Jueves 26 de Mayo de 2005, Ip nº 110

The friendship crisis
Por Martha M Bullen

Writer Martha M Bullen spoke to Marla Paul about her book The Friendship Crisis, which offers candid and empathetic stories and advice for women on finding, keeping and nourishing friendships.

What inspired you to write this book?
I grew up in the Chicago area, but I'd moved to Dallas for five years. When I moved back I didn't anticipate any problems -- I thought I'd breeze into town and have a new group of friends. It didn't happen.

I made all kinds of overtures to women, I invited people out to coffee and lunch. Everybody was happy to get together when I called, but they never called me. I was lonely, I was frustrated, and I was mystified. I figured not everybody's going to like me, but this is getting ridiculous.

So I wrote about it in the Chicago Tribune. Writers have this strange habit of writing about their foibles. When it appeared I was embarrassed about publicizing my wallflower status. But within a couple of days my phone started ringing, and I started getting mail from readers. The general sentiment was, "Thank God it's not just me." It yanked the curtain off something we had been ashamed of and were keeping secret. A lot of us are lonely. It's really hard to make new friends as an adults.

I wrote a similar story in Ladies' Home Journal and got the same reaction nationally. So I knew I had touched a chord. That's when I started to write the column, which led to this book.

Why do you think that friendship is so important to women? I like the term you used -- "friendship hunger" -- to describe this fundamental need
You know how you feel when you're with a friend -- you feel energized, lighter, happier. When you share a problem with a friend, you feel less burdened. When something wonderful happens to you, it yields more joy when you share it. That's something we feel instinctively.

New research into the physiology of friendship is showing that spending time with a close friend has a tremendous impact on your health. You live longer -- that's the science of it. It boosts the health of your cardiovascular system, enhances your memory and it leads to a feistier immune system. Studies show that your wounds heal faster if you have friends, and you don't get as many colds. Friends also protect us against depression and anxiety.

How do children affect women's friendships?
They have a huge impact, especially if you have friends who don't have children. They don't get it that you don't have time for them the way you used to. They're hurt. You can get through that, though it's hard. Especially with babies -- it's so overwhelming. It's like a bomb goes off in your life. You're just trying to survive, let alone worrying about making new friends. Yet it's such a critical time when women need friendship and support.

School-aged kids can also be a challenge. If you're friends with the moms of your kids' friends, then depending on how your kids are getting along, that can affect your friendships. Understand that there's a certain fragility with those friendships. If your kids are having a problem, you can address it with your friend. Let her know that your kids are having some difficulties, but you want to keep your friendship separate from what's going on with them. That can work, as long as you can disengage.

What are some of the biggest friendship stressors?
I learned in my research that there are all these times in women's lives when their friendships hit rough passages or stress periods. It can be when they have children, or when they leave their office to stay home with kids or work from home. Also a crisis in your life -- divorce, moving, becoming a widow, a health crisis -- anything that upsets the applecart of your life affects your friendships.

Why is it harder to make friends as an adult?
One issue is time. Especially if you have kids and are working, you feel you barely have time to be a mom, have your career and be a wife. It doesn't feel like there's much room for friends. I disagree with that perception, but that's the belief. So many women don't make time to see the friends they have, and especially to open their circle to new people.

When you're younger, making friends is effortless. You're in school or at work together, and you can get to know them gradually. As you get older, you don't have the same social situations in common. Making friends becomes work, a job. And you get pickier. When you're younger you're more willing to hang out with people. Now that your window of time shrinks, you want to be with someone you enjoy and have a satisfying relationship with. It gets harder to meet somebody that you're crazy about. You want to make sure it's worth all that work.

Leaving the office to stay home with your kids or work from home can be very isolating. Do you have any tips for other mothers in this situation?
I think you need to get out of the house. I still forget that sometimes -- it's comfy, but you have to force yourself out of the house. You really need to join professional groups and do some networking. A lot of people find colleagues online. I have some online writer friends, and I have find it very helpful. It's not a substitute for face-to-face friendships, but it's another layer that keeps you from feeling so isolated.

