Friendship and Marriage

My friend Michael and I have agreed to edit each other’s writing, which means his book reviews and my essays.  This might seem like a simple matter but it raised some flags for me.  We might be depending on one another.  There is the potential for criticism.  There’s a threat, however slight, that this might complicate or weigh down our friendship.  It may shift our stable, respectful, laughter-filled relationship by making it more like a partnership at work or, more portentously, like a marriage—more contingent on each other’s approval and effort; wondering whether to stand our ground or sway to the other’s needs and desires.

I’m not very worried, and our initial exchanges have gone well, but the change got me thinking about the virtues of being friends and only friends.

For many years, people have asked me about the secret sauce for successful, sustained marriage.  The answer is simple: friendship.  By now, I’ve known many couples who, after years of working things out, are more like friends than romantic partners.  Romance is wonderful but combustible.  We wouldn’t skip it.  We never cease to yearn for it.  But deep and abiding friendship is more lasting and dependable.  It is calmer, gentler, easier to take.  And don’t be fooled: it has plenty of depth.  People who have achieved that kind of marriage almost universally feel successful.

What, then, is distinctive about friendship?  It is often built on shared activities and generally activities that are not vital to the lives of the friends.  It grows from the pleasure we take in one another’s company.  It speaks of trust and trustworthiness, of ease and comfort.  When it endures, friendship brings the experience of being known and liked over time.  With friends, there is rarely the need to explain ourselves.  Even when we do something odd, there is more likely a knowing smile than a troubled frown.  Eccentricity is cherished, not scorned.

Friendship is a chosen relationship.  We enter and exit pretty freely.  The relative simplicity of friendship, is especially noteworthy when compared to family, marriage and romance.

Friends understand us and generally they understand us as we want to be understood.  They play to our best and bring out the best in us.  Except during the earliest days of romance, we are almost never so witty or deep or accepting as we are with friends.  Who doesn’t need regular fixes of our best selves?

Friendship is also illuminated by what it’s not.  It is not contingent and tested all the time.  There is little to no byplay like this: “I’ll do this if you do that”; “I’ll love you, be kind to you, take care of you, spend time with the children… if you do this or that for me.”  These contingent statements may seem like caricatures but they do form the undercarriage of many relationships.

Here’s the core difference, though:  friends generally don’t try to change one another; couples do.  This is the Achilles heal of marriage: the relentless effort of one or both members to transform the other into the person who would best fit their own needs and who would best conform to the image they have for a mate.  Married or not, couples insist that the other be more open, stronger, gentler, kinder, tougher, that they earn more money, spend more time with the children, stand up straighter, be more of a ‘man,’ more of a ‘woman.’  In the name of improvement, the attempts to make over one’s mate generally produce the unkindest cuts of all.

There is a depth and complexity to marriage that is generally missing in friendship and any comparison that failed to acknowledge that difference would be superficial, but it’s still worth dwelling for a moment on the virtues of friendship, which is my purpose here.

Compared to married couples, good friends tend to accept one another more or less as they are, and to give to one another without a direct promise of something in return.  They can offer this kind of acceptance partly because their demands are far fewer and far less intense than those of lovers, who yearn to be affirmed and completed by the other. I want Michael to offer some thoughts on how to improve my essays.  If ever he or I leaned towards some deeper need for approval and completion, one or both of us would run for the hills.

Why?  Because the implicit promise of (at least mature) friendship would be violated by such a demand.  The implicit promise of friendship is that we each stand on our own two feet.  It’s not that we can’t be kind or supportive with one another.  It’s not that we don’t support our friends efforts to change themselves.  Friends should and friends do.  But when we encourage our friends to change it’s usually with at their request or with their permission.  If that request wanes, we can and do pull back because our well being doesn’t require our friends to change.

Like other, more charged relationships, friendship isn’t entirely a free and easy improvisation.  It is also built, in part, on contracts.  Without explicitly saying so, we promise to be considerate, friendly, supportive, even protective.  When these promises are broken or insufficiently fulfilled, we walk away or, more often, we tend to pull back to signal our disapproval or distress.  If  our friend is alert to our signal, we move back in and the relationship is repaired.  If the signal goes unheeded, it is likely that the greater distance is sustained.  The relationship loses some of its intensity and importance.  But it may be maintained, only to thrive later on.  In other words, there tends to be an elasticity in friendship.

In friendship we generally promise not to demand too much.  What is too much obviously varies from friendship to friendship.  And these lines are crossed in all relationships.  The key is how, when the lines are crossed, friends find ways to rebalance the relationship to include a little greater closeness or distance or to move back to its original equilibrium.  That kind of flexibility is often the key to sustaining friendships over time.

I don’t mean to suggest that there is only one kind of friendship and there is no way to capture the whole range in a few pages.  For example, friendship tends to differ across the lifespan, with adolescent friendship tending to be torrid while friendship among older people tending towards a cooler temperature.  On one extreme, friendship may come close to a love affair, with all the depth and yearning and fulfillments of romance, and on the other side, it looks more like a business relationship, coming together for events and other activities.

Instead, I’ve tried to portray the broad, satisfying middle ground.  This is where people of all ages meet.  Friends have been one of the great pillars of my life.  I depend on friends and I delight in them.  As I’ve gotten older, I think they have become even more important to me and to my pals—and that includes my best friend, Franny.

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?

