Updated: Jan 30
In my work as a therapist, I find that I spend a lot of time talking with people about their relationships. Of course, family relationships come up regularly, but you might be surprised at how often friendships and peer relationships take center stage in our lives. Most of us expect that teenagers would be focused on friendships as that’s the time when developmentally we start to branch out from our primary familial social circle. However, I work primarily with adults and find that friendships have significant importance at all stages of life.
in older adulthood one’s friends are essential to feeling a sense of connection with the world. These are the people who have shared not only years of personal life experiences with you but also understand what it's like to face the challenges of aging, one of which can be increasing isolation. Friendships can be a lifeline if you aren’t able to do what you used to physically anymore. For older adults whose later life experiences are typically a mixture of joys and losses friendships provide spaces of connection and belonging. Sometimes your friends might be the only ones who understand what it’s like to grow old.
The benefits of friendships
Quality friendships can impact our health and wellbeing in significant ways. People with a close network of friends tend to have less stress, lower blood pressure and can live longer. That’s actually pretty astounding to think about. It supports the idea that we are relational and social beings, our desire is to connect with others. In that connection we can help to support each other’s well-being in both emotional and physical ways. Several researchers have found that having at least one close friend can extend your life expectancy.
So how does this happen?
Psychologists and counselors have known for a long time that social support is key to well-being. We all do better when we feel connected and supported. There are several ways to achieve this throughout life including close family connections, intimate partnerships, etc. What’s remarkable about friendships is that they may actually be more advantageous as a source of support than other forms of connection.
Friendships can provide experiences of mutual understanding and compassion. Friends can push us to try new things or deepen a shared hobby. We build trust in these relationships and often that leads to more authenticity. Particularly interesting is that friendships can offer a way of being honest about yourself, with friends serving as a sort of mirror helping us to develop empathy for ourselves and others. Friends can look out for us when we make risky life decisions, like perhaps drinking too much alcohol. Equally important they can also cheer us on when we have life successes. Friends can walk alongside us in difficult times, such as health challenges or the death of family members.
But it’s not always easy.
While the benefits of friendships are well documented it is not always easy to maintain healthy mutually supportive relationships. Human beings are messy and we come to all of our friendships with plenty of challenges.
So how do we develop these great relationships?
Start small. Look around and see who is in your social circle right now. Identify some people who you’d like to develop a closer relationship with. Consider what kinds of relationships matter to you and then do some thinking about what has made it difficult in the past for you to maintain the types of relationships that you want. Sometimes in the work of identifying these barriers you might notice that you struggle to listen well or that you feel anxious when talking with new people. Or maybe you feel intimidated by the prospect of sharing about your life with someone else. These are all very typical experiences. And often these are the kinds of things that bring you into a counselor or psychologist’s office. Therapy can offer the opportunity to explore what might be getting in your way as you seek to pursue healthy, satisfying relationships. Feel free to reach out!
Kara Wolff, PhD