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How to Deepen Friendships for Lifelong Health and Happiness
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Shasta explores the most common complaints and conflicts facing female friendships today, and lays out strategies for overcoming these pitfalls to create deeper, supportive relationships that last for the long-term. Shasta is the founder of girlfriendcircles.com, a community of women seeking stronger, more fulfilling friendships, and the author of Friendships Don’t Just Happen. In Frientimacy, she teaches readers to reject the impulse to pull away from friendships that aren’t instantly and constantly gratifying.
With a warm, engaging, and inspiring voice, she shows how friendships built on dedication and commitment can lead to enriched relationships, stronger and more meaningful ties, and an overall increase in mental health. Frientimacy is more than just a call for deeper connection between friends; it’s a blueprint for turning simple friendships into true bonds and for the meaningful and satisfying relationships that come with them.
The Intimacy Gap
Though many of us have friends and friendships we care about, we don’t necessarily feel the depth of intimacy we’d like to feel. That yearning indicates we have an intimacy gap—which, in these times of high productivity and low free time, can result from any number of factors. In chapter 1, we’ll learn the ins and outs of Acknowledging Our Intimacy Gaps for what they are—and what they aren’t.
The discussion continues in chapter 2, where we’ll learn about Committing to Closing our Intimacy Gaps, including any uncomfortable feelings that can emerge from self-exploration. We do this because we know that frientimacy doesn’t just happen; we have to work at it. But we can also be gentle and patient with ourselves as we practice personal growth, acknowledging it will take time, just as will frientimacy itself.
Let’s get started!
Acknowledging Our Intimacy Gaps
I was about to come face-to-face with one of my intimacy gaps.
Arriving at the café to meet up with my girlfriends, all I felt was excitement. We hadn’t kept up with our weekly Tuesday girls’ nights over the holiday season, so we hugged like long-lost friends with a lot of catching up to do.
In an attempt to encourage more intentional sharing and deeper connection, I suggested we go around the circle, saying one thing that we appreciate about our group friendship and one thing we want more of from the group. Since two of the most important actions in strengthening friendships are to affirm what we value and to let others know what kind of support would be meaningful to us, I thought this could be a perfect way to open our New Year together.
Everyone eagerly answered the question, and the sharing felt really meaningful. I was touched to hear each person share what she’d like more of from the group, including: continued understanding for repeatedly talking about the same problem, asking for more encouragement during a particularly rough patch, even getting together more often than we already did.
As they talked, I was thinking ahead to what I would say. I decided to be truly honest and share that it would feel good to have them initiate asking about my life a bit more. I often did that for them but didn’t feel they asked about me quite as frequently—to the extent that I sometimes left our evenings feeling we’d spent more individual time on everyone else’s life than on mine.
But my turn to share never came! It was almost comical—right before my turn everyone got absorbed in stories prompted by the last answer. Like kids distracted by candy, the conversation ended up veering in another direction. I kept waiting for one of them to ask me to share. No one did.
On the way home I flip-flopped between licking my wounds and pretending I didn’t really care. But there was no denying that I felt pity for myself, frustration toward them, and disappointment in how suddenly these friendships felt far from fulfilling.
I blamed them. They were clearly selfish, caught up in their own lives, and unable to fulfill my needs. A few other memories popped up with confirmation to support that I was always the one who gives, who asks, who glues us together. I was the amazing friend and they were the problem. The verdict felt good, so I pushed down the little voice of wisdom and responsibility that was gearing up to tone down my pity-party. She would undoubtedly speak up soon, but I wasn’t ready for her yet. Instead, I just sat in the disillusionment of the intimacy gap in which I found myself. What I wanted was the gut-warming feeling of being with amazing people who loved me; what I had was that gut-wrenching feeling of being neglected.
There was a gap between the friendships I wanted and the friendships I had.
What We Have: Dissatisfaction in Our Relationships
It’s not lost on me that, though I felt disappointed in my friends, in some ways I was living my dream: being with a group of local and very close friends in a café. In my first book, Friendships Don’t Just Happen, I described standing on a sidewalk looking at a group of women laughing and talking inside a café. I had recently moved away from my good friends, so I felt like the puppy in the window hoping to be adopted, wanting to be chosen, wishing I had friends I met with regularly for meaningful sharing.
That loneliness whispering her wisdom to me on that sidewalk prompted me to start the process of making new friends in a new city. But since making close friends isn’t a fast or automatic process, it would be at least a year before I could say I had friends; it took another year or two before I trusted them, confided in them, and relied on them. Most of us need six to eight times together before we start feeling a rhythm of being together—a comfortable familiarity—but it can take years before we feel we have the frientimacy—friendship intimacy—we crave.
