My message is that it is not necessarily indulgent because having good, strong friendships is as important for yourself as diet and exercise, and so it’s something you need to prioritize. If you are forever canceling on your friends or failing to make a point of seeing them or talking to them or interacting with them, then you are not being a good friend and you are not maintaining a strong relationship. You need your friends to be there down the road. But you have to do the work along the way, or they won’t be there. Friendship does take some time, but that’s kind of good news because (mostly) hanging out with your friends is fun.
The second half of the story, though, is that it’s quite normal for there to be change in our friendships over the course of a lifetime, and that’s OK. Friendship does need to be a relationship that’s longstanding, but you can cycle through several longstanding friendships in the course of your life. So, it isn’t that you can only stay friends with the people you knew when you were young, of course, because plenty of people do make friends in adulthood and those can become closer friends.
If a relationship is not healthy or even if it’s just not serving you well—if it’s not positive, if it’s really draining, or if it’s lopsided and one of you is always helping the other but not vice versa—that’s not so great. I think people need to realize that it is OK to walk away from friendships that aren’t good ones.
KN: That seems like the flipside of all the amazing benefits that we get when we have strong friendships: There’s a lot of potential for pain when we have difficult, conflict-ridden relationships.
LD: Just like a strong relationship is good for you, a negative relationship is bad for you. Even an ambivalent relationship is bad for you, it turns out, biologically.
An ambivalent relationship is a relationship where you have positive feelings and negative feelings about the person or about your interactions with them. And that’s true of a lot of our relationships—almost half.
Researchers had a scale of one to five: How positive does this relationship make you feel, and how negative does this relationship make you feel? Anybody who was two or above on both things counted as ambivalent, which is really broad. You could be five on the good and two on the bad. What was interesting was that any relationship that was categorized as ambivalent seemed to generate cardiovascular issues and other kinds of health problems.
It’s not as surprising that a toxic relationship would be bad for your health. But I think that the problem with ambivalent relationships, which a lot of us have many of, is more surprising. I think most people suspect that the good outweighs the bad, and so far (it’s early days in that research) it doesn’t look that way.
I think that all this is a reminder of the importance of friendship and working on relationships—all of them, but including your friendships. There’s real value in a positive friendship.
If it isn’t positive, then you can do a couple of things. One is you can try to make it better, work on it, have a hard conversation, perhaps. Two is you quit and you say, “I’m not going to have this person in my life,” but that can be very dramatic. And three would be that you shuffle that friend to the outer circles of your social life. Maybe it’s not someone you can easily stop seeing, but if you don’t rely on them emotionally anymore, then that’s better for you.
KN: Are there some practices you would suggest or steps that you take in your own life to put more time and energy into friendship?
LD: It really does just begin as simply as paying attention and prioritizing. I try regularly to plan to get together with my close friends and the people I care about seeing a lot. We all have relatively busy lives, but I, first of all, make an effort to make the plan, and then I make an effort to get there—to show up. I think showing up is a really critical piece of friendship, in every sense of the phrase.
It could just be that you don’t have time to get together with someone for dinner for weeks, so you have a phone call and you catch up that way. Taking time to catch up on somebody’s life and hear what’s going on with them is an important indicator of it’s worth my time to know what’s going on in your life.
In addition, I think it’s useful to remember that science has clarified the definition of a quality relationship. It has to have these minimum three things: It’s a stable, longstanding bond; it’s positive; and it’s cooperative—it’s helpful, reciprocal, I’m there for you, you’re there for me.