The power of friend­ships... and how to nur­ture them

FRIENDS ARE KEY TO A HEALTHY LIFE, EX­PERTS SAY. BUT MAK­ING AND KEEP­ING THEM IS A PROCESS THAT CHANGES OVER TIME. WE LOOK AT WHY WE NEED FRIENDS, HOW FRIEND­SHIPS EVOLVE, AND HOW WE CAN NUR­TURE THEM, WHAT­EVER OUR LIFE STAGE

Good Health (Australia) - - Content -

Friend­ships are the bedrock of a woman’s life, of­fer­ing sup­port, en­cour­age­ment and trust. Most of us wouldn’t know what to do with­out them and there are good rea­sons why. And while some are not meant to last for­ever, those that do re­quire real tan­gi­ble com­mit­ments. Here three ex­perts share their in­sights into what can make or break our friend­ships.

Why do women need friends?

“As fe­males there are cer­tain life ex­pe­ri­ences we go through and var­i­ous phys­i­cal and emo­tional needs that just re­quire an­other woman who can re­late to them, and our fe­male friends can pro­vide us with that nec­es­sary sup­port,” ex­plains Us-based friend­ship coach, so­ci­ol­o­gist and au­thor of Friend­shifts and When Friend­ship

Hurts, Dr Jan Yager. “We also need friend­ships to feel a sense of con­nec­tion,” adds clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist Sa­man­tha Clarke. “Con­nec­tion and re­lat­ed­ness have been iden­ti­fied as fun­da­men­tal for well­be­ing and life sat­is­fac­tion.”

Re­search pub­lished in the Pro­ceed­ings of the Na­tional Academy of Sci­ences, which stud­ied the in­ter­play be­tween so­cial re­la­tion­ships and our long-term phys­i­cal health, found hav­ing strong so­cial bonds through­out life in­flu­ences our well­be­ing and re­duces health risks such as heart­dis­ease, stroke and can­cer. Lone­li­ness, liv­ing alone and so­cial iso­la­tion, how­ever, can take a phys­i­cal toll and ac­cord­ing to stud­ies can take years off our life ex­pectancy. A 2016 sur­vey by Life­line Aus­tralia found eight in 10 Aus­tralians felt that lone­li­ness was in­creas­ing in so­ci­ety while 60 per cent said they of­ten felt lonely.

Ac­cord­ing to Jenny Dou­glas, cou­ples and fam­ily ther­a­pist with Re­la­tion­ships Aus­tralia, when we have so­cial re­la­tion­ships we’re more con­tent and en­joy greater lev­els of hap­pi­ness and pos­i­tiv­ity. “We ben­e­fit from our friends’ kind­ness, com­pas­sion and sense of hu­mour, which makes us more re­silient and en­joy longterm health,” she says.

“In turn, although we have to be able to han­dle be­ing alone at times, feel­ing that peo­ple like you and know­ing that when you’re in a bad mood you have friends with whom you can share what you’re go­ing through, can re­ally lift you out of chal­leng­ing men­tal states and make you feel bet­ter,” adds Yager. “This con­firms how piv­otal friend­ships are as they ex­tend our lives as well as help im­prove their qual­ity.”

Choose your friends wisely

Apart from the ev­ery­day laugh­ter, com­fort and un­der­stand­ing that friend­ships can pro­vide, the bonds we cre­ate af­fect us on a much deeper level, too. By be­ing aware of how our friends im­pact our lives, we can be wiser in the com­pany we keep and learn to op­ti­mise the re­la­tion­ships we have. As so­cial crea­tures our ten­dency is to mimic the ac­tions of those around us – mak­ing our friends’ habits con­ta­gious. Re­search stud­ies show we sub­con­sciously mir­ror our friends’ eat­ing habits – both in what we eat but also how much – and their ex­er­cise pat­terns. This makes it more likely that we’ll eat healthily and ex­er­cise more when our friends do, but if one friend be­comes obese, our chances of fol­low­ing in­creases by a stag­ger­ing 171 per cent. “While choos­ing our friends is im­por­tant, be­cause who we spend time with in­flu­ences our de­ci­sions around many be­hav­iours, so is be­ing clear about what you ac­tu­ally want from a friend­ship and then choos­ing friends who help to meet those needs,” Clarke ad­vises. “If we don’t choose wisely we might feel dis­ap­pointed or find our­selves hooked into a prob­lem­atic re­la­tion­ship which can cause sig­nif­i­cant stress and be­come toxic for us.” Clarke ex­plains how we may have a ten­dency to be drawn to re­la­tion­ships which re­flect un­re­solved con­flict in our lives – like choos­ing a friend­ship that is sim­i­lar to the dif­fi­cult re­la­tion­ship we had with our mother – some­thing known as rep­e­ti­tion compulsion. “If this is the case, aware­ness of our own dy­nam­ics and our­selves can be very help­ful so we go into the re­la­tion­ship with open eyes,” she says.

