Many years ago, a high-profile client approaching retirement asked if I would meet with his spouse to hear her observations about his recent feelings of depression. “She knows me better than anyone,” he said.
I met his wife at a café. I never forgot her assessment of her husband: “Everywhere we go; people stop and say hi to him. It seems like he knows everybody in town. We cannot go out to eat without being greeted. He has four thousand friends, but he has no friends. Around our neighborhood, he walks around by himself with no one to keep him company.”
I pressed her on what she meant by “four thousand friends and no friends.” She said, “It’s hard to get beneath the surface with my husband. He doesn’t know how to let people in, even our adult children. His friendships are widespread and pleasant, but shallow.”
The description seemed out of place for an esteemed business and community leader and member of several clubs. My client to that point had amassed a fortune in an enterprise employing hundreds of people. He had all the appearances of happiness. He seemed like one of the lucky few. But here he was, depressed, and isolated from any real friends.
For this person, an apparent inability to know another, or to be known by them, produced a sense of loneliness. “To whom do I belong?” “Who is there for me?” “Who really knows me?”
“Loneliness is like an iceberg – it goes deeper than we can see,” said social neuroscientist John Cacioppo. “Loneliness is contagious, heritable, affects one in four people – and increases the chances of early death by twenty percent.”
Throughout human history, friends and family members have formed small communities. Those social groups served a variety of functions, from casual interactions to end-of-life care. Then, as now, having friends contributed to survival and longevity.
What is a friend?
The word might refer to acquaintances, work colleagues, adventure-seeking companions, fellow hobbyists, buddies you hang out with, nurturers, devil’s advocates, mentors, long-distance relationships, spiritual accompanists, or hybrids of any of the above.
Of all the possibilities, one kind of relationship stands out: A deep friendship. In an age of superficial sound bites and impersonal exchanges, consider yourself fortunate if you enjoy a deep friendship with even one person.
In a deep friendship, transparency and self-honesty govern interactions. Thoughts and feelings are expressed without fear, or pretend togetherness. Shared time includes lots of listening, and generous self-exposure. Gossip and small talk give way to realness, and spontaneous humor.
A deep friendship is co-created over time. It navigates the varied changes in the lives of two individuals, tolerates the discomfort of self-revelation, and works through the tension of conflict. Like an emotional treasure, a deep friendship supplies life-defining benefits – calmness, support, challenge, and an enduring sense of belonging.
Some realize deep friendship with their significant others. But that’s not automatic. After observing emotional distance among couples, the insightful psychiatrist, Murray Bowen, wrote:
The most striking example of emotional distance was in families with formal, controlled positiveness. They saw their marriage as ideal.
They had few conflicts and disagreements. To the casual observer the marriage had the external appearance of closeness. They used or over-used conventional terms of endearment.
The parents’ emotional isolation from each other was the striking characteristic. Neither one could speak to the other about their feelings and emotions, concerns, worries and inner thoughts.
Here were two people acting close and saying things that gave the impression of closeness but they were widely separated emotionally. They could talk freely about distant subjects, or about their children, but conversation stopped on subjects of a personal or emotional nature.
Bowen’s observations reveal that deeper connection takes work, even with a spouse whom you might see as your best friend. Could it be that deep friendship – rather than romance, wealth accumulation, or caretaking the kids – is the secret sauce in healthy marriages?
With family or friends, do you find yourself hungry for interactions of substance and depth? A deep friendship cannot be found like a lost artifact, or conjured up based on good feelings alone. Rather, it’s planted and watered, like an oak tree.
How does that happen?
The never-to-be-forgotten key to a deep friendship is will. You have to want it.
Once you have clarity that friendship is important to you, take responsibility for making it real. Recognize the importance of relationships, and your need for friends. Acknowledge that work, money, prestige, and attention – common markers of “success,” do not bring enduring happiness. Re-evaluate your priorities.
You’ll probably find yourself distinguishing high-potential friends from acquaintances.
You’ll start retiring shallow relationships that offer little satisfaction while gobbling up your time.
You might reflect on individuals you respect and like with whom you can grow a relationship. That might include re-igniting an old friendship.
Friends don’t fall from the sky. You’ll be entering a zone of discomfort that requires taking relationship risks, initiating contact, asking deeper questions, and getting interested in learning about the other. Not everyone will respond in kind. That frees you to move on.
Thoughtfully letting others in is a mature move, that makes no promises. Some luck is usually a factor. When it works, the benefits can be life-changing.