This choice is perhaps more common now than it ever was. We expect to be deeply happy in love and therefore spend a good deal of time wondering whether our relationships are essentially “normal” in their sexual and psychological frustrations – or are beset by unusually pathological patterns which should impel us to get out as soon as we can.

Back in the day, it was probably way easier because there was probably way less choice and we probably weren’t really able to leave. Religions would insist that God blessed unions and He (or She) would be furious at them being torn apart. Society strongly disapproved of break-ups and cast separating parties into decades of shame and ostracism. And psychologists would explain that children would be deeply and permanently scarred by any termination in their parents’ relationship. But one by one, these objections to quitting have fallen away. Religions no longer terrify us into staying, society doesn’t care and psychologists routinely tell us that children would prefer a broken family to an unhappy one. The burden of choice therefore now falls squarely upon us.

Luckily for you my friends, I may be able to assist you with your questions about how “normal” your relationship actually is. For I have compiled some of the recent evidence and knowledge about long-term relationship satisfaction. I know, I really am good to you. I’ve even provided references.

  • When we first enter a committed couple relationship we generally report high initial relationship satisfaction (Glenn, 1998; Markman, Stanley & Blumberg, 2001; Lavner & Bradbury, 2010) and hope (and expect) that the relationship will be life-long (Millward, 1990).
  • Over time, relationships change. On average, people report lower levels of satisfaction and higher levels of negativity. This could be due, in part, to partners habituating to their relationship. For example, after the first ten years of marriage relationship satisfaction declines substantially (Holman, 2001).
  • When couples have a child, they experience the transition to parenthood. This brings many changes to their relationship, including more traditional gender role patterns of chore division, and even steeper declines in satisfaction (particularly if the pregnancy was a surprise). However, the presence of children is related to lower rates of divorce.
  • When children leave home, partners experience another transition. For some, satisfaction increases when this happens. However, for those who are relatively dissatisfied, the likelihood of divorce increases when their children leave home.
  • Increasingly, people are cohabiting. Cohabitation may be seen as a precursor to marriage, as an alternative to marriage, or it may be seen as completely separate from marriage. There is a large degree of variability in terms of how cohabitaters view cohabitation. The data on cohabiting couple relationships is much more limited than for married couples, but suggest that the rates of relationship problems and breakdown are substantially higher for cohabitating couples than for married couples (McDonald, 1995; Weston & Qu, 2007). People who cohabit before marriage also tend to have higher rates of divorce.
  • A substantial proportion of couples endure relationship distress before ending their marriage (Glenn, 1998; Holman, 2001). Although couples endure a lot of negative experiences before divorce, divorce is also related to negative outcomes. These include higher levels of depression, financial problems, and physical problems.
  • The divorce rate for first marriages is currently about 36% in Australia, with 2.3 divorces per 1000 residents in 2007 (ABS, 2013) and it is expected that divorce rates will continue to rise in the future (ABS, 2010). As painful as the experience of divorce is for many people, about 75% of divorced men and 66% of divorced women remarry within 3 years (Hahlweg, Baucom, Grawe-Gerber, & Snyder, 2010).  Unfortunately, the divorce rate in second marriages is even higher than in first marriages (Heatherington & Elmore, 2004). 
  • After divorce, people continue to value marriage. Most people who have divorced report a desire to marry again. However, second marriages are more likely than first marriages to end in divorce (Hahlweg, Baucom, Grawe-Gerber, & Snyder, 2010).
  • Marital experience is related to quality of life in old age. The more times people are married, the lower level of financial well-being they tend to have (Heatherington & Elmore, 2004).   Controlling for number of marriages, people who have spent more of their lives married tend to be healthier.

Did that clear it all up? In case you weren’t aware before, it really looks as if there’s not really such a thing as a “normal” and “satisfying” enduring relationship. This thing we call intimacy, is a dynamic thing. It flows and changes. We like our partner a lot and then less so. Our relationship meets our needs and then it doesn’t and then it does again. If we’re all so dissatisfied in couple relationships why do we stick it out? 

Most experts agree that a happy relationship affords us numerous benefits (Halford & Markman, 1997; Waite & Gallagher, 2000; Weston & Qu, 2007).  Being in a healthy, mutually satisfying relationship is a potent predictor of positive health and well-being for adult spouses and their children (Amato, 2000; Proulx, Helms, & Buehler, 2007).  Partners in satisfying relationships have been found to live longer (Ross, Mirowsky, & Goldsteen, 1990), report fewer health problems (Waite & Gallagher, 2000) and use health services substantially less, at around 25% lower costs per person (Prigerson, Maciejewski, & Rosenheck, 2000) than people in distressed relationships.  Stable marriages are associated with financial prosperity (Waite & Gallagher, 2000) and a low likelihood of needing government support (Thomas & Sawhill, 2005).  Furthermore, children who are raised by their own parent in the same home are advantaged on dimensions such as psychological adjustment and school attainment (Amato, 2000).

Conversely, marital distress is a generic risk factor for a variety of child and adult mental health problems (Bambling, 2007).  Relationship distress is strongly associated with lower levels of health, well being and finances in the spouses.  In a US national survey, the most frequently cited causes of acute emotional distress were relationship problems including separation and couple distress (Swindle, Heller, Pescosolido, & Kikuzama, 2000).  Relationship distress is positively associated with poor work performance, particularly for men in their first 10 years of marriage (Forthofer, Markman, Cox, Stanley, & Kessler, 1996); and in a study of clients seeking assistance with work-related concerns from employee assistance programs, two-thirds reported family problems as “considerable” or “severe” (Shumway, Wampler, Dersch, & Arredondo, 2004).

Relationship distress is also linked with the onset, course and poorer response to the treatment of individual adult psychiatric disorders.  Using data from over 2500 married participants of the National Comorbidity Survey, Whisman (2007) reported that marital distress was correlated with the 1-month prevalence rates of 12 specific psychiatric disorders.  In comparison to non-distressed individual patients, maritally distressed individuals are up to three times more likely to have a psychological disorder, including depression, alcohol abuse and anxiety disorders.

The reality of it is though that this is all the stuff of averages. Every relationship is unique. And every unique relationship will probably have periods of satisfaction and dissatisfaction. But the thing is people, as partners in this thing called love, we’re not just passive bystanders in our relationship. Our intimacy with our loved one is not something that just comes to us. Our level of satisfaction is not caused entirely by external factors. The level of dissatisfaction is not dependent solely on the other person.

All relationships face difficulties, and most are resolved over time. However when the problems become entrenched and seem unable to be solved, it is important to seek professional help. For many it can be far better to resolve the problems than to dissolve the relationship. Unfortunately, research shows that the average couple waits six years before seeking help once the problem is recognised, and only a small percentage seek the professional help they need. Half of all marriages that end do so in the first seven years. These statistics are very sad.

It is important that you seek help from someone who is trained and experienced in working with relationships. Most people ask friends for recommendations, and word of mouth is a good way to find help. You can also ask your GP for a recommendation or phone the APS Find a Psychologist service here or on 1800 333 497 (in Australia)

Help can also be found through organisations funded by the Australian Federal Government that employ psychologists and other professionals specialising in relationship counselling. Organisations such as Relationships Australia and Centacare all offer professional assistance.


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