What advice do you have for making new friends after a major life transition, such as moving?
Join a group where you can find other people who are new, like Mothers & More (www.mothersandmore.org). You're going to find women who are much more open to relationships. There are also Newcomers Clubs (www.newcomersclub.com). You may not find your soul mate, but you can find a niche in the club -- the book club is where you might meet people.

Also, follow your interests into clubs and classes. Shared projects are helpful too, where you can work with others and get to know them better, such as the PTA. We have something called a young writers' workshop at our school where we tutor kids in writing. I got involved and made a good friend through that.

What do you do if your attempts to find friends aren't working?
Keep trying. I found that being a room mom didn't expose me to enough women, and that in yoga class, people don't like to talk. At first, when something didn't work I'd get discouraged. I'd always just fallen into friendships at work. This is the first time in my life I had to actively make friends. I didn't know how to do that -- I didn't have a good strategy. Not everything will work. Give it your best shot for a while, then try something else. The willingness to keep trying is real important. The book is full of great strategies for making new friends.

Families have such busy schedules that we often forget to make time for our friends. How can we preserve existing friendships?
It helps to have set dates -- every Thursday night you meet So-and-So for coffee, or you go for a bike ride every Saturday morning. Have a separate space on your calendar planned out, because people get busy. You can find different ways to fit friends in your life -- you can walk your dogs, exercise together or meet for coffee before work.

Be willing to leave your family to go out with your friends. Everybody will survive. You'll be a happier person, and a better wife and mother if you make time for yourself. You take it off the back burner and push it to the front burner. You have to realize that spending time with your friends is not a luxury-it's an essential nutrient.

How do you get to the place where you can reveal your deepest self to a new friend?
It takes time. You build a history, you build trust. You need to see if this is someone who truly listens to you, respects who you are, and if you can trust them with a confidence. Take baby steps. Don't just jump out there with your deepest, darkest secrets -- test the waters and see how they respond to you. You know some women for five minutes and they tell you their whole life story. They don't realize it's too much, too fast. Part of what makes a friendship so delightful is a sense of discovering a person, peeling the onion a little bit.

What's the best way to handle conflicts that come up, even in the closest friendships?
You have to decide, as one woman put it, "Is this the hill I want to die on?" How big a deal is this to you? Give it a couple of days or a week and then see. You don't have to address every single thing that irritates you about your friend. But if something is continuing to bother you, you need to talk about it in a non-attacking way.

Certain people are capable of certain things. Some are wonderful at keeping in touch, calling and nurturing, and other people aren't so good at that. I used to have really high standards. If somebody didn't live up to my standards, I might have ended a friendship in the past. But I've lightened up a lot. I realized people have different abilities to give. Cut people some slack if they have a busy schedule. Not taking things personally is important.

How does the Internet help relieve the friendship crisis? Can an electronic friend be as satisfying as a "real" one?
The Internet isn't a substitute for friendships, but it's a wonderful supplement. It can keep you in touch with your friends. I have friends who live a few miles away. We're not going to call everyday, but e-mail helps us keep track of the details of each other's lives. Also, a lot of people are in online lists, and they're getting together and meeting up around the country.

How do male friendships compare to women's friendships?

A lot of men consider their wives or girlfriends their best friends, and they don't feel as comfortable reaching out to other men for emotionally intimate friendships. They'll talk about the game or go golfing, but their wives are their confidants. Women are very aware that they need more friends than their husbands. Men just can't give you all that you need emotionally, nor should they. That puts a lot of pressure on your marriage to expect your spouse to be your end-all and be-all in terms of emotional support.
I've trained my husband. He's a decent listener, but there are certain things he can't relate to because he's not a woman. Once I got all teary about my daughter saying that she'll be leaving home in a couple of years. And he said, "Don't think about it." That was his response! So I had to call a girlfriend to emotionally vent about how I was feeling.

  01/05/2005. She Knows - the web for women.


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