when we have so­cial re­la­tion­ships we are more con­tent

‘her love and abil­ity to make me laugh re­ally helped keep me alive’

One way of recog­nis­ing toxic friend­ships is by be­ing aware of your ex­pe­ri­ence – what you’re feel­ing when you en­gage with that per­son or when you leave that in­ter­ac­tion.

“On av­er­age it takes three years to be­come tried and true friends, so along the way if a friend­ship makes you phys­i­cally or emo­tion­ally ill, such as caus­ing sleep­less nights or you dread how their be­hav­iour is go­ing to af­fect your life, that’s ob­vi­ously a very strong way of know­ing that it’s toxic,” ex­plains Yager.

Friend­ships shouldn’t leave you feel­ing con­fused, de­pressed or anx­ious on fre­quent oc­ca­sions, adds Clarke. “If this is what’s go­ing on, it’s prob­a­bly not a healthy re­la­tion­ship so it’s im­por­tant to then check whether you can ad­dress the is­sue, es­pe­cially with a long-term friend. Or if things can’t be re­solved it’s vi­tal to see how you might be able to ex­tract your­self from it.”

Aim to sur­round your­self with peo­ple who you like and ad­mire; who make you feel safe and are trust­wor­thy; who bring out the best in you; and who you feel proud of for what they’ve ac­com­plished with their life. Look­ing at how they treat oth­ers and what they value in life is a good barom­e­ter to see if the friend­ship will be worth your ef­fort.

a get­away is a great way to lay down new mem­o­ries

Keep in touch

For friend­ships to have mean­ing in our lives, they re­quire our time and pres­ence. So next time it’s your friend’s birth­day pick up the phone, send a card or even bet­ter throw them a sur­prise party. Re­ly­ing on a Face­book post isn’t the way to go.

“In the midst of our busy lives, so­cial me­dia does make it easy to stay con­nected with our friends, es­pe­cially long-dis­tance ones, and keep our fin­ger on the pulse of what’s go­ing on in their lives,” says Yager. “On the other hand, if you fall into the trap of over re­ly­ing on it, it can ac­tu­ally back­fire and cre­ate dis­tance, so you should use it in the ser­vice of the friend­ship.”

A Univer­sity of Ox­ford study, pub­lished in the jour­nal Royal So­ci­ety

Open Sci­ence, found the num­ber of friends we can have on­line in com­par­i­son to off­line is the same, as both re­quire face-to-face con­tact to main­tain close­ness.

Psy­chol­o­gist and lead re­searcher Pro­fes­sor Robin Dun­bar says, “So­cial me­dia cer­tainly helps to slow down the nat­u­ral rate of de­cay in re­la­tion­ship qual­ity that would set in once we can­not read­ily meet friends face-to-face. But no amount of so­cial me­dia will pre­vent a friend even­tu­ally be­com­ing ‘just an­other ac­quain­tance’ if you don’t meet face-to­face from time to time.”

So­cial me­dia posts may also be mis­lead­ing and not rep­re­sent the truth of what’s re­ally hap­pen­ing in your friend’s life. “Of­ten what we post we do so from the per­spec­tive of the pub­lic self rather than the pri­vate self. This means we may miss when some­one is in a dif­fi­cult place and there­fore we will be less likely to reach out to con­nect with them,” ex­plains Clarke. Given that friend­ships are about the in­ti­macy that can be ex­pe­ri­enced through close prox­im­ity, fam­ily ther­a­pist Jenny Dou­glas sug­gests that in or­der to achieve this we need to have shared ac­tiv­i­ties and do things to­gether that main­tain those bonds but which also lay down new mem­o­ries. One way of do­ing this is to go away for a few days with your girl­friends. Fe­male get­aways are a great way to re­con­nect in­ti­mate friend­ships and help ce­ment this bond while form­ing valu­able mem­o­ries, a study pub­lished in An­nals of Leisure Re­search con­firms. “Ul­ti­mately, life is about hu­man con­nec­tion and friend­ships are the foun­da­tion of all long-term in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ships,” says Dou­glas.

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