There can be no friendship where there is no freedom.
Friendship loves a free air, and will not be fenced up in straight and narrow enclosures."
A Definition of Friendship
Defining friendship is not an easy matter, possibly because the subject is too broad to be encompassed by a single statement. What follows is a definition that I feel comes close to capturing the essence of what is involved in such relationships.
Friendship is an extra-familiar relationship
based on mutuality, equality and freedom of choice
in which the expression of sexual and aggressive
impulses is predominately inhibited.
Like all other relationships, friendships are influenced by strong conscious and unconscious wishes and feelings. By limiting friendships to extra-familial relationships this definition rules out many significant interactions in which friendly feelings occur—such as those between lovers (heterosexual or homosexual) spouses, parents and children, and siblings. This exclusion is made because the essential nature of those interactions is determined by both the direct expression of sexual impulses (lovers and spouses) or by inequality and the absence of choice (parents and children, and siblings).
In this definition friendships are relationships in which the direct expression of sexual and aggressive impulses are contained and not expressed through actions. However, because of the power of impulses and emotions, this is often a difficult condition to maintain. Consequently, friends can be transformed into lovers or enemies—and sometimes back again into friends. Because of the limited capacity of children to manage their impulses this tendency toward fluidity is common in childhood, whereas the maintenance of a stable state of friendship over an extended interval is more characteristic of adulthood.
It should also be noted that this definition does not discriminate on the basis of sex. True friendships between members of the opposite sexes can occur throughout life but happen with greater frequency in adulthood because of the greater ability to control thoughts and feelings found in mature adults.
Finally, this definition allows for friendships between individuals of different ages and developmental phases. The ability to form friendships across the barriers imposed by age and developmental differences is again most characteristic of mature individuals in the second half of life. True equality may be difficult to achieve and maintain in these friendships.
Chapter 1: Friendships in Childhood and Adolescence
Friendships in childhood and adolescence are complex relationships shaped by a powerful mix of sexual and aggressive feelings and developmental pressures. From the elementary school years onward, friendships are an integral part of human experience. Throughout the remainder of childhood and adulthood, including old age, the character and substance of healthy friendships are determined by the mutual need to engage and resolve major developmental tasks and themes that are specific to each phase.
As our young Tom Sawyers and Nancy Drews are transformed by puberty into uncertain adolescents, they lean on each other for moral support and companionship during their determined march out of childhood. Then young adulthood brings new challenges and pressures that continue to shape the nature of friendships during the twenties and thirties.
In the late teens and early twenties, before marriage and parenthood, friendships become the primary source of emotional sustenance. Look, for example, at the popularity of the sit-com “Friends”. Sheared of the infantile attachments to Mom and Dad and not yet committed to spouse and child, alone and independent, young men and women experience the loneliness of young adulthood. With little opportunity for nurturing within committed relationships, college students and co-workers, entrepreneurs and adventurers turn to each other for sustenance and support. “Roomies” and apartment mates, sorority “sisters,” fraternity “brothers,” as indicated by the names we give them, are substitutes for family—temporarily stand-ins until more permanent replacements are found and created. The emotional needs for companionship, acceptance, and confidentiality are satisfied within friendships.
Whenever they weren’t dating anyone, Jane and Roslyn “hung out” together. They watched TV, did laundry, drank coffee, and complained about the scarcity of decent guys. Doris and Bill were roommates, friends who worked at the same place. Uncommitted to others and struggling to pay the rent and their expensive credit card balances, they spent hours berating the boss and dreaming up schemes to get rich quick.
For some who fail to make a permanent commitment to a partner, friendships may be the most significant emotional relationships, throughout adulthood. For those who marry, the plot thickens.
Chapter 2: Friendships in Young Adulthood
Make New Friends But Keep The Old
Living up to the expectations of that familiar camp song is not always easy in young adulthood. One of the central development tasks of the young adult years is finding a spouse, a loved one to replace parents and siblings and provide a new center of gravity for the adult years. Once this new, more permanent relationship is in place, friendships assume different and less central roles in the developmental process. Increasingly, the significant other replaces the friend as confidant, providing comfort against the pains and pressure of daily life. “Those wedding bells are breaking up that old gang of mine,” says an old popular song. Many friendships do become casualties of this developmental progression since the spouse may not accept the friend, recognizing at some level that they are competitors for her husband’s attention.
“I don’t want you to invite him over again, he’s an airhead,” said Mary about one of her husband’s oldest friends. “Invite Joe and Kathy instead.” And so begins the shifting and sorting out that eventually leads to the emergence of a new form of friendship—couples friendships—that reflect the committed status of the newly married but are more difficult to form and maintain because four individuals must be compatible, not just two.