Friendships between women get a lot of hype—from inspirational stories of people donating a kidney to a friend to the pink sparkly folklore of girls nights out and girlfriend vacations. So it’s easy to think most women have an amazing tribe rich with laughter, secrets, chick flicks, and pots of proverbial soup. But the truth is that between two-thirds and three-fourths of Americans believe there is more loneliness in today’s society than there used to be, report dissatisfaction in their current friendships, and feel they have fewer meaningful relationships than they did five years ago. Another statistic comes from a study, published in American Sociological Review that looked at two decades of social isolation in the United States. To the question of how many confidantes one has, in 1994 the common answer was two to three confidantes; as of 2004 the answer was closer to zero. I think it’s safe to say that the way we’re currently doing friendship isn’t working for the vast majority of us.
But what about your experience? Feel free to answer the questions below. (Or you can download a copy of The Frientimacy Workbook, which includes all the exercises in this book. Visit www.Frientimacy.com.)
In of 2015, I conducted a Frientimacy Survey in which twelve hundred women rated their frientimacy satisfaction; here are their results:
I’m thrilled that 20 percent reported an 8 or higher. But note that most women are twice as likely to score a 1 or 2 than a 9 or 10; and that over 50 percent are at 5 or below.
And it’s not just women. I believe wholeheartedly that men crave more intimacy in their relationships, too, so I strongly advocate more fulfilling relationships for both genders. Although this book was crafted to speak to women in particular, the truth is that, regardless of our gender, there is a gap between the frientimacy we have and the frientimacy we want.
Resisting Our Gaps: Unacknowledged Loneliness
But first we need to be able to identify our experience, to realize just what it is we want. And that can be hard. For example, when I’m in front of an audience, I often ask, “How many of you are lonely?” As you might imagine, the inclusion of the dreaded L word means very few hands go up, though I do see a few heads nod.
But when I ask, “Do you wish you had more deep and meaningful friendships?” nearly every hand rises.
Though we may know a lot of people, that doesn’t mean we feel we have meaningful connections. But if we don’t acknowledge our need—and admit that we lack meaningful connections, that we feel disconnected—we limit our chances of getting our needs met. In other words, if we don’t identify the problem, we can’t do anything about it. Many of us don’t acknowledge our need for intimacy because we don’t want to acknowledge a simple fact: that feeling disconnected is a form of loneliness.
Some would say only recluses and “loners” are truly lonely—and most people are neither. But to limit the classification of loneliness to only those whom professionals might consider chronically lonely (or even depressed) is like using the word “hungry” to describe only those dying of starvation with no access to food. Just because I’m not malnourished doesn’t mean that I don’t regularly feel hunger—and that certainly doesn’t mean I don’t need to respond to my hunger. Likewise with our loneliness: Just because we aren’t extremely lonely doesn’t mean we don’t experience loneliness. We do, and we need to respond to it, because the reality is that many of us are far more disconnected from intimacy than we want to be.
But there’s a second obstacle to address: not wanting to admit we’re lonely. When I ask my audiences to call out what comes to their minds when they hear the word lonely, common responses include: depressed, sad, isolated, and bitter. Given those replies, it’s no wonder we’re so afraid to concede to feeling lonely. To utter the word “lonely” might reveal that something is wrong with us, that no one likes us, that we have no friends.
We’re fine, we tell ourselves. We know people we could call. We talk to people every day, sometimes all day long! Our friends really would be there for us if we needed them. In fact, we’re actually too busy to stay in touch more than we do now, right? We already feel guilty for not being better friends, parents, daughters, and partners. Truthfully, we have so many responsibilities that we really don’t even have the time or energy to do much more than we’re already doing. In fact, if given the choice between a quiet night in the bathtub with a favorite magazine versus an evening of going out, we’d prefer that quiet night—so doesn’t that prove we’re not lonely? Put simply, we are so resistant to the possibility that we feel lonely we can talk ourselves out of any hint of the truth.
In the wonderfully titled book Alone Together, author Sherry Turkle warns: “Networked, we are together, but so lessened are our expectations of each other that we can feel utterly alone. And there is the risk that we come to see each other as objects to be accessed—and only for the parts we find useful, comforting, or amusing.”
Note that she said, “feel utterly alone.”
Loneliness is subjective, and it’s not the same as being alone. One can be alone and not feel lonely; we can also be surrounded by people and still feel lonely. Indeed, many of us aren’t lonely because we don’t know people; we’re lonely because the vast majority of those relationships lack the depth and ease and intimacy that we crave. For many of us, it’s not that we need to meet new people, it’s that we need to know how to go deeper with the people we already know.
So I’d like to clarify what I do and don’t mean when I say we’re lonely.
WE’RE NOT LONELY because we don’t have any friends; we’re lonely because those friends don’t always leave us feeling better for having spent time with them. Like me driving away from the café that day, my loneliness wasn’t from lack of relationships, but from lack of feeling the attention I wanted from those relationships.
