Friendship – Forever or for a while?

Some friendships last forever and others fade – that’s part of life. But how is it possible that we never see even that one dear friend with whom we cried in the middle of the night?

“How many really good friends do you have?” It’s a question in an online personality test and I have to think about it for a while. I get to three.

A few years ago I went through a difficult period and those three have been there for me like no other. Yet we have very different lives; an outsider wouldn’t see best friends in us in a hundred years.

For example, all three of my friends have a husband and children, and I don’t. One person lives very consciously in the countryside, while I am a city dweller pur sang. Another is an alternative type who renounces anything that hints of materialism, while I can genuinely enjoy fine clothes and luxury hotels.

Immediately afterwards, I have to think of a fourth girlfriend, with whom contact has since faded. We had a lot in common in terms of lifestyle. We were both single, journalists, we liked to travel and often, were interested in psychology and spirituality and could not stop talking about everything that was on our mind.

She seemed like a friend for life. But she still found that difficult period of mine too difficult, let me know via a long e-mail, and she distanced herself. Then she got a boyfriend and lost contact for good.

Change of the guard

Stories about friends who came into our lives and who stayed or left: we all have them. Scientific research also shows that this is quite normal.

Sociologists from the University of Utrecht discovered that our circle of friends renews every seven years. They came to this conclusion on the basis of a questionnaire to more than a thousand people. Seven years later, they asked the questions again.

The result: in seven years, about half of our friends disappear from our social network. The good news is that within the same period, the missing half will be replaced by a new batch of friends.

Beate Volker, professor of sociology at the University of Amsterdam, set up this research at the time and is currently working on a book about friendship.

According to her, friendships with, for example, colleagues or neighbors are most likely to die because we don’t choose them ourselves. When we get another job or move, we often literally lose sight of them. And at that new workplace or in the new neighborhood we meet new friends.

Recognition is also a crucial factor for cherished friendship. Volker: ‘You don’t automatically become friends with everyone in your yoga class; there should be a click. Research invariably shows that we like people more when they look like us.

Like romantic relationships, friendships are more likely to succeed if both parties share the same ancestry and family background, the same level of education, and if they share interests and views. The same life experiences and phase of life also help to become friends.’

Reciprocity

Although we exchange half of our friends every seven years, the Utrecht researchers also say that the other half are stayers.

According to sociologist Beate Volker, these are often people who have been in our lives for a long time. ‘Over the years we have invested a lot of time and energy in them and we don’t just throw that away. We don’t want to lose our investments.’

These are often people with whom we have already been through a few things, with whom we have rolled from one phase of life to the next, she explains. Sharing and exchanging a lot ensures that lives become intertwined; something like that is special and hard to replace.

Volker argues that we usually give such friends more credit and are less critical of them. “You may not recognize yourself in them the way you used to or you wouldn’t be friends with them if you met them now, but that shared past is much more important: those years of friends are part of who you are.”

Dear friendship

Typical of ‘stayers’ is that they invest in friendship with us, says Kelly Campbell, a psychology professor at California State University and a researcher on relationships and friendships.

Both parties intend to deepen the relationship. Occasional app or chat is not enough for them. They visit each other, have lunch together or go for a walk on the beach.

And in that contact, two factors are important, Campbell says: self-disclosure and reciprocity. ‘Self-disclosure means showing ourselves to the other: feelings, vulnerabilities, what we experience in life. That way you deepen the relationship and learn to understand each other better. Reciprocity in turn means that the initiative to see each other and to engage in self-disclosure comes from both sides. You can’t carry a friendship on your own.’

She explains that these two factors together create a kind of intimacy. Within it you understand each other, you trust each other and there is loyalty, care and help in times of need. The latter in particular is a connecting factor, according to the professor. ‘If people turn out to be there for you during a difficult or traumatic period, it often develops into a long-lasting cherished friendship.’

Kelly Campbell emphasizes that small gifts are a good way to keep the friendship alive. She means messages in which we show that we remember something that is important in the life of the other. That tells us that we care about the friendship, she says.

