Bonds to Breaks, The Dynamic Nature of Friendships

We start making friends early on in life. The funny playmate, the smart one, the naughty one, or the one that we cannot wait to see the next day or spend as much time with as possible and go adventuring with. At that point in life, there generally are no problems to be confronted, and everything seems possible. Even the impossible. Dreaming. Learning. Sharing. All that is done with a bubbly, curious attitude, which leaves no room for growing up faster than necessary. The fun and camaraderie may be occasionally interrupted by pouting, whining, and impatience but can be quickly dissolved by the next good thing and lighthearted sharing.

A few years pass, and interests vary. The first aspirations for the future are sketched. “I want to be a doctor!” “I want to be a policeman!” “I want to go to the moon!” “I want to be an artist!” “Oh, I want to be a teacher!” Animated conversations occur among not-so-young friends, and parents are informed, the latter often raising an eye or trying to guide their exuberant offspring. Friendships may end because of jealousy, judgment, or lack of support (to mention a few reasons). A couple of years go by, and everything changes again. Reality knocks at the door, and carefree innocence is lost. Everything we came to believe as children is put to the test all at once – or seems to be. Bonds. Friendships. Certainties.

The social skills learned, such as communicating, working together, and solving problems, are acquired during those first childhood friendships. Children learn about altruism, empathy, confidence, support, teamwork, and happiness for themselves, boosted by and for others. Parents can be the next-notch-up friends: build trust, encourage open communication, impart values, nurture self-discovery, or be the “oh-no-not-them!” people who impose their views, will, and use generational biases and convictions to prevent uncomfortable questions or answers – often in the name of protection of waning innocence.

The good friends made during early life are insecure, maybe weird, and can be trusted because of that inherent innocent vulnerability. They are dependable when it counts: no fair-weather or on-and-off characters. Those friends are loyal, empathetic, funny, prompt a feel-good time when in their company, are lightheartedly and boisterously self-confident, rarely pass judgment, and have no expectations other than quality time together. Friends like that are “good” for one another and fuel love and self-love. Conversely, those who repeatedly one-up the other, have no interest in or respect for boundaries, bully, and put down end up being kept at arm’s length or altogether avoided no matter what. All that turns into a guideline for future friendships.

As the years and decades pass, those first sketchy guidelines come into focus more and more and lead to an intuitive and simultaneously informed path of social interaction. There is no easy or comfortable way to build meaningful friendships. However, laying a foundation that can weather and withstand future challenges is necessary. Some prefer a more reserved, self-reliant, detached approach, taking time to learn more about a potential friend. Some will enthusiastically dive into a quick assessment, unconcerned with the depth of the friendship, instead seeking instant satisfaction. Both methods are acceptable, though their outcomes may be different. It is based on history, experiences, and lessons learned. Yet, to have a meaningful connection, however long or short, some things are necessary building blocks: being an attentive listener, being consistent, open and vulnerable, reliable, and having a positive attitude (leaving ego at the door, so to speak) – all leading to trustworthiness and setting clear boundaries.

No relationship is immune from falling apart. A broken friendship can be a terrible loss. After all, a good friend is who we turn to in times of need. We turn to them when our love lives fall apart, careers break down, we are very frightened or need trusty emotional support, we are confused or uncertain, and we look at those friends to clear the mental fog. “That” friend is the sounding board, the coach, the cheerleader, the harsh and mainly neutral one who speaks truths and takes us to task while giving a reassuring hug or not scolding us for venting – all without judgment. The deep investment in one another is a decisive balancing act. We know we can turn to them without hesitation or fear; they know they can turn to us without hesitation or fear. The interchange must be equal; reciprocity is essential to build the foundation mentioned above.

No wonder feelings of rejection and abandonment take over when a friendship breaks. It is alright to grieve the “lifeline” that snapped. It can snap for many reasons; some are more significant than others — the snap prompts time for reflection, self-evaluation, and space. When we are the ones who made a mistake, we must acknowledge it, own up to it, be accountable, and take responsibility for it. Apologize earnestly and make amends. Crucially, being determined not to repeat the same mistake and being aware of the consequences becomes essential for the survival of the friendship. The “lifeline” is not flexible enough to withstand unlimited and careless pulling. It frays over time, even under the best circumstances, if not tended to. How to tend to it? Attentive and thoughtful periodic maintenance aimed at preserving balance and the prevalence of positives.

Very few friendships survive the test of time while challenges erode the foundation. When they survive, through careful action and responsibility, they signify a proven, solid foundation, conscientious maintenance, and possibly successful and timely repair. When they do not, some people may want to “get even.” There is no benefit to showing possibly the worst side of oneself to others. None. Focusing on the opportunity for growth and profound self-awareness is the best way forward: asking if we are truthfully the kind of friend we would like to have ourselves. The answer must be based on honest self-criticism devoid of ego. The end of a friendship does not negate its positive aspects, and attempting to erase it removes its value.

Lydia Denworth, a scientific writer, wrote in 2020, “Friendship is carried in our DNA, in how we are wired. That means friendship is not a choice or a luxury; it is a necessity critical to our ability to succeed and thrive. Evolutionary biologists have found that high-quality bonds require three things: they are long-lasting, positive, and cooperative. You need all three. The science of friendship shows that the good does not necessarily outweigh the bad if there is too much bad.”

Prioritizing one’s mental health by moving on from someone who caused or is causing mental and emotional harm is okay (seek help if you are struggling to cope; there is no shame in doing so, quite the opposite – I have). Letting go of false guilt, especially after a toxic or damaging friendship, is a healthy step forward. Taking responsibility for one’s actions and reactions, honestly and candidly, will make for a better foundation in future relationships. Love and respect yourself and others equally. Food for thought: maybe a friendship fell apart not because of what was done but because of what was not done; perhaps it broke down not because of setting boundaries but because they were not respected. The foundation collapsed. Learn from it.

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