WE’RE NOT LONELY because we have nothing in our lives that matters; we’re lonely because we want to share the things that matter to us with people who care about us.
WE’RE NOT LONELY because we aren’t lovable; we’re lonely because we’re so lovable. We simply have room for far more affirmation, laughter, and honest conversation than we’re actually getting.
WE’RE NOT LONELY from a lack of networking; we’re lonely because online profiles and Facebook check-ins don’t provide the deep satisfaction that we crave.
WE’RE LONELY because we want more meaningful and healthy relationships with people who love us well—what I call Commitment Friends. (For more information, see “The 5 Types of Friends” in The Frientimacy Workbook so you can both assess your current friendships and better understand which ones you want.)
John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick, authors of the book Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, sum it up well: “The problems arise simply when there is a mismatch between the level of social connection desired and the level the environment provides.” In other words, the sensation of loneliness is simply information that you are ready to feel more connected to others.
By my definition, the sensation of loneliness is simply information that you’re ready to feel more connected to others.
How Did We Get Here?
So if we know there’s a gap between the intimacy we have and the intimacy we wish we had, what’s stopping us from doing something about it? Here are a few answers I’ve heard to this question:
• “It’s because we live in a culture where no one has the time to get together anymore.”
• “It’s our world of social media and the impact of technology in our society.”
• “It’s because we live in a world where everyone is a consumer, a taker, someone who only wants friendship when it’s convenient. Everyone is so toxic and narcissistic.”
Answers like these suggest we’re not likely to agree on what the root problem is. And though the sociologists studying shifts in relationships offer more nuanced hypotheses, they’re certainly not in agreement. What is clear is that this gap is a cultural problem.
Over the last several decades there has been a steady decline in nearly all the traditional organizations that brought people together, groups like religious bodies, civic organizations, poker leagues, neighborhood associations, and bridge clubs. In the now landmark book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Robert D. Putnam tries to understand the curious fact that, even though more people go bowling today than they did in the 1950s and 1960s, there are fewer bowling leagues today. He highlights how
for the first two-thirds of the twentieth century a powerful tide bore Americans into ever deeper engagement in the lives of their communities, but a few decades ago—silently, without warning—the tide reversed and we were overtaken by a treacherous rip current. Without at first noticing, we have been pulled apart from one another and from our communities over the last third of the century.
One could argue that there are many new ways of connecting that are exciting, meaningful, and rewarding. But it’d be hard to make a case that most of us feel more supported than ever. Connected, perhaps, but not sustained. We feel like we have threads reaching out to many people, but that those very strands aren’t woven together to create a net that will hold us.
Putnam reiterates that all the research reveals that
virtually no corner of American society has been immune to the anticivic contagion. It has affected men and women; central cities, suburbs, and small towns; the wealthy, the poor, and the middle class; blacks, whites, and other ethnic groups; people who work and those who don’t; married couples and swinging singles; North, South, both coasts, and the heartland.
My personal experience backs up his findings: The disconnection we feel with our neighbors, our cities, our families, and our circles of friends is widespread—and the causes are hard to pin down. For every person who tells me their children are the reason they don’t have friends, another will tell me they’ve found it easier to make friends now that they have kids. People from every city and town try to convince me theirs is the most challenging—in one locale, the rain is to blame for a dissatisfactory social life; in another, the gorgeous weather is at fault, since it encourages weekend exodus. Some areas, apparently, are just “one-mind” towns, where everyone is “too” focused on the same thing, like politics or the movie industry; while in another area, everyone is “too” different from each other to find someone with whom to connect.
And nor can we blame our personal temperament. Even the most extraverted and outgoing among us know the pain of wishing we had closer friends. Research suggests that most of us replace half our closest friends every seven years; at that rate, basically anyone experiencing life change will experience some friendship losses and transitions, many times over.
Fortunately, Robert Putnam also argues that, though history does demonstrate an overall decline in our civic engagement and social capital development over the centuries, it also demonstrates there are ebbs and flows to society’s ability to connect and engage. As such, we could be on the verge of another cycle of deep and wide connecting.
The Damage of Disconnection
George Monbiot, an investigative reporter and cultural commentator, wrote in his column in The Guardian that loneliness is killing us. He labels this era—much as we did with the Stone Age, Iron Age, Space Age, and Information Age—the “Age of Loneliness.” Research shows that feeling disconnected can be as detrimental to our bodies as addictions to alcohol or cigarettes. Much like lungs that have gone from healthy pink to eerie black, feeling like we aren’t supported, known, or loved leaves its mark, too.
Physiologically, loneliness or disconnection depletes our immune systems, which in turn saps our energy. Psychologically, loneliness weakens our confidence, lowers our happiness, and nags us with anxiety. Even more unfortunate is the fact that we can live with these symptoms so regularly we come to see them as normal. But though the preceding concerns, while unpleasant, may sound survivable, think again. Rates of dementia, addiction, accidents, depression, anxiety, suicide, murder, and paranoia all can increase when emotional connections are decreased.
