Is Friendship Enough

(In this essay, I mention my sister and her depression.  She has written very candidly about her condition on Facebook, wanting to bring depression out from behind the veil of secrecy and shame.  She has read my essay and has encouraged me to publish it with her name in tact).

 

When her husband died ten years ago, my sister suffered a terrible depression.  Since then, she has tried almost every therapeutic approach—to no avail.  I just spent three days with her at the Mayo Clinic, where she is undergoing Electro Convulsive Treatment—Shock Therapy—as a kind of last resort—and that, at last, seems promising.

When she’s not depressed, and even when she is, Jackie is an extraordinary person.  She created, owns, and manages the major art gallery in Alaska, gives hundreds of thousands of dollars of its pretty modest proceeds to charity, plays a significant role in the civic life of Anchorage, and has many good and devoted friends.

During hours and hours of conversation, as we sat in Mayo’s Med-Psych unit, I asked Jackie why her friendships had not been able to nourish her, to provide enough affection and companionship to finally let the loss of her husband fade into the distance.  “They don’t fill the void,” she said.  “And Mark did?,” I asked.  “He adored me,” she responded, as though that clarified matters to me.  “It’s not the same.”

Friendship is enough for some.  Our mother, for instance, also had many close friends.  She always wanted to have a man but, late in life, she settled for friendship.  It’s like having what the British psychiatrist, Winnicott, famously called a “good enough” mother.  The sufficiency of friends also seems beautifully lived by Ronni Bennett, the wonderful author of the blog, Time Goes By.  Just three weeks ago, she had surgery for a raging pancreatic cancer.  While she regrets the absence of family (link), Ronni seems almost entirely able to depend on friends.

Why isn’t friendship enough for some, or most, of us?  Why is friendship so undervalued?  We live in a society that has greatly diminished the hold of extended families and larger clans.  Sociologists continually worry about the growing social isolation that comes as a result.  Why doesn’t friendship save us from that fate?  In fact, the opposite may be true.  Friendship may even be in decline in American society.

Most of us would agree that friendship is immensely satisfying.  It provides companionship, warmth, and reassurance without the restrictive bonds of families.  We choose our friends because they charm or intrigue or touch us.  We choose them to match our needs.  Friendship is even healthy. People with more and better social relationships, including family and friends, live longer and healthier lives.  The opposite is also true: social isolation is as much a health risk as smoking.

And yet, all of our surveys show that friends lag far behind romantic partners, children, parents in our hierarchy of relationships.  Take a look at your local bookstore and you’ll find the shelves bursting with advice about couples and families but almost nothing about friendship.  Go to a professional conference and you’ll find very few panels or seminars on friendship.

Friendship seems to have a clear developmental trajectory.  It is strong in adolescence and youth, often close to romance in its intensity.  With marriage, children, and work, it tails offs considerably, reassuring in its presence and possibility but too rare in daily experience.  Retirement and old age bring renewed energy, time, and interest in friendship.  What’s more, our friends are also available.  And not just those you have kept up with but also friends from all stages of life, some of whom you had lost touch with for decades. With retirement, it feels wonderful when a friend asks when you’re free and you can say “Any day next week works for me.”  What a relief that I have friends.  What a joy.  What a key to late life, or so it seems to me.

Joyous as it is, however, it does not have the weight of family, certainly not the importance of husbands, wives, and children.  Given the availability and renewed pleasure, I thought it worthwhile to speculate about the limited value we accord to friendship, even when it serves as our daily bread.

First, and most obviously, the cultural imagery that we grow up with lends much more weight to family.  “Blood is thicker than….. “ … you name it.  We are trained to be deeply loyal to family and only modestly so to friends.  This isn’t just internalized imagery.  It is enforced day after day by people around us.  How could you not visit your mother in the assisted living facility, loan money to your brother, and, most of all, take care of your children.

Family is bound by ritual in ways that friendship isn’t.  Weddings, christenings, bar mitzvahs.  Birthday and Christmas parties, Passover seders and Easter hunts.  Year after year, they signal a bond.  Friends may create ritualistic events—annual Fourth of July parties and the like, but, like everything else, those ‘rituals’ primarily populated by friends feel voluntary, less weighty.  That may be why we love them but they’re not as important.

Second, there is something paradoxical about friendship.  It is freely chosen but it is also freely departed.  It’s as though the freedom reduces its emotional hold on us.  Similarly, the informality of friendship—“Just call when you want to get together”—is a balm and somehow minimizes its weight.

Talk about paradoxical.  I keep using words like “weight” and “bound by,” indicateing a strong valence, and using it in a mostly positive way.  But I wonder if the comparative “lightness” and unbounded quality of friendship robs it of its importance.

In families, the issue of control is ever present.  Parents and children struggle over control throughout their relationships.  Couples regularly struggle for control.  These struggles begin at marriage and birth—finding names; determining rituals; deciding whether to buy a house—and last beyond death—what should our will should say; how shall we should be buried and by whom.

Friendship is virtually defined by its lack of control, its informality.  Strange that this may be why we value it less?  Control issues enter friendship, as they do any relationships, but are managed much more simply, much more lightly.  “Where should we meet for coffee?  I guess we met near my place last time.  I’ll come to you.”  At the hint of struggle, a friend might back off for a while, then ease back.  It works so well.

Third, I think we “invest” less of ourselves in our friendships, less of our self confidence and identity.  They don’t define us the way family does.  Again, we come to the idea that the freedom of friendship somehow lessens its value.

