Inquiring Deeply About Friendship
Prompted by a painful disappointment with a friend, I have recently been reflecting on the different paths friendships take over the course of a lifetime, pondering the differences between those which turn out to be sustainable and those which do not.
The nature of friendship is, I think, a great question to address in a contemplative frame. Having set the intention to make that the topic of this Newsletter, I reflected on what specific questions might further the inquiry. My way of engaging an inquiry is simply to “live in the question” [wonderful articulation by the German poet Rilke] and to be receptive to whatever is emergent. For example, in conversations with others, I found myself listening especially closely for what people expressed about important things that had been said or done by friends. Some of what I heard has, roundabout, found its way into this Newsletter.
In what follows, I discuss friendship in several different ways. First, I unpack what it means to be a friend. Next, I discuss experiences of connection and intimacy in bonds of friendship. Third, I explore friendship as a mirror of who we are and the relational needs we bring to these bonds. And last, I look back over a lifetime of experiences with friends and present some thoughts about a wise frame for friendship.
What does it mean to be a friend to someone?
My hope was that engaging with this question might generate some illuminating wisdom, but instead it only highlighted the complexity of friendship. There are so many different types and levels of friendship: casual friends from the various chapters of our lives; companions with whom we share common interests or activities; social friends; colleagues; close friends; etc.
As I tried to find the essential core of what it means to be a friend, I saw only differences:
<< Each of us has our own way of going about being a friend to someone –a characteristic style which includes things such as the rhythm and closeness of contact we seek, how often we phone, text, email, or otherwise keep in touch;
<< Each of us has a typical friendship “style” which entails our ways of regulating interpersonal distance and ways of establishing and keeping (or ignoring) interpersonal boundaries[i].
<< Each of us has our own expectations of what a friend “should be” (corresponding to how we want and expect to be treated by others).
Was there some common denominator in what we call friendship?
In these and related reflections, it soon became clear to me that the heart of the matter was the nature of the connection. Perhaps needless to say, connection is a subjective experience. Moreover, every connection is different.
Before describing what I think is most important in the experience of connection, perhaps it will be useful to give a provisional definition of what a “good friend” is (at least for me): someone with whom I’ve shared a bond of loyalty and affection for some time; someone who is honest, dependable and reliable; someone I trust enough to be open and vulnerable (at least a significant part of the time); and someone by whom I feel seen and accepted. In short, a good friend is someone with whom I share common values as well as a comfortable level of intimacy and mutuality.
Although every friendship is different, the bottom line is how we connect.
What comprises a good connection?
The field of shared experience between us, which we can shorthand as “rapport”, is based on an interpersonal resonance between us which invites comfort and openness. Rapport is often based initially on some perceived similarity in interest, values, or point of view (although it is also true that opposites sometimes attract). Conversation flows; we like what the other says, or how they express themselves. There is some mutuality in the connection; we feel well met. We like one another.
The rapport and affinity between two people—the “relational field”– depends fundamentally on how well each can accurately attune to and resonate with the other. Both verbal and nonverbal communication are involved. Verbally, rapport reflects a mutual sense of being listened to and understood. But equally important is the felt sense of the connection. Felt sense is the nonverbal or implicit dimension of relating each of us acquires over a lifetime of interacting with others. It is conveyed in the relational field by the affect we embody in the process of interacting, especially by tone of voice and facial expression.
Intimacy is a feeling of closeness with another which invites the open sharing of a whole range of feelings, thoughts, and experiences. Most often it has to do with feeling emotionally connected and supported by the other; feeling safe to share what feels most vulnerable. Intimacy is most nakedly expressed in the quality of gaze: in the experience of deeply seeing as well as feeling deeply seen (“into-me-see”).
Connection in the relational field also varies in its depth. In my experience, depth of connection has to do with “presence”: a quality of subjectivity which reflects being open, attentive, and receptive to whatever is arising moment to moment in our interaction. Mutual presence in the relational field creates a deep quality of being with. It is, I think, also well-described by the term shared contemplative space; or, more simply, co-mindfulness[ii] . As distinct from emotional intimacy, co-mindfulness is a non-personal (perhaps “spiritual” or “transcendent”) experience of intimacy; a non-boundaried mixing of minds.
Transcendent intimacy can be discovered experientially in a process of two-person, eyes open meditation. Though its fundamental nature is non-personal, it depends both upon our familiarity with contemplative mind states as well as on our felt sense of the relational field present between ourselves and this particular other. When I share this quality of intimacy sitting eyeball-to-eyeball with another (even over Zoom), I often feel as though I become a channel for the transmission of wisdom and compassion.
Overall, connection and intimacy may be likened to dance, a dynamic and fluid process which changes from moment to moment and which depends upon the responsiveness of each partner to the relational moves of the other.
