“Do you want to play with me,” asks the three-year-old.
What happens next can be heartwarming or heartbreaking.
Sometimes there’s no reply, simply a look between two kids before they begin to play together.
Just as often, a child says, “No,” turns and walks away. At other times, a stare is issued then he walks away.
But that’s okay. Liam, my grandson, will keep trying for that right person to be his friend for the next thirty minutes before he has to go home. He usually succeeds. I admire his patience and tenacity.
Getting refused three times in a row makes me want to head home. But not Liam.
No, he’ll run his truck through the dirt again and again until another child comes by. Then, he’ll look up and ask for the 4th time, “Do you want to play with me?”
We learn how to make friends early and we keep them – for a while, many years or a lifetime.
What we don’t learn is how to make sense of friendships gone bad or how to end being friends.
Friendships are far more complex than we might think. But most of us make our friends without consulting a manual and no one queries our theory of friendship.
A friendship doesn’t have clear timelines and boundaries, no ceremonial beginning and end. Still, friends are interwoven into our lives and we enjoy them … until we don’t.
Faced with breaking up with a friend is where I am now. It feels bad and will likely hurt, a little or alot.
This is not a sappy post about loser feelings when friendships end.
Still, let’s insert some heart breakin’ lyrics before we enter the kingdom of friendship to unravel our expectations, responsibilities and why we might carry the torch too long for a friendship that is over.
Just try to read the chorus from Fire & Rain without singing it. Impossible.
I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain
I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end
I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend
But I always thought that I’d see you again
During the last two months as I contemplate discarding my friend, I’m off kilter. In the moments I imagine the best way to do this (letter, email, text, the slow fade) an ancient spirit whispers in my ear, “don’t do it.”
He sucks in his breath and adds, “it’s against the rules.”
One is supposed to be a loyal and faithful friend but since I’m close to severing ties to not just a friendship, but a friendship of 40 years, I’d say I feel more mercenary and selfish.
The couple of people I talked to shake their heads then surprise me with their own similar stories of doubt, anguish and eventual friend-trimming actions.
We hardly understand what binds us together in friendship.
Take this simple definition: “a close relationship, based on mutual trust, affection and unity of interests.”
How does this even come close to illuminating the threads of empathy, love, caring, laughter and joy many of us feel in our friendships?
I’ve had friendships that lasted about a nanosecond in the scheme of things, yet they gave meaning to my life. A seatmate on an 8-hour flight who engaged in intimate conversation changed my perspective and ultimately influenced an important life decision. He’s my 8-hour friend. I’ll never forget him.
I have friends I’ve known for two years but never met. These individuals respond to my calls for help quicker than many of my friends. Yes, it’s mostly a business question. However, online communities spawn friendships. Yes, they do.
But do I trust and care for these individuals? Mmmmm. Let me think on that.
Surely Facebook friends count for something. “Faux friends,” you say. Perhaps, but after I posted my sadness about losing a boat, their messages lifted my spirits. Even the one telling me to ‘lighten up’ managed to improve my state of mind.
When it comes to defining friendship, we’re better off to acknowledge and focus on a continuum of friendships. We have different kinds of friends and all of them are important in some way.
Before we fall off the deep end trying to fit people into categories, let’s agree on what we already know.
No matter what age you are friendships are important.
The Friendship Brainwash
Friendship is a relationship that has existed across historical times in all types of societies.
“You can go without marriage, or justice, or honor, but friendship is indispensable to life,” writes Brooks.
The marriage I get, but honor? Aristotle suggested that friendship is the cornerstone of society. Montaigne though that it spreads universal warmth. Brooks concludes that intellectuals did a lot of romanticizing about friendship.
Today idealizing friendship still appears important and popular by respected individuals. Maria Popova writes, “Friendship is one of life’s greatest graces.” For David Whyte, it is “a mirror to presence and a testament to forgiveness.”
We inherited this friendship swoon and it’s everywhere. At the card rack in Walmart, pithy quotes and sentimental sayings on friendship make you tear up.
Friendship is like a golden thread that binds two hearts…
You are the most beautiful flower in my friendship garden…
A friend is hope when life is low, a friend is a place when you have no where to go, a friend is honest, a friend is true. A friend is precious and that my friend is you.
You know what? It isn’t important how others see friendship even if they’re genius Greek philosophers or modern day good-looking poets.
Ultimately, friendship is a bond that is uniquely defined by the people who exist within it. Who your friends are and how each feels within that friendship is exclusive to that connection you experience.
In my estimation we are intellectually cursed by much of the ideological tenets of friendship. Gushing about it doesn’t help.
