Friendships are a quintessential part of the human experience. As toddlers, we learn the basics of human interaction, forming the building blocks for all our future relationships. And as we grow up, we learn more and more how nuanced these things are, how equally fragile and indestructible friendships can be.
The value of friendships
Nicola Zangara, a licensed clinical social worker, based in Arizona, is particularly passionate about helping women navigate their female friendships.
“Female friendships are needed for all women,” she says. “(They help) us feel supported and sane.”
Compared to male friendships, Zangara says, “Women are more emotion-driven and will spend the day together getting coffee or drinks, and catching up for hours.”
On the other hand, “Male friendships are more action-driven, such that men meet up and play basketball or go to a baseball game together. They do some type of activity together, and that's how they connect.”
Of course, not all women and not all men are like this, Zangara notes, and she doesn’t discount the benefits of making friends with people of opposite genders, either. Case in point, the oft-debated platonic male-female friendship and the age-old question, “Can men and women be just friends?”
“(Male-female friendships) absolutely work and can be a great alternative to same-sex friendships,” says Zangara, author of the book Surviving Female Friendships: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.
“I think it gets to be a problem when the (romantic) partner views the friend as a threat. If not, then the partner usually welcomes the friend into the couple's lives.”
Making friends as a grownup
While we adults struggle to put aside our differences, connect with others and make lasting, authentic friendships, children often seem to make friends anywhere and everywhere, and fast. With back-to-school season upon us, you’ll no doubt be noticing all the kids and their friends catching the bus in the morning or walking home together at the end of the day. Isn’t there just something that seems so carefree and easy about childhood friendships?
“The way we go about (relationships is) different, since we have so much more access to friendships as kids,” Zangara explains, noting the natural opportunities to make friends provided by school and extracurricular activities.
“As adults, we have to be more pro-active about finding friends, as well as maintaining the friendship. We get busier and have other priorities – family, work, school – and can't spend as much time with our friends, so we have to make sure we're putting in the effort.”
Show the kids how it’s done
Though we may find it harder to forge friendships as adults, once we figure it out, we can do the children in our lives a service by modelling good friendship behaviours for them.
“Sometimes we let a friendship fail rather than confronting the person. I see it all the time,” Zangara says.
In the same way you would model a healthy marriage for your children, Zangara says, you can show them how to nurture a strong friendship by demonstrating good communication, respect, trust and loyalty. To preserve your friendships, it is crucial to be honest and keep the lines of communication open, she explains.
When to call it quits
Of course, some friendships are just not meant to last – and that’s okay. But how do you know when it’s time?
“It’s not a ‘one-size fits all’ answer,” Zangara says. “It depends on the friendship, how long you've been friends, the history, whether you both want to keep the friendship going.” But, she says, if the friendship is toxic, it's time to end it.
“Friendships should terminate when betrayal has occurred,” offers Dr. Marlene Caroselli, an author, keynoter and corporate trainer whose clients include Lockheed Martin and the Navy SEALS, among others.
She recommends taking stock of your friendships at least once a year.
“Think about all the forms betrayal can take – not feeling supported, having a secret revealed, disregard of things that are important to you, inability to listen well, lacking a generous heart, lying, and so on,” Caroselli says. “Ask those whose opinions you respect for additional ideas. And, from time to time, explain the importance of these behaviours to your children and to yourself. If one or more has been exhibited, it is probably time to re-evaluate the friendship, if not to end it.”