Birds of a Feather: Finding and Keeping Friends
Oct 16, 2019 01:22PM
Simply put, friends make life better. From the shared memories, the constant support, and the unconditional love, true friendships have such a positive effect on our overall wellbeing. And the desire to maintain your friendships is an innate human characteristic.
“Humans are hardwired to interact because our social connections are directly connected to our health,” says Suzanne Olson, executive director of sales and marketing at Eskaton Administrative Center. “Studies suggest that social connections contribute to a healthy body mass index, strengthen the immune system, control blood sugars, decrease cardiovascular mortality, decrease depressive symptoms, mitigate post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, and improve overall mental health. So, staying connected with friends not only helps you keep your social skills active, it can contribute to your overall health as well.”
These bonds are especially important to help you through the harder times in life. “Friendships are an important part of the human experience,” says Megan Negendank, LMFT, relationship therapist and executive director at Love Heal Grow Counseling in Sacramento. “When connected with friends, we feel understood and less alone. We are more likely to participate in activities, which keep us healthy. We are more likely to have people in our lives checking up on us when we are having hard times. And we get the mental health benefits of giving to and supporting others.”
Just as friends are good for our health, a lack of friendships can have detrimental effects. “Loneliness is a big killer today,” says Therese Sorrentino, LMFT, a marriage and family therapist in Folsom. “It can cause depression and other physical illness. People who are lonely may not live as long as a result. We all need to be connected to others. Unfortunately, our society has resulted in a lot of isolation. Just texting or [connecting on] social media isn’t enough. It isn’t the same as a hug and a smile.”
Just like many types of relationships can be toxic, friendships can as well. It’s important to take stock of your relationships, making sure the needs of both people are being met. “Surround yourself with people you feel good with when you are with them or right after spending time with them,” says Loretta Parker, LMFT, a marriage and family therapist in Sacramento.
To further explore friendships, we talked to a number of local experts about how relationships change over time, where to make new friends, and dealing with the grief of losing your friends.
When Life Gets Busy
We’ve all had those friendships that are able to survive months without any communication from either party. And whenever you do cross paths again, you are able to pick up as if no time has passed. But is that actually a healthy friendship? Apparently not. While it is common for anyone to lose touch with friends because life gets in the way, it can actually be hurtful when someone essentially disappears.
“Everyone likes to be checked in on every now and then,” says Negendank. “If life is busy and there isn’t time for a long visit, even a short phone call or text message letting them know you are thinking of them helps people feel less alone. One of the hardest parts of aging is feeling forgotten. Hearing from friends and loved ones helps with this feeling.”
For friendships that may have grown apart due to actual distance when someone moves away, you can try to reconnect, thanks to the Internet. “If you know how to reach them, write them a letter, call or email to see how they are doing. They might appreciate the blast from the past,” Negendank says. “If there is someone you would like to get back in touch with, but you don’t know how to reach them, you can try to find them on Facebook, ask around to friends you had in common, or contact your school alumni association.”
If you are on the receiving end of a friendship where your pal has gone missing in action, check in with yourself and decide whether this is a friendship that still brings you happiness.
“Set realistic expectations of what you expect from your friendships,” suggests Olson. “And, also communicate what you are able to provide based on what is going on in your life. Utilize technology to your advantage in between times that you can get together.”
It’s important to remember that sometimes certain friendships just run their course. “If you lose touch with friends, remember the good times you had with them,” Parker says. “Some people come into our lives for a season and those connections are just as valuable.”
When life gets in the way and you are aware that you don’t have enough to give to your friendships, a couple of small acts will go a long way. “If you don’t have lots of time to give, when you do spend time with your friend, be engaged in the moment,” says Parker. “I think a way you can be a good friend even when life gets busy is to just be there when they need you.”
If you have a friendship you want to pick up, take action because life is short. “When you lose touch, don’t be afraid to reach out and call them,” says Sorrentino. “They will be happy to hear from you. It always feels good to reconnect. They are part of your past and your history!”
Where to Meet
When we’re younger, there are many places where friends can be made: school, work, in our neighborhood, and through partners or spouses. We don’t realize how easy it is. Yet, as we age, we have fewer places to expand our social circles.
Olson encourages you to say yes to new experiences. “Forging new friendships as we age may require a little extra effort,” she says. “So, opt in when social opportunities are offered. Some ideas may include joining your local recreation center, gym, volunteering in your local community, joining a walking club, and spending time with your friends and family. You could also get a part-time job.”
If you are looking to grow your network of friends, Parker recommends starting with your own interests. “When I’m working with clients, I often encourage people with a smaller network to think about what they like to do in their free time,” she says. “Then I introduce them to Meetup,com an online resource to connect people with a variety of interests including cooking, dancing, hiking, and a lot more.”
