Let's Be Friends: The Importance of Friendship in Relationships
Act I: The Meaning of Friendship
There was a 10-year-old girl who would spend most of her free time playing with her cousin who was the same age. They enjoyed playing in the swimming pool, coloring together, and would talk incessantly about everything. She would always refer to her cousin as her best friend and they were inseparable.
Her cousin became ill with a rare and serious illness. The doctors needed to perform a special type of blood transfusion. The 10-year-old girl was a match so the doctor asked her if she would be willing to help her cousin. The doctor explained that her blood was a match and that her cousin needed a blood transfusion in order to live. After thinking about it for some long moments she agreed. She commented, “my cousin is my best friend.”
The day of the transfusion came and she was lying in a bed next to her cousin. They smiled at each other as the procedure began. Her cousin thanked her. She told her cousin, “you are my best friend.”
As the procedure started she began to cry. The doctor came to her and asked if she was okay and why she was crying. She asked the doctor, “how much longer before I run out of blood and die?” The doctor explained that they were not taking all of her blood, just enough to help her cousin and she would be fine. The doctor then asked with amazement, “You were willing to give all your blood to your cousin?” The girl responded, “she is my best friend.”
According to the Oxford Dictionary the origin of the word “friend” comes from the old English word “frēond” and has an Indo-European root meaning “to love”. One of the modern definitions of friend is “a person whom one knows and with whom one has a bond of mutual affection, typically exclusive of sexual or family relations.”
Act II: The Role of Friendship in Relationships
It is interesting that the modern definition for “friend” makes the point that it is “typically exclusive of sexual relations.” It is also interesting that the prototypical love stories that we learn in our culture deemphasize or neglect to mention the importance of friendship in relationships. Instead we hear of the story of Romeo and Juliet and how love is about being swept off one’s feet, passion, physical and spiritual union, poetry, and grand romantic gestures. There is of course nothing wrong with these things – after all, love is part alchemy. However, what happens to relationships that do not have friendship as a foundation?
To appreciate the importance of this question we need to understand that our programming as humans requires us to have healthy emotional bonds in supportive relationships in order to have health and happiness. Without these supportive relationships we suffer, become ill, and die prematurely. This was basically the finding of the longest and most comprehensive study on happiness. Given the importance of supportive relationships to our wellbeing it is not surprising that we would be willing to sacrifice so much for it when we have it. Soldiers often say that the main motivation for action that puts them in harm’s way is not based on hatred for the enemy, but rather love for their comrades in arms. What is a more powerful example of friendship than to give one’s life and blood for a friend?
Fortunately, for most of us we do not need to make decisions to offer our lives for the sake of a friend. However, marriage in a sense is an epic journey we are undertaking with our spouse. Life will present us with lots of challenges and hardships that will likely put stress and strain on couples. Strong friendships are the concrete foundation that allow couples to survive the hard times and enjoy the deeper fruits of health and happiness that marriage can offer. Without this strong foundation what will hold us together when the storm comes? Approximately half of marriages end in divorce and many marriages that do stay together are unhappy or characterized by ambivalence. I cannot help but to think that these numbers would be different if there was a greater emphasis on friendship in marriages.
In some of the most comprehensive research on marriage, examining thousands of couples over forty years, Dr. John Gottman found that friendship indeed plays a central role in the happiness and success of marriages. In fact, in our workshops, the first set of principles, techniques, and skills that we teach are all about developing that foundation of friendship. We do this before talking about communication, intimacy, or how to manage conflict, because of the central role friendship plays.
The good news is that these principles and skills are easily understood and mastered. In fact, some of the techniques are so simple that they may be easy to mistake as fluffy or unimportant. It is a big mistake to underestimate the power a strong friendship has to sustain a happy marriage or turn around an unhappy marriage. Just remember the story of the girl who was willing to give her blood and her life for her friend.
While, a strong friendship is a necessary foundation for a strong marriage, there is more to marriage than friendship (e.g. creating shared meaning etc.). However, without that sturdy foundation, the house will not stand when the storm come.
Act III: How to Develop Strong Friendships
How do we build friendships with each other? It is not so much the big dramatic gestures, but lots of small relatively ordinary actions that make the difference. It is like the power of a drizzling rain to water a forest or the power of wind or water to carve and change the landscape. In the remainder of this series of blogs we will discuss three principles and related skills to build the friendship foundation in your relationship. These include:
Love Maps or Understanding your Partner
Cultivating Fondness and Admiration
Turning Towards your Partner
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