One study powerfully illustrated the effects of disconnection on our bodies by scanning the brain processes of women under stress. The study tracked the brain activity of women intermittently receiving mild electric shocks that stimulated (or even simulated) the stress so many of us live with every day, the stress of always anticipating life with a sense of uncertainty. The results demonstrated that the brains of women allowed to hold the hand of a friend during the procedure processed significantly lower stress levels. In other words, the parts of our brains that sense danger are much less active when we feel like we’re not in it alone.
According to Dr. James Coan, the lead researcher in this study and a neuroscientist at the University of Virginia, “The burden of coping with life’s many stressors . . . when you have to deal with them all by yourself not only feels more exhausting, it literally creates more wear on your body.”
Of course, having friends doesn’t prevent the various shocks we experience in life—life still happens—but the emotional support of intimate relationships definitively protects our bodies from the harmful results of stressful events. Our relationships thus buffer hardship, both limiting the damaging effects of those stressors and protecting us from absorbing the impact.
In research revealed in Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, Johann Hari revealed what might be one of the most shocking effects of not having a community. One study demonstrated that a caged rat, when given the choice between a bottle of water and a bottle of water laced with cocaine or heroin, always returned to the drug—until it died. This isn’t too surprising; most of us believe that certain drugs are addictive. But what happened when they tested a rat that was given delicious rat food, fun toys, and plenty of friends? Not one “happy environment” rat opted for the laced bottle.
In his attempt to find out what, if anything, could really help heal an addiction, Hari concludes: “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection.”
In other words, whenever we deny our need for deep and meaningful connection we are in truth refusing the medicine that can save us.
• Though many of us have friends and friendships we care about, we don’t necessarily feel the depth of intimacy we’d like to feel.
• Most of us need six to eight times together before we start feeling a rhythm of being together and reach a comfortable familiarity. But it can take years before we might feel we have the frientimacy—friendship intimacy—that we crave.
• To realize we’d like more intimacy than we have is to acknowledge we have an intimacy gap.
• We didn’t get to this point in a vacuum; there are lots of reasons why many of us feel less connected than we’d like.
• It’s important to acknowledge that maintaining intimacy gaps—in essence, sustaining our sense of disconnection—damages us in the long run. One of the best things we can do for ourselves is to deepen the intimacy in our lives.
To follow we’ll discuss the next step in closing our intimacy gaps: owning our gaps.
Committing to Closing Our Intimacy Gaps
While driving home from the afternoon where my friends neglected to ask me to share, the last thing I wanted was an invitation to admit my need and take responsibility. I had no desire to be the one to accept growth. On the contrary, what I wanted was someone to tell them to grow up!
But that was the problem. Standing on the edge of our gap, hoping to move toward greater intimacy, is akin to standing on a diving board for the first time. Even if we know how to swim, the leap of even one foot may as well be a black hole.
By and large, we aren’t big fans of gaps. If the gap we experience is a life transition, many of us rush toward a new beginning to help get over an ending. If the gap is between our teeth, we’re inclined to wire them together. If the gap is in a conversation, we find words to fill the silence. When a question is asked, we expect an answer to follow. Even the definition of a gap—a space that is unfilled—describes what is lacking rather than what is. Our brains often want to close gaps to avoid the dissonance of something feeling incomplete.
It’s crucial to realize that whispering our hunger for greater connection doesn’t create the gap. The gap is already there; we’re simply now choosing the sting of honesty over the dull ache of avoidance. But the sting of honesty, while seemingly sharper, can be also short-lived because it can encourage us to take actions to transform our lives—whereas the dull ache of denial can plague us indefinitely.
Maturity, measured in part by our Emotional Intelligence (EQ), is the ability to manage our emotions in healthy ways. To transform our feelings, we have to first step out of denial and admit what they are.
The Glaring Gap Between the Friends We Have and The Friends We Want
Here is many women’s fantasy of the perfect friend: she’d know exactly how to respond when we text her a code word; she’d show up with a pot of soup when she heard we were sick; she’d never complain about our ranting about X, again; she’d include us in everything; she’d share secrets she tells no one else; and she’d want to be with us when we want to be with her—no more, no less.
When we feel that nagging angst of loneliness, it’s for that friend that we hanker. The fantasy best friend: the one who is the Thelma to our Louise, the laughter to our jokes, and the remedy to just about everything. She would be the finisher of our sentences, the reader of our minds, and the affirmer of our hearts. Our time together would be effortless, easy, safe, and comfortable.
Far too many of us ache for her, hoping we’ll happen upon her while doing little to actually seek her out. Some of us go one step further and decide to put at least some
- On Sale
- Mar 1, 2016
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Seal Press