Finally, there’s the question of stress.  We bond with far greater intensity with people with whom we’ve shared intense, often stressful experience.  Families are like army units who, when facing enemy fire, depend absolutely on one another.  The connection becomes profound.  Families become like Spielberg’s and Hank’s “Band of Brothers,” whose characters touched us so deeply.  The usually peaceful culture of friendship, however relaxing and reassuring, doesn’t seem to measure up.

Ultimately, I am raising this question because I would like to find a way to bring the nourishment of friendship more deeply into my heart, into our hearts.  Friends matter to me.  Day by day, they give my life much of its color and flavor.  Every time, I look forward to coffee at 11:00 and drinks at 5:00. I am particularly candid with some and they are with me.  We know each other.  We learn and hold the stories of each other’s lives.

I don’t know if friends would be enough if I lost my wife and dread even the possibility of finding out.  What about you?

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How do I know thee: relations with adult children

Last week, an acquaintance told me that none of his four children really knows who he is. The distance is partly or largely his fault.  He hadn’t shared very much of his inner, nor, for that matter, his professional life.  That had been natural when they were young but it had built into a habit.  By the time they were adults, just when he really wanted them to know him, the habit had hardened and outlived its original purpose—or what he thought was his purpose—protecting them.   When Sam was with them now, he felt trapped within himself, unable to touch or be touched by the people he loved most.

A month or two before Sam’s mournful confession, his wife, Sarah, had shared her own. Hers was a different story but in the end, added up to the same thing.  Sarah was Sam’s opposite.  She was an open book with just about anyone who would listen, and she readily shared her feelings with her children, especially as they grew into and past adolescence.  With each passing year, though, they seemed to distance themselves from her by keeping conversations short and practical.  Now she feels unknown, too.

There’s nothing strange, certainly nothing pathological about these experiences; they are shared by vast numbers of older adults and very hard to avoid.  But the distance, the yearning, the ache is palpable.

Even for those who “know” that this is a time of life when adult children are busy, occupied with their own lives, need to do what they are doing, need to pursue their own goals, it can be hard.  Even as loving parents root the “kids” on, applaud their successes, admire their capacity—the marriage, the work, the children, the friends—it can be hard.  Even as the grown children fulfill parental dreams, parents miss them.  Even as parents enjoy the freedom from the constraints that children imposed on their lives, even as they luxuriate in their (relatively) tension-free homes, they miss their children.

Much of what they miss is admittedly unrealistic: the cuddling, the play, the soothing of egos…especially being the most important people in the lives of their children.  And it’s not just unrealistic; it’s unhealthy.  After all, it is imperative that adult children act like adults.

By the way, I am not suggesting that parents are fully occupied or preoccupied by their children.  Many prefer some distance.  Many don’t wish to spend more actual time with their adult children.  Most people that I know love their empty nests.  And yet, and yet…there’s the remembered children and the remembered relationship.  That’s sometimes harder to relinquish.  This is the location of the ache.

But the cause of the ache is frequently hidden from view.  Parents sense it but can’t quite pin it down.  As a result, parents and adult children may play out the drama in indirect, even disguised ways.  Below the surface, for example, the theme of unrequited love plays out through addictions that both divide and join parents and children.  It plays out in fighting when children marry the “wrong” spouse, the husband or wife who keeps their child away or who comes with the wrong religious or political persuasion.  Add in the sustained financial dependency and renewed co-habitation that is common today, and often confused and confusing exchanges ensue. And, of course, there are the mixed feelings about how to raise the grandchildren, those potential substitutes for the grown children.

These struggles have probably intensified because we live in a time of cultural transition, during which the traditional, extended family has largely receded to into history for Americans of European origin—but new forms have not fully gelled.  There are few prescribed and universally accepted ways for children to grow up, leave home, and return as well-formed adults.  There are few prescribed cultural norms for how parents and adult children behave towards one another, no less feel about one another.  Are they equals?  How can that be when they spent so many years being unequal?  How do you make a change as fundamental as that?  Are they friends?  How can the intimacy of parent and child be transformed into something as relatively simple as friendship when so many deep currents run through their relationships?  Our culture gives us few guidelines for success in these profound and often fraught passages.

There is one aspect of the relationship of parents and adult children has been particularly interesting to me of late.  When I think of what is most meaningful about parents to their adult children, often it isn’t the person they see in front of them.  It is the person who held them and helped to shape them—in good and in painful ways—when they were young.  It is the historical, not the present parent.  In other words, it is an image and often inchoate feelings that are strongest and that stand between “real” interchange and connection.

The same is often true in the reverse direction: Parents relate to their adult children based on who the children were when young.  Much of the friction comes from children wanting to break out of what they feel is the imprisoning imagery their parents have about them.  Often the break has to be extended enough for the adult child to feel that s/he is being seen as s/he is now, as an adult.  Even after the “return” of the adult child, s/he rarely feels well known, known from the inside, known for the thoughts, images,  and needs that course through her.

This is strange stuff.  Relationships built around imagery from days gone by, negotiations in the present bearing the weight and meaning of decades past.  It’s easy to see how parents and children talk by one another and, in the double sense, how they miss one another.

It is not a problem to fix. The form it takes is partly shaped by cultural forces but it is also universal.  Children grow into adults.  As they grow, parents gradually let them go, knowing and balancing their own extraordinary pleasure and sadness in their flight.  There is honesty in the knowing.  There is integrity and generosity in the commitment to the children at all stages.  Naturally, the balance and the integrity are best achieved when parents live fulfilling lives of their own.