The Expert Opinion: Why Friendship Matters
Psychotherapist Mr David Waters uses real-life stories to give you the tools to get the most out of life.
Clive first came to see me six months ago. A smart guy with a flair for business, he walked into my coaching room with an air of command. His hair was neatly buzz cut, his button-down shirt sharply pressed and his Oxfords had a conker-bright shine. My immediate impression was that this guy would make a brilliant extra in a WWII movie.
Clive was seeking my help because his girlfriend of three years had broken up with him. He was not expecting it.
“Weekends are the hardest,” he said looking down at the carpet. “If I don’t plan stuff to do, I can easily crack open a bottle of wine before lunchtime and polish it off before dinner.” Neuroscience confirms that the heartache and rejection of a partner ending a relationship against our wishes manifests itself as physical pain. No wonder Clive was turning to whatever seemed to numb this feeling.
And yet Clive had several close friends he’d known for more than 15 years. “But they’re all hooked up,” he said, slowly shaking his head when I reminded him about them. “I feel like the odd man out and I hate to impose myself, especially when I’m being such a misery.”
Clive was avoiding his friends, even as they actively tried to help. He would turn down their suggestions of movie nights, dinner or a Saturday-afternoon round of golf. His pride was getting in the way, telling him his friends were inviting him out of pity. This made him feel ashamed, which further drove a wedge between him and the very people who could help him the most.
I encouraged Clive to confide in one of his closest friends, to tell him how he was really feeling. “I’m not sure I could do that,” he said. “He’d think I’m such a loser.”
“Try it,” I said. “Look, you’re able to tell me what’s really going on. A true friend would want to know what’s up, too.”
“Knowing you have friends who’ve got your back makes life’s challenges feel far less arduous”
After several sessions and more bleak, wine-fuelled weekends, Clive found the courage to meet up with Steve, a friend from his college days. “Steve was brilliant at uni,” said Clive. “You can tell him anything, even embarrassing stuff, and he’ll never judge you. He’s such a brilliant guy.”
“I just couldn’t believe it,” he said when we saw each other after the two had met up. “Steve just seems to get it. He even told me about how hard he found things when he got divorced from his wife five years ago. I had no idea. Just talking it through with him made me feel better. In fact, we’re getting together again next week. I can’t believe I’m even looking forward to it.”
Clive had had a breakthrough. He had managed to open up to his friend and was feeling exhilarated with relief and the growing closeness between them.
I explained to Clive he was tapping in to a powerful psychological benefit by opening up to his friend.
Researchers at Rutgers University in New Jersey stood people at the base of a hill and asked them to rate how hard they thought it would be to climb. Then they stood a friend next to each participant and asked them to rate the incline for a second time. Every participant rated the incline as far gentler while their friend was present. The same result was found even when the researchers asked participants to just think about their friend before rating the incline.
The researchers concluded that knowing you have friends who’ve got your back makes life’s challenges feel far less arduous.
As in our romantic relationships, when we are able share our struggles, confusions and difficulties with those we care about, and who care about us, deep connections form. By opening up about their relationship struggles, Clive and Steve became closer buddies. And, as a result, Clive reached out to other friends and slowly became his confident, fun self again.
Clive no longer sees me for coaching. “If I’d known I had such brilliant friends I can rely on, I could have saved myself a fortune,” he said smiling as we hugged each other goodbye.
All names have been changed
Illustration by Mr Charlie Davis