Dr. Nicola McCaffrey shares thoughts about friendship


Friendships are unlike any other relationships. They are vulnerable. They have no formal structure or rituals. This is exactly what makes them so special - their fragility - we constantly have to keep opting in. Our very choosing of the friendship it is what gives it its value. Friendships are these rare kind of relationship that galvanise us against the pains of life, brings us joy and offers us deep sense of connection.
04.October 2023 Dr. Nicola McCaffrey Clinical Psychologist

As I enter into the middle chapters of life, feeling empowered, secure, and aware in a way that has eluded me in my previous decades, friendships have become something that I find myself increasingly intentional and thoughtful about. I have stared to realise just how important friends are. Actually that is not perhaps the entirety of it, I have realised how important the right friends are. My friends are the flora and fauna of my life. Right now life is full of very middle aged demands - growing tiny humans, tending to spousal relationships, broadening careers, building houses and homes, training dogs, setting boundaries on technology and all of those other spaces that my energy and time are poured into. Many of which I perceive to be more pressing than friendships. In the moments I do have the time and space to look up from the carousel of life however, it is the eyes and hearts of my friends that I meet. As an ex-pat living in Norway my friendship bonds are something I particularly treasure. My friends are the family I do not have here. They celebrate my birthdays with me, they are the people in my photographs, they are the people who drop round on a Sunday for a cuppa, they are my emergency contacts. They are the fabric and joy of my life. They are also the ropes that support me through the rough times and steady me when I need held.

In the hierarchy of relationships, friendships are undoubtedly at the bottom. Romantic partners, children, parents these often take precedent. This is as true in life as it is in science, where relationship research tends to focus on couples and families. The truth is there is surprisingly little scientific research focused on friendship. What research we do have however cites the clear message that friendships, at every stage of life, make us happier and keep us healthier. The irony here is of course that whilst friendships are vital to the navigation of modern life they are not easy to build nor keep. One could argue that even though this life requires the bonds of friendships, perhaps more than ever before, it conspires against our being able to achieve it all the same.

Although friendship are something that is available to us in eery season of life the pace and space of our friendships tend to change as we age. What we look for in a friend changes, as much as what we can offer our friendships. In our youth we have time, attention and energy to plough into our friendships. They become a powerful narrator of our whole person as much as the director of what we should wear or the music we listen to. As young adulthood rolls around and our carer demands begin to take hold, we move into a new season of friendships, one which perhaps moves to narrate not how we are but who we are. By middle age we have so many demands on our time and energy that we tend to put off our friendships. They begin to fall through the cracks. They begin to fade and dissolve. The unhappy truth of the matter is that it is normal for friendships to fade. In 2009, the Dutch sociologist Gerald Mollenhorst published a study that showed we replace approximately half of our social network over the course of seven years. Replacement typically happens not in any abrupt way, it is more of a fade than a feud. Things just stop happening between you, there are no friendship rituals forcing you together, and so the friendship drifts and dissolves. The friendships with more deliberate endings that are the most brutal. At best, those endings sting, at worst, they feel like personal failures. It can be a deeply painful and wounding experience. I have been the recipient of both types of ending, the fade and the feud. Whilst the fade I experienced as a rather banal experience melting into invisibility without much of note, the feud I found to be so painful and wounding I felt it was as if this person was wandering of with a small piece of myself and my history.

Friendships are horribly vulnerable to circumstance and as such loosing friendships is a common experience. We lose friends to marriage, to parenthood, to success, to failure, to other countries, to careers, to divorce, to lies, and to death. Our culture lacks community or rituals from which to begin to acknowledge or grieve this loss however making the loss of friendships a highly common and very difficult loss to grieve.

The real aberration here is that some of us manage to maintain, and even grow, friendships throughout our lives. But what predicts which friendships will last through the maelstrom of middle age and go the distance or which will dissolve in a puddle of neglect?

So lets get down to the real nitty gritty of friendship maintenance. Research suggests that there are four main levels of relationships, ranging from shallow (our acquaintances) to deep (our intimate friends). As we move from the shallow stages into the more intimate and deeply connected stages of friendship the pool of available candidates gets increasingly smaller. Thus we will typically have far more acquaintances in our lives than intimate friendships.

The first level of friendship, acquaintances, is a shallow type of relationship. In these superficial friendships we might only contact each other to say Happy Birthday through social media or congratulate someone on their new job. Our behaviours keep the friendship breathing - but barely. There is only the bare minimum of efforts put in to this level of relationship. The second level, casual friendships, builds on the basic life support of acquaintances and adds in closeness. This might look like short messages exchanged over WhatsApp. There is not necessarily any level of emotional depth offered in these communications. Connection ranges from acknowledgements to sharing and allows for a basic understanding of what is going on in each others lives. This is a relationship based on storytelling rather than shared experiences. This level of friendship can still be achieved online and doesn’t require giving more of ourselves. The third level, close friendships, however begins to weave in satisfaction, something that is difficult to achieve solely online and requires being present and sharing experiences. This level of friendship is typically outwardly focused, targeting interests that you both have in common for example. The fourth level of friendship, intimate friendship, takes time to develop. It requires honesty, loyalty and most importantly a solid foundation of trust. Typically intimate friends share values as well as goals in life. There is an inward as well as outward focus in these friendships. Spending time with these friends often feels easy . Jokes flow freely and you feel safe to be yourself knowing that you will be accepted for who you are in your entirety. These are the friendships that we feel a sense of deep connection and acceptance in. Where we feel seen and understood. This type of friendship is rare. Due to the depth of these kind of friendships, often taking years to achieve, we are only capable of maintaining a handful of these relationships at any one time.

Although the differences are obvious and somewhat stark when I print this out in black and white, there are commonalties too - each and every level of friendship requires time, emotional energy, communication and dedication.

Ultimately whether people hold onto their friends or grow apart appears, in large part, to come down to dedication and communication. In the most stable friendships communication is a priority. These friends trust and confide in each other, support each other, offer help, and keep each other up-to-date on life developments. Research also suggests that equality and fairness in friendships is central to their survival. Friends don’t necessarily need to communicate regularly, or intricately, just similarly. Friendships survive because we live up to each other’s expectations. These kind of communication skills and a mutual understanding may help friends successfully transition through life changes that threaten friendship stability. When I think about the people I know with the greatest talent for friendship, I see that they do just this. They make connection a priority and they compliment each other in the ways they communicate and connect.

Friendships are those relationships which add colour and joy to our lives. We are left feeling enriched by them. Friendships don’t just happen or work. They require nurture and care to survive and thrive.

The more hours I put into this chaotic business of living, the more I find myself craving those deeper quieter connections. The friends I have now, those relationships that have come the distance, who are part of my aging plan, are the people I want to keep opting in with. These are the people I want to keep clearing space in my diary for.

Ask yourself this…how long can you really keep postponing dinner before you have no one to go to diner with??

This post is dedicated to my friends - the originals and those I have picked up and held on to along the way. Those who have come the distance. Who are firmly part of my aging plan. Thank you all for the most joyous of life lessons.


// Nicola

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