Friendship and Relational Needs
Throughout the writing of this Newsletter (several months), I have been reflecting on the various relational needs that I (as well as others) bring to friendship. One of the first things that stands out for me is how different my friendships are now compared with other chapters of my life. As a teenager and young woman I chose friends who, like me, were psychologically minded and enjoyed the emotional intimacy of “processing” problems together. Later, I wanted the same thing only in a more sophisticated and psychoanalytically informed idiom. But now, many years later, those conversations are no longer very interesting, and instead what I prize most highly is what I call deep conversation.
What is clear is that friendship and relational needs evolve in parallel as we change and grow. And each of us brings different issues to the table.
That said, an overarching lens of view that resonates deeply for me is the idea that friends are one of the essential mirrors in which we come to know ourselves. Some of the images reflected in that mirror are positive. Through their response to what is valuable in us, friends give us a greater sense of our own personhood and potential.
But the mirror of friendship sometimes also reveals aspects of ourselves we would rather not see: the shadow side of ourselves. A wise and kind friend is one who is able to lovingly tell us what we may find hard to see about ourselves. However, human relations being what they are, the negative mirrors friends hold up for us can often be dark images tainted by anger; critical and/or harsh judgments. In navigating these kinds of psychological challenges with friends, we are well served by understanding our own psychological needs and defenses.
Friendships, like all relationships, carry the imprint our formative years. Painful “re-enactments” of what is unresolved within us can be found at the heart of many painful disappointments with friends. Although people have different needs and different degrees of comfort with respect to the direct expression of emotion, the bond between friends is well served by the ability to articulate thoughts and feelings and by the capacity for self-reflection in each person.
What life lessons have I learned from my friendships?
Interwoven with my reflections about the quintessential meaning of friendship, my mind embarked on a contemplative life review of the friends I have known. I found this contemplation to be very valuable, and recommend it to readers who are interested in exploring their own experience of friendship.
Following along the lines of your own spontaneous recall of particular friends, I suggest that you begin by reflecting on what relational needs you brought to this friendship. A few of the many interesting questions to explore are: What did you want, need, or hope for with this person? What was most important to you in the connection? What positive images were reflected in the mirror of this friendship? What was difficult or problematic?
As I suspect is true for many of us, I am no longer in touch with many of the people who once were friends, so there was a lot to think about in terms of the arc of friendship and what causes friendships to falter. Some friends drifted away with little drama or fanfare as life paths diverged. Some friendships never developed roots. Some friendships fell out due to unresolved differences (disagreements, disappointments, or incompatibilities of one sort or another). But the most tender and painful remembrances were memories of friendships which “crashed and burned”– i.e., did not end “well”. I reflected deeply about what I had learned from these experiences. I asked myself what might I consider to have been a “good” ending under those same circumstances? What, in hindsight, might have been wiser and kinder words/actions?
There were many other things that became clear in the process of this reflection about friendship. I saw that it might have been helpful if I had been able to discern not only what I expected but also what the other realistically was able to give. Ideally, we share similar expectations and assumptions about what it means to be a friend. But lacking that alignment of views, it is important to know which accommodations and compromises we can afford to make and which are unwise.
Some conclusions: what is a wise frame for friendship?
As I hinted at the outset, I took on this inquiry as part of my effort to work through a painful disappointment with a friend. Writing carved a path for me through those brambles. So the first “conclusion” I want to share is that I no longer feel a need to know which relationships are sustainable and which are not! In hindsight, the motivation behind the writing of this Newsletter seems much more evident to me: I was trying to find a clarity about friendship that would enable me to avoid ever again having to suffer psychological pain with friends! (Seen in this light, the whole project feels endearingly humorous.)
At many points along the way I was reminded of the “Buddhist insight” (one I have had many times before) that “friendship” is fundamentally empty of any fixed enduring nature. It needs to be apprehended instead as a fluid field of connection that morphs and changes from moment-to-moment. In this way, connection can be responsive to our here and now relational needs, enabling us to “let go” and “start over” in any given relational moment. And, conversely, to the extent that our views about who I am and/or who you are become a fixed negative story, we imprison ourselves and set the stage for a negative self-fulfilling prophesy.
In conclusion, I offer the following inspirational thoughts about friendship:
<< Friendship is an essential element in the human experience. It is in the crucible of friendship that we become who we are.
<< Deep friendship supports and validates changes in us as we grow and as our views of who we are evolve.
<< True friends are those who are able to remind us who we are when we have forgotten.
<< There is transformational space created in the relational field when a friend is seen clearly and held in mind with acceptance, empathic understanding, and compassion.
“Each friend represents a world in us.
A world not born until they arrive.
And it is only by this meeting that a new world is born”.
[i] As I have described at length in my book, poorly delineated interpersonal boundaries may invite both fusions and confusions as to who is doing what to whom. Schuman, M. (2017) Mindfulness-informed Relational Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis: Inquiring Deeply. Routledge Press, New York.
[ii] Credit for this evocative term goes to the Australian Buddhist psychiatrist Eng Kong Tan, M.D.