Friendshifts: Keeping Close Through Life's Changes


You probably already know that how you relate to others is based on the early patterns you learned in dealing with your mother, father, and siblings. Knowing that fact, and recognizing those patterns, is a crucial first step in changing your current friendship patterns, if you are displeased with them. It will also help you to be a more compassionate and understanding friend if your friends disappoint you. They may be unwittingly reenacting a pattern from their childhood that has nothing to do with you. For example, a friend who becomes very competitive with you may be doing it because she was always being compared to her two older brothers. You could reject your friend because of her competitiveness, but you would then both lose.

Since the only person you can be assured of changing is yourself, start there. Why does her competitiveness strike such a negative chord in you? Is it really your friend's behavior that is the problem, or your inability to effectively deal with it and with her? Welcome this opportunity to work this conflict out with her and with yourself, or you will find yourself facing the same unresolved conflict over competitiveness with another friend.


Their father hit Kurt and his younger sister several times a week, beginning when Kurt was four. As Kurt explains in the CBS TV special, Break the Silence: Kids Against Child Abuse, "The abuse finally stopped when my sister told some of her friends what had been happening. Her friends told a grown-up who they could trust, who called the child abuse hot line." Kurt and his sister were reunited with their parents after three years in foster care after their father stopped the drinking that precipitated the physical abuse. Both their parents learned how to discipline their children without hitting and causing black eyes or bloody noses.

Whether or not you were born into a nurturing family, your friends could offer what you need. That is one of the themes of this book: that friends are an underused source of help for troubled families, especially neglected or abused children, adolescents, and young adults. Friends can offset the low self-esteem and loneliness caused by abusive or dysfunctional families before, or in addition to, intervention by therapists or family services. As then-president George Bush pleaded with America's youth in September 1989, if they had a friend with a drug problem, "I'm asking you not to look the other way."


I have always been fascinated by human nature, but my formal training began in 1970, when I attended Hahnemann Medical College for a graduate internship in psychiatric art therapy. Over the next decade, I taught college courses, completed a masters degree in criminal justice, and wrote several nonfiction books, including Victims (Scribner's, 1978), The Help Book (Scribner's, 1979), and Single in America (Atheneum, 1980).

My serious interest in friendship began when I was a graduate student and I dated a man who had a very powerful and supportive friendship network with his best friends from high school. Although I have always had girlfriends, it was usually just me and that one other friend. I would usually have numerous unrelated "friendship pairs"; I longed to have a similar female network of "buddies" with whom I too would feel genuinely connected. My only sister's imminent relocation with her husband to Washington, D.C.-for several years, after a decade of living in distant cities, they had been living in an apartment just a block from my Manhattan residence also caused me to take stock of my friendships. My sister and I had developed an especially open and intimate kinship during those years she lived close by; what girlfriends would be there for me now that my sister would again be far away?

In 1980, as I began to study friendship as the topic for my doctoral dissertation for my Ph.D. in sociology (City University of New York, 1983), I was initially fascinated to discover differences between male and female friendships. I also wanted to explore why friendships end; I soon realized that to learn why friendships ended, I had to understand friendship beginnings and maintenance.

My dissertation was an in-depth empirical study of the friendship patterns of 27 young, single women living alone on one randomly selected block on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. A nine-month analysis and interpretation of those in-depth interviews dispelled several clichés about female friendships, namely that they often involved rivalry over men, were mostly pairs or one-on-one friendships, and were based mainly on sharing confidences.

By contrast, my research discovered that of the closest friendships of the women I interviewed, less than half (41 %) were between two women or friendship pairs. The rest were part of a three-way friendship (22%) or a network of four or more friends (37%). The majority of friendships were based on sharing activities and emotional support (85%), with only 7% basing their friendship on sharing confidences. Despite the prevailing myths, only two friendships of the women I interviewed had actually ended because of rivalry over a man. (Some of the findings from my dissertation were discussed by Letty Cottin Pogrebin in Among Friends, Eva Margolies in The Best of Friends, The Worst of Enemies, and Linda Wolfe in "Friendship in the City," published in New York magazine.)

Over the years, I have followed up my dissertation with more than 250 extensive in-person or telephone interviews on friendship with a wide range of married, divorced, and widowed men and women as well as children, teens, workers, and executives. I researched and published a scholarly bibliography with 693 entries, Friendship: A Selected, Annotated Bibliography (Garland, 1985), a popular booklet on friendship, and magazine articles for Modern Bride, McCall's, and American Baby. I also surveyed over 500 students, married men and women, and never-married, divorced, or widowed singles from throughout the United States as well as from Canada, Japan, Switzerland, India, and the United Kingdom, including a survey from 1990 to 1992 of 257 randomly-selected members of the Society for Human Resource Management about work and friendship; since 1994, I have been conducting an in-depth study of more than two dozen adult survivors of childhood and adolescent sexual abuse and how those early experiences impacted on their friendship patterns.
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