Sometimes a compromise is struck which reflects the wisdom of the old camp song about making new friends but keeping the old, but not always.
Refusing to be steamrolled by his mate’s pressure Rob stood his ground. “Matt’s one of my oldest friends. We’ve shared a lot together. If you don’t want to see him, I’ll meet him myself (that was undoubtedly what worried Mary, since Matt was a bachelor). And by the way, he’s not an airhead.” After a pregnant pause that told her that he would accept her extension of an olive branch, Mary responded softly, “That’s fine, honey I didn’t mean you had to stop being friends with him.” The absence of a scowl allowed her to go on. “Shall I ask Joe and Kathy to come over?” “Yes,” came back the formal, over-the-shoulder, walking-away response.
As children grow and begin to move into the community parents are swept along by the momentum. At dance classes and Little League games they meet other young parents doing the same thing and become acquaintances and then friends. The mutual task of child rearing provides the fertile soil from which friendships grow, organized around powerful adult developmental tasks and themes that cement relationships within the family and without for the next decade or two. When children leave home and spouses are lost through death or divorce, friendships once again assume a role of increased importance, providing a refuge, a calm harbor of protection from matrimonial storms and worries about work and aging.
Chapter 3: Midlife Friendships
"There is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother."
Unlike friendships in latency and adolescence, and to some extent in young adulthood as well, friendships in midlife are not characterized by an intense longing or a sense of urgency. Enjoying the fulfillment that comes from having mastered the developmental tasks of earlier phases, mature individuals have neither the pressured need to grow up (as do the elementary school aged child or the adolescent) nor the pressing desire to find and create persons to love. Healthy midlife individuals have created a nourishing network of family, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances who are sustaining. They belong, enriched and fulfilled by loving relationships, familiar places, and comfortable routines that make day-to-day living an extraordinary experience.
Because of their unique position in the lifecycle, mid-lifers can easily initiate and sustain friendships with those who are younger and older as well as their chronological peers. Considerable understanding of human nature and their own needs allows them to conduct friendly relationships at an adult level with relative ease. A friendship with an adolescent may be unconsciously motivated, in part, by an envious craving for his or her youth and abundant future, a sharp contrast to the consistency of midlife concerns about staid sexuality and aging. However, the same set of feelings may cause these pubertal pariahs to be avoided like the plague. In either case, they difficult feelings are unconscious or understood and not acted on.
Friendships with young adults are soothing and enriching because they allow one to re-experience vicariously the luxurious richness of youth in full bloom, full of matter-of-fact, automatic sexual functioning, abundant career potential, and the wonders of early parenthood—all recently lost and not fully appreciated in their time of abundance. Relationships with older individuals may be motivated by unconscious longing to be a carefree child again, free of the crushing responsibilities of midlife, able to lean on someone else for a change rather than continuing to serve as the Rock of Gibraltar at home and at work. Of course, the specter of old age may also produce avoidance of the elderly.
Another characteristic of mature, midlife friendships is the ease with which they can be maintained. Because they occur after the establishment of regular sexual relationships and intimacy, pressures to sexualize the relationship, so prominent in adolescence and young adulthood, are diminished, but not necessarily absent. Despite concerns about the real and imagined threat of an affair, this is also true of opposite sex friendships. However, as at all other points in the life cycle, friends can rapidly be transformed into lovers or enemies. Mid-lifers are not immune to the uncertainties of life that can rapidly destabilize relationships and inner tranquility.
Thus, midlife friendships are both the result of, and a stimulus to, further maturity and fulfillment because of their stability and lack of urgency and vulnerability. The true midlife friend is at ease, able to enjoy the enriching warmth and intimacy that radiates from this most ubiquitous form of human interaction.
Chapter 4: Friendships and Parenthood
Smoothing the Way to Separation and Mutuality
When seventeen-year-old Glen returned home from a date at 2 a.m., two hours after curfew, his furious father was storming about in the kitchen, waiting. “I’ll be damned if I’m going to let you disobey me like this!” he thundered. I’ll see you at 5 a.m. as planned.” The “plan” was for father and son to bale hay until the harvest was gathered.
Glen was in lust. As his stay in lover’s lane stretched on and on he knew that his father would attempt to extract a heavy price for his pleasure. “Screw him,” he thought. “I’m not a kid anymore.“ Clearly father did not agree and was determined to teach his disrespectful son a lesson.
The enemies met at the stroke of five and drove out to the fields in silence. Father was surprised to see that his son looked so fresh. He was determined to hide the fact that he was reeling from a near total lack of sleep because his precious few hours between the sheets were repeatedly disturbed by a cacophony of rock and roll, whistling tea pots, and clattering pots and pans. It seemed that Glen, bent on a confrontation and revenge, was showing the old man what he was made of.