We’re getting older. One of our responsibilities to ourselves is to create and maintain a framework of attachments throughout our lifetime. Friendships add to our health, and wellbeing.
To many of us, friends matter more than family.
But the reality is some friendships necessitate boundaries; friendships need culling; some friendships require slow endings; others could benefit from deepening; some friendships should never have begun; others need a clean, quick end.
My friendships shape my life just as your friendships shape yours.
We talk and think through problems together – who to marry, what job to take, who to divorce, who to sleep with, how to deal with our mother, what to do with our daughter, husband or another friend. Life unfolds as the result of conversations with friends.
Friendships have and still do help me make better judgments.
- Soon after of my divorce, my daughter, Elizabeth and I went to visit my best friend, Janice, on Long Island. After 3 days Janice brought me into her bedroom and closed the door. “Why,” she asked, “is a four-year-old ‘running the show?’” Two hours later, my tears and guilt subsided as clarity prevailed. Elizabeth’s life changed forever that afternoon.
- Within the friendship of my marriage, my husband, Herb, helps me be a better parent than I’d be without him. Before we married, I ask him (well, actually I told him) “not to parent my child.” He didn’t. But often he’d help me see Elizabeth’s side and communicate that perhaps grounding her “for the rest of her life” was a tad extreme. She should thank him for reducing the time her make-up, hairdryer and favorite jeans spent in the trunk of my car for more minor infractions.
We have the pleasure of being known by many people. But it is our friends, most of all, whom we want to respect us. Often we behave better just knowing we’ll have to report to them. At least, I do. It’s one of the best benefits of a good friendship.
In the land of attachments – a ‘good friend’ ‘true friend’ ‘close friend’ ‘real friend’– these are highly valued.
But it’s when you keep friends for a long time that the gong sounds. Because we all know – old friends are the best friends of all.
I’ll be astonished if you, dear readers, can’t quote that ‘silver, gold’ one or add a memorable ditty to this list:
Old friends are best. — John Selden
Make new friends, but don’t forget the old, One is silver, the other is gold. — Unknown
With clothes the new are the best, with friends the old are the best. — Unknown
Ah, how good it feels. The hand of an old friend. –Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
We assimilate into the narrative about friendships that individuals who stay in our lives for a long time are special.
Having people who know us for years is comforting and in the eyes of many better than a new friendship. Old friendships carry far more status than other friendships. The exception might be a couple of 100-year-old BFFs.
I know many people (and you do too) who head off for the annual weekend with “my grade-school buddies,” “my Air Force class,” or “my college roommates.”
“Wow! You’ve been friends with these people for a long time!” we say.
“Oh yes! It’s w-o-n-d-e-r-f-u-l,” they reply.
Then, I swear, this person orders up an aura and at that moment a silent communication filters through the air.
“Oh, hon, what a shame. Are you one of those who hasn’t sufficiently collected little groups of people over the years to rate an every-year-friend-celebration?”
(Right now I have friends wondering if they are one of these aura ones. So let’s segue way quickly here.)
Are ‘old’ friends ‘good’ friends? Are they ‘best’ friends?
Let’s be honest. Most of the time ‘old friends’ aren’t your best friends anymore. I don’t’ mean to be mean, but geography is the biggest challenge in continuing relationships.
So I get that that ‘old friend that was a best friend’ is a person you can call and just start talking like there’s no tomorrow.
But the two of you haven’t shared enough time or experiences together lately to know what’s going on deep inside your lives. So the friendship is stuck in a kind of time warp of who both of you were at one time or another.
One blogger said this about old friends:
Your 18-year-old self knows them.
Your 40-year-old self should not know them.
This schematic from an awesome website, waitbutwhy.com divvies out the kinds of friends we might have on our Mountain of Friendship. Interesting that old friends aren’t anywhere to be found on this mountain.
Several bloggers insisted only 1-3 people could be at the top of your mountain. Absolutely, no more.
According to Laura Carstenden,, PhD, Founding Director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, this is correct – research supports that three does seem to be the magic number.
In contrast, many friendship experts suggest that having too few close contacts can be risky. “Fewer than three connections is just too few for comfort,” writes Carstenden.
For lots of different reasons – death, a falling out, loss of interest, geography, dementia, shrinking shared interests – you can be vulnerable to losing the whole top of your mountain.
A strong social network of friendships has a diverse mix of age. If all your relationships are with people your own age, you are vulnerable to losing the whole network. Yes, one solution is to make new connections to take care of the ones you lose but the nature of friendships (they don’t automatically ignite) can make that hard work.
