I was facetiming with my son yesterday and got into a great conversation about friendship. He lives in a new city far away from his core friend group.
I asked him about his social life and he told me he goes out quite a bit but he hasn’t really met the kind of friend who, “if he needed a place to stay he could easily and happily crash on their couch and hang out.” I thought on that for a bit and decided that criteria for close friendship speaks volumes. It involved so many elements such as, comfort, ease and connection.
Although he loves where he is, he clearly misses the proximity of close friends whom he loves to hang out with for hours.
So, on the heels of the conversation, this morning I read a brilliant New York Times Op-ed by Kate Murphy, “Do Your Friends Actually Like You?“ Not only is this a provocative title, just reading it made my heart beat a little faster. I emailed it to him right away.
The article talks about nonreciprocal friendships best described as people we think of as friends but don’t feel the same way. It talks about the “disconnect between perceived and actual friendships”. That “nonreciprocal” concept leaves many of us feeling quite insecure and there’s good reason for it. It turns out those kind of friends we can do without and we best stick with our true friends as they are better for our health.
So what is a true friend? Vassar English Professor Ronald Sharp says, “It’s not about what someone can do for you, it’s what the two of you become in each other’s presence.“ That, in a nutshell, is the workhorse of a great friendship. We know we’ve struck gold when we have a friend, who when together, we are our best selves.
The article goes on to talk about the levels of friendship and that “the top most layer consists of only one or two people say a spouse and best friend with whom you are most intimate and interact daily.” And then it goes on to talk about the next layer.
“The next layer can accommodate at the most four people for whom you have great affinity, affection and concern and who require weekly attention to maintain. Out from there, the tiers contain more casual friends…”
Apparently “we only have slots for the most intense type of relationship…People may say they have more than five but you can be pretty sure they are not high-quality friendships.”
And lastly, it turns out it’s bad for your health to continue engaging in nonreciprocal relationships. “You may also lose tone in the smart vagus nerve, which brain researchers think allows us to be in intimate, supportive and reciprocal relationships..”
Not exercising the vagal nerve can make us anxious. “The vagal nerve is what makes us feel at ease rather than on guard as when we are with a stranger or someone judgmental,” says Dr. Amy Banks who wrote “Wired to Connect: The Surprising Link Between Brain Science and Strong, Healthy Relationships.”
I found this article to be really helpful in clarifying why some friendships seem to fade even though we “believe” them to be strong. The limitations of the number of core friendships are real.
What is so interesting to me about this article is, during the summer, which I define as lasting 4 months, (June through September), I have developed wonderful new friends who fulfill me in a way that old friends used to – but are not around during those months. The article doesn’t talk about “seasonal” friendships which are very powerful.
For those of us who move from our primary homes and begin to establish new lives in our next location – the question remains – what happens to those really close friendships that are no longer geographically easy to access?
From my experience, despite the miles between us, the friends who make the effort to call and mutually set aside time to visit and are as excited to hatch a plan or adventure – still stimulate my vagus nerve thus making me pretty darn happy, confident and loved.
I have a friend who I haven’t seen in the past few months but we talk a lot. She calls me even when she has a household of people just to share last night’s activity or tell me she misses me. I feel the same way.
I could definitely “crash” on her couch and have many times. I don’t have to read this article to know how precious that friendship is.