‘For example, on the day she goes on vacation, send a friend an app to wish her a nice trip. I am pregnant myself and I notice how nice it is that friends remember when I have an ultrasound, for example, and then send a message about it. We’re all busy, but with such small attentions we maintain a friendship, especially if we live far away from each other.’

Healthier and happier

Investing in friendships is smart; studies show how important they are to us. Friendships increase our happiness and well-being. They make us feel that our lives have meaning. In the presence of friends, stress decreases and our self-confidence increases. A link has even been found between our friendships and the age we reach: the better our friendships, the older we get.

However, both sociologist Beate Volker and psychologist Kelly Campbell emphasize that it is not about quantity, but about quality. “Those health benefits are there even if you only have one or two close friends,” Campbell says. ‘What matters is that you have people around you who see you and confirm you in who you are,’ adds Volker.

Besides making us happier and healthier, friendships have other benefits. Today, more and more people rely on their partners to meet their emotional needs, Kelly Campbell says.

That puts a lot of pressure on that partner. Spreading these needs over different people, including friends, provides more balance in your love relationship, she says.

Another advantage of friends, both close and superficial, is that they are part of our network and that through them we can meet partners or get a job, she adds. And perhaps more importantly, both shorter and longer friendships contribute to our personal growth.

Campbell: ‘Through them we come into contact with new music, films, books, and so on. It’s like opening a door we didn’t know was there. Friends help us to form our identity in this way too.’

Beate Volker emphasizes the cognitive stimulus that friends give us: ‘They provide new ideas, make us think about certain topics and give incentives to try new things.’

Paradox of this time

Despite all the benefits that friendships bring us, things don’t always run smoothly. Sometimes friends let us down, in small or bigger things. This is especially experienced by people who are experiencing something difficult in their lives. In the event of a divorce or an illness, they not only lose their partner or their health, but also a number of friends.

The Flemish writer Kristien Hemmerechts, who years ago lost two children and a man and recently got breast cancer, even said in an interview in Belgian newspaper De Morgen that she is disappointed in most of her friends.

‘Actually I’m not allowed to say it,’ she said, ‘but I think all my friends fall short. People create such a beautiful image of friendship, but the reality is often different.’

According to sociologist Beate Volker, this is in line with a typical paradox of our time. Today we live further away from our family, families are falling apart and we no longer naturally meet in church.

Yet we remain social beings; we need contact and connection. ‘As a result, we need friendship more than before. But because many people are so overwhelmed, especially because of the combination of work and family, we don’t see our friends very often.’

In addition, over the years we have started to interpret friendships differently. In the past, if the roof leaked or you wanted to paint your house, a team of friends was ready to help. We now outsource such things. We can afford it so we don’t bother anyone. ‘A friendship is no longer about the practical, but about the emotional,’ says Volker.

“Our friends need to understand, affirm, support us, but also be a mirror to us and help us grow. That’s a lot at once. Relationship therapists sometimes say that the pressure on romantic relationships is so great, but so is the pressure on friendships. And if certain expectations are not met, we easily become disappointed.’

Letting go of needs

How can we deal with that disappointment? According to Beate Volker, the first thing we need to do is adjust our expectations. ‘For example, sometimes we don’t think it’s enough to have a nice movie night with a friend. No, we also want to talk about our relationship problems and maybe get some advice on a fashion issue.

My advice is to just enjoy what is there: what is special about the evening and the contact. We’ll see who we can talk to about our relationship problems later.’

She also advocates seeing what is unique about the other person, apart from your own needs. “That one friend may be a little less empathetic, but he does have a great sense of humor and can distract you from what’s going wrong in your life.”

Psychologist Kelly Campbell emphasizes the importance of open communication. When someone is struggling with something their friends haven’t experienced, they often have no idea what to say or how to help, she says. So sometimes they don’t say anything at all, which can make them feel like they’re letting them down.

‘A friend of mine whose father recently passed away went through that. Fortunately, she realized that it was mainly about clumsiness and ignorance, not unwillingness. So she explicitly told her friends how they could be there for her and how they could help her.’

That could be something very small, Campbell adds. “For example, friends occasionally message them thinking of you so that you feel like they care about you.”

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