The narrowing of the social world with age is perfectly healthy, provided that the relationships you maintain are truly a source of emotional enrichment.
According to Carstenden, people engage in a natural pruning process as they age by removing people who are not so satisfying while retaining ones they enjoy. (In the situation with my old friend, this is comforting.)
For a long time, friendship has been the neglected relationship of the social sciences. Scientist are just now getting tired of researching “romantic love’ and are now turning to friendships.
Here’s what we know:
1. If your best friend eats healthily, you are five times more likely to have a healthy diet yourself.
2. Married people say friendship is more than five times as important as physical intimacy within marriage.
3. Those who say they have no real friends at work have only a one in 12 chance of feeling engaged in their job.
4. If you have a “best friend at work”, you are seven times more likely to feel engaged in your job.
5. Increasing, scientists are uncovering evidence that our social worlds influence not only our happiness in everyday life, but the ways our brains process information, levels of hormones circulating in our bodies and our physiological responses to stress,
6. Social network resiliency is particular important in aging. A process that tends to gradually separate people from loved ones as old.
7. Studies show that one-year-olds already have a mental representation of how social relationships are supposed to work. The word,’friend’ enters the vocabulary at age 3. (So given your age are you better at picking friends? Keeping friendships strong?)
8. Research is telling us is that our social bonds are at least, if not more, protective to our health and wellbeing than eating kale or losing weight.
9. Studies suggest that we seem to know intuitively if “best friend’ status is reciprocal between two people. We seem to know instinctively whether or not we are valued and where we stand. (Might this also mean that two people know when the friendship should end?)
10. Social spheres generally contract with age so you may have fewer friends at age eighty than you did at age fifty. Smaller social spheres do not pose a problem as long as the friendships have strong, high-quality attachment.
What I’ve haven’t suggested is a friendship audit as a part of creating a vibrant Post50 life, yet it is an interesting idea.
In his book, Vital Friends: The People You Can’t Afford To Live Without, Gallup Organization’s director, Tom Rath undertook a massive study of friendship, alongside several leading researchers. The book recommends carrying out your own “friendship audit”, in order to recognize which of your friendships provide you with the different things you need, then to sharpen each friendship in line with its strength and value.
Judging friends in such a detached way may make us uncomfortable. But let’s understand that our bonds of friendship are real and assessment will not diminish that.
In other words, no one’s gonna get hurt if you do this.
Dear Old Friend
“We hadn’t seen one another for five years so ending up serendipitously for a week in Tennessee 25 miles apart was joyful until you didn’t even make time for a cup of coffee.
Though you stayed in the States for another 20 days, you never called.”
I hope I’m not coming across as haughty or acting like this situation is no big deal when, in fact, it is breaking my heart.
Does there ever come a point in life where we learn who matters, who doesn’t and who never did, who won’t anymore and who always will? Do we have a regular rite of passage into a Post50 life where we step back and form some sort of picture of our friendships?
I don’t think so. But we sure as hell would be smart to create one.
Strong, integrated social networks are vital to our long lives. This is a part of mastery toward our future wellbeing, health and happiness.
Our strong desire to connect is hardwired into each of us but can we acknowledge that the bonds we create sometimes don’t last and perhaps aren’t meant to? Some friendships during my lifetime were damaged beyond repair, others become overly complicated and the ones with narcissists couldn’t end fast enough.
By now you know that I feel the examined life is far superior to the unexamined or hardly examined life. I am fascinated when people take more time and energy to appraise their closets than their lives.
Marie Kondo, author of the #1 New York Times best seller, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, has a high bar for every item in your wardrobe.
“You must take each outfit in your hand,” she says to over 2 million readers. Then ask, “Does it bring you joy?”
Pour your heart into this endeavor and as you place each item back in your closet, she urges: “Thank your stuff. It’s been working hard for you.”
Do you have a friend you’ve been chasing to get time together? Do you have an old friend who treats you like an option?
Does this bring you joy?
“You Either Have Old Friends or You Don’t”
It’s time we stop believing what we read about friendship like this quote above and recognize we now live in a brand new world of friendships.
Last month, I looked around a four-top table at three women who are friends of three years or less who had taken me out for a belated birthday celebration. We hooted and giggled; we shared a few secrets; we hugged.
Driving home it hit me that each of these friendships has the potential to become ‘old.’
Yes, it will take time.
But with a little serendipity and my thirty-plus bonus years, any new friend I make now could populate the top of my mountain someday.
This makes me smile.
Next Post: Your Life Is Your Art
All Photos by B. Pagano.