Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states
One of the measures of mental health that is used in assessing people who enter psychotherapy is their ability to form lasting friendships. In fact, work, play and intimacy are three of the most important measures of the mental health of an individual. The ability to commit to work and earn a living, engage in play in the form of sports or hobbies, and to have a meaningful and deep love life are all measures of how well adjusted a person is in their daily adult life.
In this posting we are looking at friendship and why it is important as a measure of mental health.
What is Friendship?
A friend is someone who falls somewhere between intimate love relationships and casual relationships. In a love relationship the binding force is either kinship or marriage with full sexual priveleges. Casual relationships carry no obligations with them. They are comprised of of next door neighbors or work relationships in which there is brief and superficial contact. Nothing deeply personal is revealed and there is no sense of mutual obligation. People exchange greetings and pleasantries in ways that are polite.
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On the other hand, friendship relationships are neither sexual nor kinship in nature. However, there is a sense of mutual obligation and friends feel deep emotional ties. More than anything friendship relationships are based on a kind of intimacy. What is meant by "intimacy?"
Intimate friendship relationships have as their foundation shared experiences, openness and self disclosure. Friends discuss their fears, failures, successes and problems with one another. They are able to do this because they trust one another not to be judgemental or critical. In fact, friends are people rely on each other for empathy, support and understanding.
Friendship relationships are also based on a type of informality in which there is a lot of joking and teasing without any danger of feeling offended.
Many decades ago, when I was a secondary school teacher, I had two students in my homeroom who sat near my desk. They were each members of the football team. One student was Italian American and the other was African American. They delighted in calling one another the most grotesque racist names anyone could possibly think of. Of course, it was all directed at me, their homeroom teacher. Finally, when I could no longer stand it I told them to stop. They wanted to know why they should? I explained that I found their characterization of one another was offensive. Each one nodded their head in incomprehension, stating that they had been friends for years and always did this. I told them that while I understood, it was offensive to me and I asked them to consider my feelings as well as following correct schoo decorum. By the way, all of this was said quielty so that only the three of us could hear. They promised to stop in front of me and they did. Of course, what they were attempting to let me know about was their deep friendship that transcended race, religion and ethnicity.
As they were at that time, they remained life long buddies or pals.
This small anecdote speaks to another aspect of friendship and that is trust. Friends know they can rely upon one another even during the most trying of times.
An example of a trusting friendship is nicely portrayed in an entertaining movie that I recently saw named Juno. The main character, a 16 year old girl, becomes pregnant and confides this to her best girl friend. Throughout the movie they remain fast and loyal friends, able ot quarrel, joke and love each other without ever withdrawing support and commitment. In fact, the movie traces Juno’s relationship with the boy who got her pregnant. Her friendship with him remains deep and loyal and the movie ends with the sense that they will always be together. This movie is an elegant portrayal of a variety of relationships from family to aquaintances to friendships and finally to love and romance.
Recent research has indicated that those who have friends live longer and healthier lives. Social isolation and avoidance of social contact neither mentally nor physically healthy ways to live.
Do you have friends? If not then it is important to address the reasons why and work to change the situation so that you are no longer isolated. There are types of psychotherapy available to help people learn the necessary skills to have a more fulfilling social life.
Remember, just because you are married does not mean that you are socially involved. I have met many married couples who feel lonely within their marriages because of the lack of friends.
Your comments and questions are welcome and encouraged.
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