She also suggests looking into volunteering as a way to meet new people. “When I moved to the Sacramento area, I joined the Active 20-30 club of Greater Sacramento #1032,” says Parker. “This is an international organization with clubs all over the world with a purpose to raise money to support local children’s charities. Through this organization I have met lifelong friends who have supported me through all sorts of life-changing events. Without this solid group of friends, I would have had a more difficult time overcoming challenges in my life.”
Negendank agrees that your personal interests and experiences can connect you to new people. “Think about something that you are interested in already, that you like to do, or a cause or organization that is meaningful to you. Then find activities in line with those interests,” she suggests. “If you like knitting, you might search Meetup.com for a knitting group. If you like art, sign up for a class at your local college or community center. If you’ve lost someone important to you to an illness, you can volunteer at a local hospital or non-profit organization.”
Along with growing your hobbies, you can also find new connections through church. “Find some groups that you can see on a regular basis,” Sorrentino said. “Don’t stay home and be isolated. Visit family and friends whenever possible.”
How to Make
You’ve made it out of the house and you’re surrounded by new people. Now what? How do you strike up a conversation and start finding common ground?
Remember that it takes time to make friends. “Know that while everyone longs for connection to others, it can still be difficult to find that connection and click with someone else,” says Negendank. “But you can find friends with patience and effort. Once you choose an activity to start, engage in conversations with others at the activity. Ask them questions that show you are interested in what they share with you. If you find something you have in common—maybe you have grandchildren the same age or used to vacation in the same spot—share stories with each other about those topics.”
It will take effort and stepping outside of your comfort zone to make those first steps toward a new friendship. “To make new friends, you have to put yourself out there. Be willing to take a risk,” advises Sorrentino. “You can’t wait for someone to come to you. Initiate! And then follow up with a call to meet for coffee, lunch or a drink.”
You may also find that you can bond over shared experiences that are more common later in life. “Making new friends as you age can be intimidating and may require you to be more open than you have been before,” says Olson. “As you get older, common life changes such as the loss of a spouse, retirement, and issues with health and mobility can take their toll on you and those around you. Recognize those pain points and use them to find potential commonalities that you may share with others to forage new friendships.”
If you are eager for friends, don’t lose sight of what qualities you want in these relationships. “My advice about making new friends is to think about your ‘must-haves’ in a friendship,” says Parker. “What are the values you hold true to yourself? Align yourself with like-minded people. Who you surround yourself with has an impact on you, so choose your friends wisely,” she adds.
And on the off chance that they don’t reciprocate the interest in being buddies, move on. “If someone doesn’t show interest in being your friend, don’t take it personally—they might be going through their own hard time and may not be ready to make a new friend,” says Negendank.
How to Deal With
The Loss of a Friend
Parker experienced losing a close friend for the first time last year. She had known him since high school. They had a tight-knit group of friends that stayed in touch over the years and supported each other through the ups and downs of life. “He was only 51 and was declining from multiple sclerosis,” she says. “Fortunately, his neighbors and friends threw him a celebration of life and my best friend from high school and I went to this together.”
Parker made sure to lean on the friends she knew could support her as she grieved. “One tip that I would recommend is to surround yourself with people you can grieve with and say goodbye to your friend in a mindful way. We honored our friend by going to a beach we would go to when we were younger, drew a message in the sand, and bought bracelets with a heart and angel wing. We still wear these bracelets to honor and remember our dear friend,” she says.
With aging comes the likelihood of having to say goodbye to your friends. Grief is hard and it takes time to heal. “If you feel that the grief is too much to handle, seek the appropriate resources,” advises Olson. “Don’t ever feel that you have to rush the process because it’s a natural part of aging. Look to friends, family, support groups, and professionals.”
Negendank says grief can come in the form of many emotions. “Let yourself feel the emotions you have about the loss of your friend: sadness, anger, regret, fear, shock, numbness. You might experience any or all of these feelings and that’s OK,” she says.
Friends For Life
Whether you are able to say goodbye or not, try to honor them in a way that feels right to you. “If you have the chance to say goodbye to your friend, thank them for their friendship and share what you loved about them. If you don’t get a chance to say goodbye, you might write a letter to them symbolically to say your goodbyes,” advises Negendank. “You can honor your friend after the loss by taking part in things you enjoyed doing together or keeping a picture or keepsake of them.”
Though goodbyes are never easy, it can remind you to be present and express your love to those around you. “Although it’s difficult, it’s also an opportunity to live, love, and mourn as fully as we can,” says Olson.
onna Webb, 57, and Drisha Leggitt, 56, have been friends for nearly 36 years. They met in Chico in 1983, when Leggitt was attending Chico State and Webb was a working single mother. Upon meeting, they both knew there was something special about this blossoming friendship. “She went out of her way to extend her friendship to me in a very unfriendly environment and the rest is history,” Webb recalls.
