5. The Power of Friendship

At the heart of a healthy, meaningful and fulfilling life are friends. In deed one Australian study found that maintaining friendships was even more important than family when it came to living a longer life. Over 1500 70+ year olds were asked about their level of contact with friends, relatives and children. Their health was then monitored over a 10 year period. Whilst contact with their children or relatives didn’t have an appreciable impact on how long they lived, contact with their network of friends did. Another study found that people who feel isolated are three to five times more likely to die prematurely and get sick than those who don’t.
So what is a friend? According to The Concise Oxford Dictionary a friend is ‘one joined to another in intimacy and mutual benevolence independently of sexual or family love; a person who acts for one; sympathizer; helper; patron; one who is not an enemy; one who is on the same side.’ Put another way a friend is someone that you know, like, respect and trust.
Whilst these are generalisations, women and men do appear to differ quite significantly in the value and purpose they assign to relationships. Women for example tend to
  • Be more steadfast in their approach to friendships, in that they support their friends during good and bad times. Men on the other hand are more fickle  and calculating about who they should be friends with.
  • Have friendships that are deeper and more moral, the joy comes out of the relationship itself, whereas men tend to think in terms of what they can get out of it
  • Retain and maintain friendships despite possible changes in geographical location or social mobility
  • Spend the majority of their time together discussing their thoughts and feelings, while men tend to be far more group-oriented. Men have more activity-orientated relationships - they gather to play sports or travel or talk about topics; rarely do they share feelings or personal reflections. Women tend to expect more emotional rewards than men
  • Relate face-to-face and men side-to-side
  • Confide in women and men tend to confide in women
  • Men's disclosures often reflect an effort to deepen the relationship, while women's disclosures reflect their feelings about the relationship.
So whilst it appears it is true that women tend to have more direct intimate and supportive friendships than men, men do value intimacy but are more likely to express it indirectly, through helping and doing.

