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Healthy Friendships

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photo via American Woman Magazine

by Guest Author – Janna Davis, Graduate Student at Boise State University

Friends. They are a part of our lives from the moment we start school (perhaps even earlier), and they can be a source of joy or frustration. Knowing that friendships are a form of relationship, and therefore require a lot of work, are they worth having? And what do they look like, metaphorically speaking? The Palo Alto Medical Foundation defines a friend as “a person you know well and regard with affection, trust, and respect.” A lot of us have probably had someone who offers support when times are tough. This person will stay by our side when we are hurting. And many of us have had a toxic friend: someone who talks about us behind our back or offers an insult wrapped in a compliment. When we make a new friend, there is no guarantee who we are getting. Time and experience will eventually reveal a person’s true character, but why even take the risk?

The Mayo Clinic puts it very eloquently by stating, “friends are good for our health.” People who are in our lives because they value us help keep us on the right track because there is genuine concern to make sure we are healthy and happy. Quite simply, the Mayo Clinic states that friends reduce stress by listening to us when going through hard times; discouraging unnecessary risks like trying a dangerous diet or experimenting with drugs or drinking excessive amounts of alcohol; making us feel like we are accepted and a part of something; helping us deal with the extremes of life from divorce to death; and increasing our “self-worth” by not criticizing how we look or who we are. These are some pretty serious benefits, all reasons that make meeting new people and becoming close to them a risk worth taking. Having people who fall under the “friend” category is important, but there is no need to seek a large group of people. This is definitely a case where quality outweighs quantity. Desiring to belong to a large group is fine, and diversity in relationships (including friendships) is a positive thing, but having a few people to turn to when nothing is going right and your world feels as if it is shattering is something to strive for.

Some people make friends easily. Walking into a room for the first time without knowing anyone is not daunting, and these individuals will talk to anyone nearby and instantly make a connection (although not necessarily a friend). For other people, myself included, it is much harder than this. I have never wanted a large group of friends because the work put into meeting so many new people and becoming close enough to consider that person a friend is too much. I feel exhausted just thinking about it! I know there are many people like me. So how do you make friends if you do not have any? The Palo Alto Medical Foundation encourages joining a group (sports, cooking, community, etc.) and putting yourself out there so that you can talk to people and determine if you share values. Once you have someone who matters and is a real friend, be respectful and keep the lines of communication open. It may seem obvious to some, but keeping a friend is easier when following these tips from the PAMF website: “be supportive, be encouraging, do not tease or belittle, cooperate, compromise, be considerate, talk openly about disagreements, [and] apologize when you hurt them”. Again, to some, these are obvious tips. To others, these are revolutionary, or at least, challenging to follow. People are not perfect, we should never be expected to be perfect, which is why the last tip is so important. If you mess up, own it. Be willing to apologize and make amends. Life happens, and it is our friends and family we want by our sides when the world appears to crack.

Again, friendships are relationships and require work. This makes it tough for some people to form lasting bonds with another. Friendships will naturally change and grow over time, just as people change and grow over time. As the Mayo Clinic puts it, “developing and maintaining good friendships takes effort,” especially when demands from a spouse, children, work, and/or school are present. Friendships are especially tough for adults to invest in because of the additional demands teens do not yet face. Although this is not to say it is always easier for teens and young adults to develop friendships. The demands of a spouse and job may not be present, but other factors can get in the way of any relationship, including that with friends.

Acknowledging all the health benefits gained from a solid friendship, it is important to stress that these are found only in healthy friendships. What happens when you have that toxic friend described earlier? Many people, myself included, have tried to be friends with someone who is not ready to put effort into the relationship. What happens then? Amy Smith of Psychology Today lists seven signs or reasons to end a friendship so that you can maintain your health. So what signs indicate trouble? First, if you are constantly caring for your friend without any sense of give or take, it may be time to talk with that person. In a friendship, one person is not supposed to be a “caretaker” who gives time, energy and possibly money to another person. This is draining and will ultimately cause more stress rather than relieve it. Second, if you have a friend who does not support you, they may not be a friend. Someone who wants you to change and offers nothing but criticism is not somebody who has accepted you, and therefore, that sense of belonging will never manifest. Third, if you cannot trust this person to keep a confidence and realize they are not trustworthy, you may need to create some distance. Do not mistake this for someone asking for help if you are considering self-harm. In fact, a friend who looks for outside assistance from a person or agency such as the WCA for someone considering suicide or currently causing self-harm (such as cutting) is actually a very good friend because they are looking out for your well-being. Fourth, a friend who wants to engage in risky behavior and “bring[s] out the worst in you” is not a friend. This may be that friend who only wants to go out drinking in order to have fun. Behavior such as this may be a sign that this person needs help themselves or may be avoiding a serious issue, and you may not be the most qualified person to help with this, especially if your health and safety are in jeopardy. Fifth, if a person constantly flakes out on you, you may want to reconsider the title of friend. This is that person who always breaks plans. They give the last minute phone call or text cancelling a planned event, repeatedly. Sixth, if you have someone that does not respect your family, you may need to end the relationship. Someone who insults your parents, siblings, spouse, or children may again create additional, unnecessary stress. However, if you are currently in an abusive relationship with a man/woman or have abusive parents, a true friend will do whatever is necessary to get help. This may begin with insults aimed at the abuser due to an authentic concern and a lack of understanding. In a situation like this, outside assistance is needed. Organizations such as the WCA can provide supports and services to make sure everyone in that situation is safe and has the care and materials to deal with experienced abuse. Smith writes that the last sign of an unhealthy relationship is hinting of one person desiring a romantic relationship. Unwanted advances can create tension and cancel any potential health benefits of the friendship. There are times when both people can address a romantic interest and create respectful boundaries so the friendship can continue, but there are also times when the friendship must end.

Not all friendship are toxic, and not all of these signs call for the end of a friendship. However, if you find a lack of balance in a friendship (or any relationship), you should feel safe and comfortable addressing this point of contention with the other person. At times, it can be resolved. Sometimes an outside force can be useful. Counseling or distance can also lead to clarity. This is where the WCA comes in. There are counseling and support groups created to help people in distress. Sometimes a bad friendship can put an individual in danger.

However, there are other times where a simple conversation between two people can resolve an issue. If you do not feel able to approach a friend with one or more of the seven behaviors of a toxic friendship, that is definitely an indicator that you have a harmful friend, and the relationship should come to a close. Knowing when and how to have this type of conversation can be scary. When you have a friend, even a toxic one, it can be difficult to approach them with concerns. Instead of jumping to a decision right away, I would encourage everyone to talk with someone they care about when thinking of ending a friendship. How to do that? Lauren Zander of HuffPost Healthy Living offers some simple steps to help create a peaceful space for these difficult conversations. According to Zander, you should be straightforward and set aside a specific time for the conversation with the other person’s permission to have a serious talk, then clearly state how you feel, “frame the conversation gracefully,” ask how the other person feels once you are done so that it is obvious you care, put aside your feelings for a moment to be able to listen to the other person, and once you have both had a chance to speak, identify what you agree and disagree on and see if there is a way to move forward. If there is, work on it. Relationships, all relationships, take effort. If there is not, this is the time and environment to end things cleanly.


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