What is the true meaning of friendship?

Published on June 22, 2010   ·   No Comments

InsideOut: our relationships expert, Sarah Abell, advises a lonely, 65-year-old reader on making and maintaining friendships.

Human beings are sociable creatures who should not pursue all their interests alone Photo: PHOTOLIBRARY
Dear Sarah,
I enjoy reading your column and wonder if you might be able to clarify something for me.

Articles on emotional issues usually mention “friends” and “support” but never explain what these terms actually mean. In truth, I don’t really understand what “friend” means in practice. I have plenty of colleagues at my job as an agricultural research scientist, and I also know people from the local gardening and music societies in which I am involved – but these are not friends in the sense that I would go out for an evening with them. I have a twin brother. We’ve always been very close, and still are, and I wonder if this may have displaced a natural need to make other friends.
Apart from my twin and the emergency services, I don’t think I have any “support”. During the few times that I have felt down, I have learnt to cope on my own and without too much agonising. I am aware of my good points, do not worry about things I can’t do well and enjoy good health at the age of 65.
My outlook on life is that if I haven’t done something, I want to try it, just to see what it is like. I have lots of interests – science, mathematics, long-distance walking, gardening and music – but I usually pursue these alone.
I do enjoy caring for people, and I looked after my parents for around twenty years. I took early redundancy to care for my mother and had her to live with me up until her death five years ago.
Sometimes I can be a bit lonely, but I feel that it’s better to have my own company than to get into some of the scrapes that people seem to end up in. My mother once asked me: “and who is going to look after you, Christopher?”. That is a bridge I will have to cross sometime.
I look forward to hearing your explanations. Kind regards, Christopher
Dear Christopher,
I think some people may read your letter and find it hard to believe that a man of 65 doesn’t know what a “friend” is. But your question is an interesting one.
It took me a while to understand what friendship is really about. When I was younger, I collected friends like some people might collect stamps but it was only when my brother died – when I was 21 – that I realised those friendships weren’t as strong as I had thought. I also learnt that I wasn’t very supportive of others, and that I needed to become a better friend myself.
Since then, I have discovered so much about building relationships from people who are better at them than me. I used not to be very good at expressing my emotions but I gradually learnt how to share my feelings with a few understanding friends. As I did, they got to know more of the real me (and not just the glossy and independent image that I wanted to portray). In turn, I enjoyed getting to know others and being part of their lives.
So what is a “friend”? Friendship is one of those terms that people use all the time, but ask a cross section of the population and you would find it means very different things to different people. For instance, there are those who will happily refer to the 1000 people linked to them on social networking sites as “friends”, while others might reserve the term for a small handful of people they know extremely well. The Oxford English Dictionary describes a friend as, “a person with whom one has a bond of mutual affection, typically one exclusive of sexual or family relations”.
But I would say that friendship is about having fun together, enjoying each other’s company, learning from each other, encouraging, supporting and caring for each other, building memories and helping each other to grow. It is about opening ourselves up and allowing others to do the same. Friendship is when we build bridges to each other’s islands and realise that we are stronger and better as two or more than we are on our own.
You also ask about “support”. I believe support is about caring and being there for each other. Some people go through life taking but not giving; they are often very dependent and needy. Others don’t need or want to rely on anyone; they would rather sort out their own problems than ask for help. They pride themselves on their self-sufficiency and independence. Perhaps you would put yourself in that category.
However, “support” within the context of a friendship is a two-way street; it is about looking out for each other. I think that everyone can benefit from having at least one or two close friendships in their life: someone whom they care about and spend time with. I think as humans we are designed to be social beings and to live “interdependently” with each other, which means being prepared to ask people for help and to help them when they need us.
You have spent many years of your life caring for others, which is laudable, but I wonder why you find it so hard to receive help yourself. You mention that being a twin may have displaced the need for friends. That could be true, especially if you and your brother did everything together, or if you weren’t encouraged to build relationships with other children as you were growing up. You also spent twenty years of your life caring for your parents, which I imagine took up a great deal of your time and energy.
However, I can’t help wondering whether there is more to it than that. Could it be that you have avoided friendship and emotional intimacy because you fear being hurt, rejected or let down? Did something happen in your past to make you think that others cannot be trusted? Or were your relationships with your family so close that there wasn’t any room for anyone else in your life? Were your parents very self-contained, and if so, maybe you never saw friendship modelled in your home? Take time to think about why you haven’t made any friends over the years. Perhaps talk to your twin about it; he may have some ideas, too.
But whatever the reason, the good news is that it isn’t too late to start. Think of people whom you would like to get to know better. Organise to spend some time with them. Share a little of yourself: your thoughts, opinions, feelings, hopes and fears. If you think they would enjoy it, suggest that they go with you to a concert, an open garden or a scientific talk. If they invite you to something or offer to help you in any way, try saying, “Yes, thank you, I would really appreciate that.” Over time you may see some of those relationships turn into friendships and, who knows, one may even flourish into a romance (if you are open to the idea).
If you can’t think of anyone you already know, then cast your net wider. Instead of pursuing your interests alone, find ways of doing them with others. Go on a group walking holiday or volunteer your gardening skills to a local charity. Consider joining an internet site such as www.meetup.com, where you can find groups in your area of people with similar interests. I looked up your postcode and found that there is a book club and a social group that both meet within six miles of your home. Why not give them a go? You may enjoy them. Even if you don’t, the experience could provide you with an entertaining story or two to share with others.
In your last paragraph, you admit that you are lonely but say it is preferable to getting into “some of the scrapes that people seem to end up in”. Yes, it is true – relationships have the potential to go wrong. But they also have the potential to be wonderfully rewarding. Letting others into your life will always involve risk but I hope you discover that it is a risk worth taking.
* HOW TO CONTACT SARAH
Please send your questions on relationship and emotional problems to Sarah Abell, The Daily Telegraph, 111 Buckingham Palace Road, London, SW1W 0DT, or email sarah.abell@telegraph.co.uk. Please indicate if there are any details you would NOT want included in print. Sarah will read every letter but regrets that she cannot reply to them individually.
* Each week, I will be answering your questions on relationship and emotional issues in the newspaper, and extra questions online. I will also be posting on comments submitted by other readers. Feel free to contribute to the debate on any of the topics covered in the column. To make sure you don’t miss out, sign up for the Sarah Abell’s InsideOut feed.
* ‘Authentic: Relationships From the Inside Out’ by Sarah Abell (Hodder & Stoughton) is available from Telegraph Books for £10.99 plus £1.25 p&p. To order a copy, please call 0844 871515 or visit www.books.telegraph.co.

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