Friendship as a Theme in Therapy

20 - Mar - 2022

Having been asked recently about contributing to a Radio Four piece discussing online friendship apps I have been thinking about how friendship so often appears as a theme in therapy. Sometimes people come for therapy talking about loneliness and isolation specifically in relation to friendship whilst at other times people are experiencing isolation and loneliness, struggling with a concern in life alone, not because of a lack of friendship but because they choose not to talk about worries with their friends. Meanwhile sometimes friends, determined not to lose a friendship come to therapy to try and work through a concern they cannot resolve alone.  

Loneliness and isolation have received increased attention over the last few years including how they impact on the psychological wellbeing of the elderly, young, single people, bereaved, and how things such as the pandemic, lockdowns, migration, and the move towards doing more online can all challenge friendship. The context and shape of relationships is forever changing and so reflecting on the part that friendship plays in our lives can be as important as putting time aside to think about our health or finances. 

So, I wonder what the words friend and friendship mean to you? What is the shape that friendship takes in your life, family, community, faith, and culture? When have you had the best and worst experiences of friendship? How is friendship balanced in relation to other types of relationship and aspects of your life? Which friendships bring different experiences and what are they? What are the elements of friendship that bring you joy and sadness? Do you choose your friends, or do they choose you?

Maybe the words friend and friendship connect you to a younger, happier, more joyful and playful energy, maybe it brings feelings of hope and optimism as you think of friends and enjoy the anticipation that comes from thinking about the next time you meet?  At the same time maybe you notice feelings of sadness and regret as lost friendships, missed opportunities and thoughts about the types of friendship not experienced also come to mind?

As with taking the time to reflect on any aspect of experience it is both natural but not necessarily helpful to find oneself captivated by the less positive feelings and thoughts about what we don’t have such that priority is given to understanding what wrong and what needs is fixing as opposed to what is right for us and what we do have. Often the best way to fix something that is wrong for us in life is to put more focus on what is right for us, what we are finding positive, what we are good at doing? So, in terms of friendship maybe you have some good friendships that you have neglected recently? Maybe there are people who you could look to spend more time with? Maybe you have been avoiding addressing an area of discomfort with a friend?

One of the aspects of the nature of friendship, as opposed to other types of relationships, is the potential for us to choose them and the potential for a felt sense of freedom and equality. In the absence of dynamics that can come from the often inherent power and expectations of particular structures of relationship for example managers, teachers, family, authority figures etc our friendships have the potential for greatest sense of ease, evidenced by the ability of friends to easily say what they think and feel and navigate decision making such that both or all have a sense of contentment over how time together is spent.

Of course, this does all depend upon how you and your friend / friends view friendship. What expectations do you have and how are they similar or opposed? Do you have different views on how much time friends should spend together? How many friends do you want? Do you like to meet friends individually or in groups? What priority should friendship be given over other aspects or life or relationships? Whether you see friendships as being for life, for the moment or a mix? And probably most importantly your alignment on all these things and how you can communicate, either through spoken word or through action.

Friendship is also very much connected to our stages of life and the opportunities and challenges they present for making friendships. School and university years, moving through our careers, becoming parents, grandparents, retirement, life changes and challenges, redundancies, and illnesses. And of course, every new generation has new opportunities for friendship through innovations and technology whilst older generations find that friendship is yet another area of life that is throwing up change and transition.

Returning to the specific issue of the rise of online friendship apps, there is the changing cultural and societal context that somehow creates a structure of expectations around friendship and how to make friends. So, what is the best way to make friends? Striking up conversations with strangers? Joining clubs or sports groups? Finding groups that share interests or causes? Learning new skills? Signing up to courses? Networking? Friendship apps? Online forums? Pen pals? Volunteering? Starting a neighbourhood watch? Or joining some other local committee?

I wonder which of these you found most and least appealing? And I wonder whether any other possibilities came to mind? I wonder which of these you might be interested in trying? Your initial reaction is important because the more positive it is the more aligned it is with your life experience, what is familiar to you and your sense of potential success.