How to Develop & Nurture Your Friendships

Step 1 • Get Clear about What Friendship Means to You
The reason this is important is that when we truly value something, we tap into the energy to make it one of our priorities. So getting clear about what friendship means to you is important. I encourage you to reflect on the following questions. How do you define friendship? What does a healthy friendship look like to you? What is the bare essential minimum that you need in order to call someone a friend? How important have friendships been to you in the past? How important are friendships to you now? Are you content and fulfilled with your friendships? Are you ready, willing and able to develop new friendships and nurture existing friendships?
Step 2 • Explore & Honour Any Fears & Concerns
It’s normal and natural to have fears, worries and concerns when it comes to friendships. However to have those fears, worries and concerns become a barrier to friendship, when they need not be is a shame. The real key is to acknowledge that thoughts and feelings that ‘I don’t want to waste their time’ ‘they aren’t interested in me’ ‘they will thing I am strange’ and then to process those thoughts and feelings. Another option and just as powerful, if not more so, is just to acknowledge them and share them with your friend. Lack of self-confidence is often a barrier to developing friends or even meeting new people, if that applies to you then try the following visualisation
  1. Think of someone that you know you will be meeting within the next seven days.
  2. Take a couple of deep breaths, then close your eyes and set an intention to connect with this person.
  3. Create a mental movie of your interaction starting with just before you meet to just afterwards.
  4. Step inside that movie and play your new self. What do you see, hear and feel that tells you that you are connecting with this person? Make those senses bigger, brighter and bolder. Really feel what it is like to be in rapport with this person.
  5. If the person you have in mind usually intimidates you, reduce the size of their image and imagine a big smile on their face – that will help!
  6. Once you’ve finished this exercise get a feel for your new-found confidence.
  7. Practise a couple of times prior to the meeting, and notice after the meeting what a positive impact this made.
Step 3 • Take a Look at Your Existing Relationships
A useful exercise is to make an honest assessment of your existing friendships and in doing so to decide whether they are really an acquaintance or friend. Make a list of everyone you would consider to be an acquaintance or friend and then next to their name, record your feelings and body sensations you have when you think about them. Then score between 1 and 10, where 1= completely toxic and 10 = completely nurturing and supportive.
What distinguishes an acquaintance with a potential friend is self-disclosure. An acquaintance is someone who you share time and space with, for example at work, or in social settings, you probably enjoy their company to some degree, but there is little or no true emotional intimacy.
Step 4 • Develop Your Friendships
To recap friendship is based on being open and honest and committed to the relationship and to nurturing the emotional bond between you and another person. It’s important to clear about boundaries, especially in cross-sex relationships. As you get older and take on board more responsibilities, the time available for friendships appears to much less.
One study found that in same-sex friendships can survive, even thrive after sex or attraction came into play were those in which the friends extensively discussed the meaning of the sexual activity and felt confident and positive about each other's feelings.
Our friends are most likely to be people with whom we cross paths on a regular basis, for example neighbours, co-workers, class-mates or people we meet at the gym
Stage One – Self-Disclosure & Reciprocity
Self-disclosure that is reciprocated is one of the most important keys to friendship building. Self-disclosure is the sharing of thoughts, feelings and facts about oneself and one’s life situation. If the person to which you have shared responds with acceptance, understanding and acknowledgement and then is willing to disclose something about themselves the potential for friendship is considerable. If they don’t validate what you are sharing or don’t disclose, its friendship is unlikely to happen. The key within the early stages of friendship is not too rush in with the self-disclosure, sharing ‘warts and all’ will simply overwhelm them and probably kill the relationship. Baby steps are best. You share a little about yourself, if they mirror and respond with self-disclosure to that, then share some more and so on.  At the end of the day the exchange has got to be enjoyable, so remember to keep it light-hearted as well.
Stage Two – Intimacy
Once open sharing takes place and the breadth (range of topics) and depth (level of intimacy) of self-disclosure expands, the friendship will deepen further if each person is both attuned to the other and able to respond to the needs and sharing of one another. We start becoming a ‘witness’ to each others life. Whilst this comes naturally for some people, it takes time and practice for others. If you are unsure what to say when your friend says they are thinking of having an affair, sharing how you feel and your concern for her and the relationship will usually be a step in the right direction. Other times a hug might suffice, as would nodding your head or telling a joke. There is a natural ebb and flow to relationships, it’s a case of trusting the moment and being true to the situation – that’s easier said than done of course. As sharing and intimacy deepens, then it’s the ingredients of unconditional support, closeness, contact, acceptance, loyalty and trust that are important. True friends are their one another through thick and thin.

Stage 3 – Building Lasting Friendships
Studies show that we maintain friends not just because of who they are, but because of their ability to support who we are. So whilst we might admire various aspects of our friend, it’s the way they support us that counts. This sounds self-centred, and it is – but the research confirms this to be true.
One researcher found four basic behaviours that were essential in order to maintain the bond of friendship. The first two were self-disclosure and supportiveness. This involves keeping in touch with them on a regular basis and updating them on our lives. In turn we need to be listening to our friend and offering them appropriate support and help if that is what is required. This contact doesn’t necessarily have to take place face-to-face, whilst less preferable e-mail, text and telephone also count. The next thing is level of interaction, i.e. you need to make time for one another and do it regularly. The fourth factor is positivity – whilst sharing the so-called negative aspects of our life situation is part of intimacy, its important that it’s balanced with positive aspects.
A fifth factor that I would add is commitment. Having a commitment towards a friend is essentially saying that you want to have a long-term relationship with and that you are willing and able to help develop and deepen the emotional bond that you have with them. With commitment comes trust and the knowing that you can rely upon one another for support and advice.
In addition to these five factors you can deepen and nourish your relationships through the practise of appreciation. Sincere appreciation done regularly provides fuel for the relationship. There are many different ways of appreciating someone, such as buying a small gift or doing a favour. One of the most powerful ways to show appreciation is saying how much you appreciate your friend, whilst also focusing on what in particular it is about them that you appreciate – this can include traits and actions. The key is to be sincere. Try it and see for yourself.
At the end of the day lasting friendships occur because what exists between the two people is unique and overall they are enjoyable, rewarding and fulfilling for both people. The best most sustainable friendships are those that are based on unconditional acceptance, fun and laughter
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