At first they worked rapidly in the cool, early morning light. As the sun, temperature and humidity rose in unison, father’s pace began to slacken. By noon Dad had had it. He attempted to save face, by mumbling incoherently something about “teaching you a lesson.” Glen, flush with youthful triumph, said nothing but flashed “a shit-eating grin” which said, “Your day is over, old man. Get off my back.”
That night father poured out his righteous indignation to his best friend, Harry, condemning his son with four letter invectives and threats of retaliation. Fully expecting complete support, he was shocked by Harry’s mocking laughter and admiration of Glen’s spunk, determination, physical stamina, and imagined sexual exploits of the night before. “Remember the Dobson twins?” he laughed. “We were about seventeen that night, weren’t we?”
Father’s smile of recognition of the similarities between his own adolescent experience and that of his son’s brought with it relaxing feelings of resolution and relief. His friend had performed a most valuable service. By listening and then juxtaposing father and son’s adolescent experience he had helped father—as perhaps no one else could have—to let go, mourn for the loss of power over his son, and begin to enjoy the emergence of a very special new man—father’s ticket to an enriched later life and genetic immortality, maybe sooner than planned.
At all points in the lifecycle friends provide acceptance, support, and perspective—most valuable functions, indeed. And sometimes, friendships can serve as a comfortable cushion a replacement for vanishing gratification as children turn into adults.
As their first-born sons turned their attention and affection to football and girls, two professional women in their late thirties became fast friends. In addition to running their careers and families, they ran roughshod over a totally outclassed coach, raised money for the team, and determined its use. At the games they shouted unashamedly for their sons—“Stick ‘em defense!”—and kept a wary eye on advancing cheerleaders. Afterward they spent hours talking about the boys’ successes, girlfriends, and college plans. Their husbands, thrown together by their wives’ friendship, watched from the sidelines, literally and figuratively, taken back a bit by the power of maternal love and determination. After their sons left for college, the intensity of the relationship diminished some, peaking again during vacations, and in subsequent years when forgetful sons and insensitive daughters-in-law carelessly wounded maternal sensitivities.
This was a friendship created by the need of both women to master the midlife experience of separating from their firstborns. Over the years as they struggled together to let go of long established patterns of mothering they helped each other channel energies into new directions and formed an emotional bond that outlived its original purpose and continued to enrich their lives, as a true friendship should.
Maintaining Intimacy: There’s No Fool Like an Old fool Unless He’s Got a Good Friend
Midlife couples struggle with the difficult task of maintaining intimacy in the face of major physical, psychological, and environmental changes. If intimacy is to deepen in texture, enriched by the lengthening trail of intertwined memories and the sharing of new pains and pleasures, both partners must make a determined effort to weather the winds of change that continually threaten their closeness. Like Teyva’s wife in Fiddler on the Roof, their midlife maturity and wisdom teaches them that the answer to the question “Do you love me?” is not a simple one.
Friends may play important, sometimes critical, roles in the redefinition of midlife intimate relationships. Comfortable closeness and non-demanding loyalty provide an ideal framework within which to ventilate sexual and aggressive issues that cannot be easily contained or managed alone, as demonstrated by the following examples.
As her husband passed forty, Jane found him less and less attractive. Eventually she began an affair with a younger co-worker, thrilled by the intrigue and his youthful sexual energy. Unable to contain her excitement and anxiety, one day she blurted out the news to her best friend who was titillated, encouraging, and envious. As weeks turned into months and Jane revealed more details, her friend felt less envy of Jane. It seemed to her that the man was cancelling at the last minute more and more rendezvous and was more interested in the expensive gifts Jane lavished on him than Jane herself. The friend’s concern changed to downright dismay when Jane announced her intention to ask Romeo to marry her—he had made no such suggestion.
My concurrent therapeutic efforts to get Jane, who came to therapy to deal with feelings about her mother, to consider the potential consequences of this “plan” for her future fell on deaf ears, drowned out by the excitement of an affair and the irrational internal clamor to shed fifteen or twenty years. Sometimes serendipity can be more effective than the best therapeutic intervention. I listened with relief and appreciation as Jane told me about her friend’s most recent psychiatric intervention. “She told me that I was being stupid and irrational. Jeff didn’t really love me and was only taking me for my money. Sleeping with him was one thing, but throwing my life away was another. I don’t think I’ll ever speak to her again.”
But Jane did speak to her friend again and increasingly to me as well, particularly after Jeff “tried not to laugh out loud when I suggested living together. I guess I really am nothing more than an old fool. Thank god Jane talked some sense into me before it was too late.”