Leggitt remembers Webb being a bit more reserved. “I knew immediately that Donna was private and a little quiet,” she says. “I didn’t know when we first met that she was a single mother with responsibilities at home. But I could see immediately that she had smart and kind eyes and once I made her laugh, [I saw a] great smile and fun personality. For 35 plus years, she has been as beautiful inside as she is outside!”
How has their friendship lasted so long? They both credit giving each other the space to be themselves. “Personally and professionally, women are often compared/pitted against each other with ‘prettier than,’ ‘smarter than,’ ‘more successful than,’ or ‘thinner than’ comparisons. People have tried over the years to compare or pit us that way—and it has always bothered us,” says Leggitt. “Neither Donna nor I see each other as ‘more than’ or ‘less than.’ We see each other as just different from one another and that’s a good thing. We don’t compete—we complement [each other] and that’s why we work.”
Like many friendships, they’ve had their fair share of ups and downs in life but they’ve stuck by each other through it all. We wanted to know more about what makes them tick and what their friendship means to them—here’s what they said.
What have been some of the highlights of your friendship?
Donna: “Our trip to New York six months after 9/11. And that no matter what was going on in our lives, good or bad, we had each other’s back and helped each other get through some of the messier parts of life.”
Drisha: “Certainly, the New York trip was awesome. Although she only let me sleep about three hours a night! I remember her pushing me out of bed saying, ‘I didn’t come all the way to New York to sleep!’ I guess I should also fess up: I am NOT a morning person. But our whirlwind trips to Florida, and Nevada, and anywhere else I go with Donna is fun. She is a great person, always open and ready for any adventure. For example, during that same New York City trip, I got us horribly lost—which happens frequently since I have terrible sense of direction. Instead of giving me a hard time, she just threw her hands up and said, ‘Well, it’s an island; eventually we will have to run into the hotel!’”
What are some memories of your friendship that you still talk about to this day?
Donna: “There is so much history that is created in a 35-year relationship that it is hard to narrow it down [but some of them are] when we first met, old relationships, how much smarter my kids are than we were, my kids’ milestones, Drisha’s battle with cancer, Drisha’s career and career challenges.”
Drisha: “Donna’s right—so many great memories! We have had many fun times of dancing, weddings, births, and celebrations. And we’ve helped each other through (many) breakups and kid/partner challenges, housing/career rollercoasters, and working out—a lot of working out! Every year, for 35 years, we have celebrated each other’s birthday by taking the other to lunch. No matter what, we always have birthday lunches.”
You've been through some harder times in your lives as well. How did your friendship help during those times?
Donna: “That's when it was at its strongest.”
Drisha: “It’s because of the harder times that we have stayed and grown as friends. A person may have dozens of friends or good acquaintances but if you are stuck on the side of the road in the middle of the night, you are lucky to (maybe) count on one hand the number of people you can call that will help and immediately come pick you up. Donna is one of those people for me. That has been especially important during the darker times. When I found out I had late stage cancer, Donna was by my side and taking care of me throughout the entire process. She drove and sat with me during long and difficult chemotherapy treatments. She cleaned my apartment so that I could rest. She did research on homeopathic supplements to bolster my immune system and counteract my nausea and helped me implement a Halloween fundraising event (that ended up being a lot more work than we anticipated) to help me focus on positive activities instead of the cancer. I attribute Donna as one of the primary reasons why I was able to beat cancer and am alive today. We accept, love, and respect each other. That’s why even during harder times, our friendship makes it easier to face any and all challenges.”
What do you think is the secret to your friendship?
Donna: “Just knowing that no matter what, you have that one person in your corner supporting you and willing to do whatever it takes to see you through. That despite our differences and imperfections we love and accept each other as we are.”
Drisha: “I would say the greatest secret to maintaining a friendship like ours for 35 years is valuing it. I always appreciate Donna's ability to accept me (and anyone else) as I am without judgment. She appreciates everyone and every situation as an opportunity to make the world a better place, create new friendships, and grow personally, professionally, and spiritually.”
What do you love most about the other?
Donna: “Drisha is my biggest cheerleader and fan. She has seen me go through a lot of hardships and transformations and has always, without question, supported me without judgment. She sees only the best parts of me.”
Drisha: “Donna’s strength and compassion knows no bounds! She has a wonderful warm heart filled with optimism. Even when faced with big challenges, she exhibits nothing but positivity, perspective, and pure class. She has a great sense of humor and remarkable insight regarding relationships and opportunities. She’s a wonderful mother, professional, and friend. And I feel lucky every day that she’s been in my life for 35 plus years!”
What does it mean to you to be a good friend?
Donna: “Accepting one another as we are and supporting one another through whatever may come our way.”
Drisha: “Ditto! Donna has taught me to be grateful in all things—and I am very grateful for her!”