Sustaining Friendships

I did a one day graduate workshop on friendship a few years ago.  One of the bits of feedback I got was that people were interested in more attention on how to sustain the friendships they had.  As a result, I organized a mini-workshop on that topic for the last Gathering of the EE graduate community.

As is our practice, participants spoke personally about their own feelings and thoughts, their own experience and insights, and heard feedback from others about how they communicated about this important topic.  The ensuing conversations provided important insights about how to sustain friendships.

Two preliminary points.  First, as Aristotle says, friendship is the greatest of external goods.   It is, among the things outside ourselves, the most important for flourishing.   Second, friendships are diverse, and not all are so valuable.  Sometimes, it is best to let go of friendships, to let them end or even to end them explicitly.  So, it is not that we always need to sustain a given friendship.

The problem is that we sometimes lose friendships that we want to sustain.  As people noted in the workshop, this may be out of negligence or fear.  We may just be busy, or tell ourselves we are, or we may avoid the confrontation or risk that is necessary to sustaining a relationship.  How can we overcome these obstacles?  The three reminders that seem most helpful to me, and to those who reported their insights during the mini-workshop, are: (1) Intention; (2) structure and (3) stretching.

We learn in EE that “Nothing happens.”  This includes friendship.  We tend to think that friendship should be easy and natural, and, to some extent, this is true.  Most friendships begin by our falling in to some shared work or play.  But sustaining a relationship – developing a friendship in which we know and care about each other for who we are – this takes some attention and commitment.

Second, we also learn in the workshop that we all need support.  Part of the support we can create for a friendship we want to sustain is to establish structure.  This may be a regular date or a shared activity or a practice of setting the next meeting time or any kind of external framework that supports spending time together or greater intimacy.  Even the negotiation over the structure can help sustain the friendship.

Third, it is in the nature of good friends that they seek to benefit each other.  Much of what we get from a good friend is, paradoxically, the opportunity to give.  A friendship is sustained and enriched as friends “compete” to be the better friend.  To sustain a friendship, it helps to stretch to be the one who gives the most, who is most generous and kind.  Emerson said, “To have a friend, be one.”

These three practices, it seems to me, can support us as we seek to sustain the friendships that contribute to the life we want to create – if we remember to use them.