When Ben’s wife of twenty-one years left him and their three children, he was devastated. As we reconstructed the collapse of the marriage in therapy it became clear that there were plenty of warning signs, but Ben had ignored them out of fear. At the lowest point in his life, feeling alone and almost desperate, he turned to his friends, new and old. When his situation became known he was amazed at the number or casual friends and co-workers who told him similar stories. Several became frequent companions, talking and comforting as they jogged and went to movies and dinners. But Ben was knocked off his feet by the response of three old friends from his college and Air force days. They called constantly, listened patiently to the seemingly endless flow of sadness and rage, and invited Ben and his kids to their homes. Their loving concern created a holding environment that no therapist alone could provide and laid the groundwork for Ben to mourn, accept himself as a single person, and eventually begin to look for a new relationship.
Chapter 5: Friendships in Late Adulthood: Growing Old—Together?
The inevitable march of time stomps on youthful appearance and ideas and eventually forces the middle-aged individual to swallow the bitter pill of awareness of personal mortality and time limitation. The power of this realization can now become a driving developmental force, redefining the body image, clarifying and reordering goals and priorities, and increasing the importance of family and friends. Because of their unique nature, friendships can become a critically important vehicle for the expression, engagement, and resolution of these monumental midlife and late life themes.
When Illness Intervenes
When serious illness intervenes, the mutuality and equality at the basis of friendships can be affected. The well friend experiences a surge of caring feelings. The sick friend may be at a loss to reciprocate but longs to provide some emotional support. As they commiserate and care for each other, they worry about the loss of their companionship and the shivering prospect of death.
But aggressive feelings may also be stimulated by a friend’s illness because of his or her unavailability and the recognition of impotence and an inability to erase illness and death. The eruption of such aggressive impulses from the unconscious forces the healthy friend to deal with disturbing feelings of hostility. Mature individuals can accept their dark side, recognizing and containing their aggressive thoughts and continue to act in a loving way.
Because he was a shy man struggling against significant neurotic anxieties and fears, Joel did not make friends easily. However, in his sixty-seven years he had made a number of lasting friendships. When a close friend had a severe heart attack the underbelly of Joel’s neurosis was exposed, releasing a torrent of very uncomfortable thoughts and emotions that I would suggest lurk in the shadows within each of us.
After the initial shock wore off, Joel was upset to discover that his concerns about himself superseded those for his friend. “It could have been me! . . .I didn’t want this to happen to Ed but better him than me.” These thoughts made visits to the hospital difficult but also propelled him to go. “Maybe, somehow my being there will make him get better.”
Frequent contacts with Ed’s wife, Ellen, began to stimulate blatantly sexual fantasies. Guilt overwhelmed him as he told me the following thoughts. Surely his friend’s sexual prowess was compromised. He might even die. In either event Ellen would be “horny” and desperate for a good man, “and you know who that would be.” His guilt was intensified by the recognition that his wife and Ellen were good friends.
The continued analysis of these feelings did not prevent Joel from caring for his friend and his wife in a sincere, loving way. As Ed recovered, the friendship deepened and strengthened by Joel’s genuine concern at a time of need and by his greater understanding. “I have the potential to be a rotten human being, that’s obvious; but I guess I’m not such a bad guy, am I?”
Chapter 6: Friends or Family
As old age approaches friends may again assume positions of paramount importance, similar to those they occupied in late adolescence and early young adulthood. When the children have gone off to distant places to seek their fortune and raise their own little ones, Sunday phone calls and occasional visits do not fill the void created by their chronic failure to return home. The periodic pulsating awareness of abandonment is intensified by the additional losses of parents, aunts, and uncles.
One is left with friends—other widows or widowers, other aging couples, other retirees, others toward whom to direct loving feelings and still abundant energies, others to cushion the task of growing old.
The friendships of three couples had begun in their thirties, forged by shared religious interests and childrearing; despite the fact that they were separated by five to ten big-city miles. Over the years the intensity of involvement had waxed and waned with the uneven demands of work and parenthood. By the time the last of their children had left home they had shared cookouts, car-pooling, chicken pox, and a thousand and one other experiences that molded them into a quasi-family. One night, over dinner, they wondered where the last twenty-five years had gone and began to consider where the next twenty-five would go.
As they crowed about their children’s’ successes—and lamented their unavailability—a collective sense of loneliness pushed them into a discussion of whether or not they would end up in nursing homes. Their particular solution arose spontaneously out of the discussion, at first as a joke, then as a frivolous idea, and then as a subject for serious consideration. They would buy three condos in a downtown high rise near restaurants, theaters, and each other. They would continue to live full lives, visit their grandchildren, and know that in times of need, when they did finally arrive, they would have each other.
Could we ask more of friendship at any age? Not really.