I had a conversation with women, many of whom are recent transplants to a new town. We shared what it’s like and what it takes to make friendships when you are new to a community. I realized how valuable it would be to open up this topic in this forum. I welcome your experiences about building friendships and community at ANY stage in life so feel free to comment.
I asked many adults (20-97 years) what are some of the words they associate with friendship. Among the most common were: trustworthy, supportive, loving, fun, empathic, sympathetic, dependable, compassionate, authentic, good listener, safe, kind, non-judgmental, non-competitive, connected, accepting, flexible, honest, understanding, works through misunderstandings, respects privacy and boundaries, honors secrets, has reasonable expectations, forgiving, curious, is not possessive or jealous.
Common statements include:
“My friends are determined to keep our friendship alive over time–despite the distance and changes in our lives.”
“I never feel judged by my friend.”
“My friend would never use something against me that could embarrass me.”
“If my friend shares something confidential, it never leaves my lips.”
“I learn about myself from my friends.”
“I reach out to my friend when I am stressed, worried or afraid.”
“My friend is someone I want to hang out with, have fun with, and depend on.”
“I can depend on my friend whether things are up or down.”
“My friend shows up, even without my asking. She is not afraid to walk with me when I am in my darkest moments.”
“She is happy for me especially in my success.”
“We are not jealous of each other.”
When assessing friendships, especially when arriving in a new community, we need to pay attention to how open we are to meeting new people. Folks, perhaps, who are different from us, come from other cultures or parts of the world, have had different experiences. We need to ask ourselves where am I now and what do I need? We begin making friends when we are young and can continue until we are old. What I feel many of us are not aware of us what we need from a friend at THIS time of our life. And how are we willing to be a friend. To figure this out requires that we engage in honest self-reflection.
When we relocate we will experience a variety of emotional responses including (and not limited to) excitement, fear, adventure, loss, wonder, anxiety, enthusiasm, confusion, resentment, delight, regret, worry, curiosity, and loneliness.
We may not know anyone. Nobody knows us. We want to be known. But we have amassed a lifetime of living. Where are we NOW? We may want to talk through things as we adapt to a new place. Reaching out can be challenging yet it is important that we make connections. We may ask, whose opinion can I trust? We may have worked and are now unemployed. We may move because of a job (or loss of one), our spouse’s job (or loss of one), family issues, a child’s school needs, “downsizing”, wanting or needing a new community, financial reversals, whatever. But there are new people, places, routines, lifestyles to discover. Much that is familiar is in the past. We need to be aware that we are open to new experiences without losing ourselves in the process. Change can be challenging. It is common to both resist and embrace it.
There is scientific data that supports our need for the love and support of friends during stressful times. The famous “tend and befriend” study at UCLA (co-authored by Taylor, Klein, Lewis, Gruenewald, Gurung and Updegraff) confirmed the value of loving, supportive friendship that help women cope with the daily stresses of their lives. When stressed, women nurture one another and their children, particularly those who are the more vulnerable among them.
“What is a friend? A single soul dwelling in two bodies.” Aristotle wrote extensively about true friendship as an important determinant and component of living a meaningful life. Friendships usually take time and space to grow. “The desire for friendship comes quickly. Friendship does not.” (Aristotle). Sharing different experiences where we can sense the formation of a bond over time, helps us to feel safe and secure in the relationship. Friends often value time together to be quiet, to talk through a problem, to experience uninterrupted time together. In our fast-paced world, with distracting pings, rings, buzzes and beeps from a variety of devices, that essential element of friendship is often lost.
Ironically, the more technologically connected we are through social media, the more we are at risk for losing deep human connection. On-line social connections are valuable for lots of things but they are typically friendships that are more shallow than deep. Mark Vernon, a priest turned psychotherapist and author of The Meaning of Friendship, observes:
“Just as our daily lives are becoming more technologically connected, we’re losing other more meaningful relationships. Yes, we’re losing our friends.”
More and more people are feeling isolated and alone, despite the number of social media “friends” they have. They report few if any people with whom they can share their true selves, discuss intimate thoughts, fears, or experiences. Isolation can result in chronic stress which contributes to deterioration of the body and an increase in blood pressure. It’s important to engage in the world and connect with other people from different generations and backgrounds. Some of the most vibrant and loving friendships are between people who may be years apart in age and who grew up on different continents but at the point of their lives where they are now, they share something of value that they each recognize.
Friendships remind us that the world is bigger than our individual lives and that we are, in fact, part of a community. They help us live balanced, healthy, engaged, purposeful and connected lives. Supportive friendship and other meaningful social connections are linked to longer life spans, improved physical, mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing, healthier living habits, lower blood pressure, good heart rate and cholesterol, sharper brain activity, and better survival rates after breast cancer and heart disease. And it can be awfully helpful to have someone to lean on in challenging times.