Loving Yourself by Loving Others First

One day, a long time ago, when my friend John and I were building a house in New Hampshire, he walked into the room where I was reading.  I looked up and there he was in all his glory: work boots, blue work shirt, rolled up sleeves and big forearms, high forehead with hair on the verge of receding.  A look of perpetual determination etched into his face.  When he saw me, John smiled and I smiled back. I liked John and took a simple pleasure in the relationship, , working hour after hour, side by side, cutting those posts and beams.

I was struck by how I liked John in a simple, unqualified way, and wondered why I couldn’t like myself in just that way.  Why couldn’t I be a really good friend to myself?  And do that consistently. At that time, this seemed like an insight of the first order.  If we could like or love ourselves in the relatively uncomplicated way we like our friends,  if we could rid ourselves of some good measure of self criticism, our lives would be so much more relaxing and satisfying.  Me, being me, I immediately tried to turn the many positive feelings I had for others inward and onto myself.  The goal was to take the focus off what was wrong with me, to minimize the critical voice within, and to love myself.

I teased out qualities I liked in others that I might apply to myself.  I was curious, adventurous, fun, trustworthy, honest, authentic.  At least I thought so.  But turning those qualities inward was like trying to apply paper to ice.  They didn’t stick.  Or they didn’t penetrate.  The effort was neither believable nor soothing.  I was who I was, the same complicated, sometimes difficult guy I had always been.

That failure got me thinking, though.  Had there been ways that I’d actively improved my feelings about myself?  Sure.  The most striking effort took place when I was in the eleventh grade.  For a few years, I had had a difficult time socially.  I wasn’t shunned but I wasn’t so well liked, either.  As I pondered my dilemma, it occurred to me that people would like me better if I liked them. Not such a profound idea, I’ll grant you.  I mentioned it to my mother who thought it ridiculous. “You can’t change yourself or others,” she declared definitively.  But I had an idea.

The first thing I needed to do was to figure out what was most likeable about each potential friend—and not just superficially.  What qualities, I wondered, would they like noticed in themselves.  What part of their character might even have been unnoticed or unappreciated by other teenagers,  yet be important to them?.  Like being a kind person, a determined person, a soulful person.  My attention had to touch something deep and, maybe, partly hidden.  And it had to matter that a person like me noticed.  I was intense and determined.  The fit was as important as the character traits.  Only then might the relationship grow closer.

This approach worked in a way that trying to love myself failed.  I did grow closer to the guys on the football and basketball teams, who liked being seen as tough and kind, to the girls who liked talk with boys, not just other girls, about feelings, and to the nerds, who thought no one saw them. When our relationships revolved around these exchanges, they grew stronger.  And this is the approach that has guided my relationships ever since.

The most sustained period guided by my eleventh grade insight was the thirty odd years that I served as a therapist to individuals, couples, and families.  To create what we used to call a “therapeutic relationship,” I didn’t take the generally prescribed course of neutrality.  Instead, I aimed for loving relationships.  I knew that I needed to find a way to love even the most difficult patient if I were to be admitted to their inner sanctums, if I were to be permitted the privilege of making suggestions to them.  In a nutshell, my theory of change, went like this: connect with the best in people, then bring it out more and more into the open—and guide people on how to let those loving, enabling, strong qualities touch all the rest of who they were.

It may be clear how this approach helped my patients, but how did it help me and my desire to like myself better?  The answer is simple: It put me in touch with the best in myself.  Day after day, being a therapist required me to be deeply caring and consistently helpful.  Love and competency were linked each minute of my working day.  I would be focused on others, not on myself. Focusing on others with a desire to help placed me squarely within my values, squarely within my best professional capabilities, and squarely in relationship with people.

Let me put it another, topsy-turvy way.  I had positioned myself to succeed in my lifelong effort to make good friends with myself.  All I had to do was to work diligently at my craft.  I made friends with myself by being a good friend to others.  In that position, I felt calm much of the time. It was an almost meditative calm. I sometimes pictured myself as a Buddhist teacher.  It was also the type of calm that comes from highly concentrated attention to goals that stretched my ability.  My patients were not easily changed.  They wanted to feel better but rarely wanted to change.  To help them feel better in sustained ways, they needed to change.  And I could try, each day, to help. To do that I had to focus on them, not on me.

I am not suggesting that everyone become a therapist.  God forbid.  A world full of helpers would be beyond boring.  I am suggesting two things: first, that we can all position ourselves to love and help others in ways that also help us forget ourselves, that help us stop being self conscious and self-critical.  I have always been this way with friends. John is no exception.  My children and grandchildren also draw my positive attention.  Students, mentees and colleagues have generally elicited the same.

Here’s my second point: We live too much in a “me first,” narcissistic culture.  The basic idea is that you need to love yourself, take care of yourself, pamper yourself.  That’s as far as many cultural prescriptions go.  Some go further: If you love yourself well enough, you will be more capable of loving others.  Maybe.  But, in this narcissistic culture, I’m not sure you’ll be so inclined to love others or to put them first.  I believe that this is an unsuccessful and somewhat immoral strategy.

What’s more, the emphasis on self love, doesn’t prepare you very well for loving others. When your learning agenda focuses on self love, you only build up experience with one person.  When you learn to understand and love many others, you build up a diverse world of experience, because, like my eleventh grade friends, each requires specific insight and specific action strategies.  You build up a much greater range of loving capacity.

In short, I want to turn our culture’s approach to self love on its head.  Don’t focus on yourself.  Don’t pamper yourself.  That won’t do the trick.  The most effective approach leads through loving others.