Friendships provide us with support, a sense of belonging, and even increased longevity. But they also require work. Friendships oftentimes take just as much emotional labor as a romantic partnership. This recently hit home for me when I went on vacation with my oldest, dearest friends. I knew our trip would be an incredible opportunity for us to reacquaint ourselves as adults and renew our 35-year friendship. But, I also had misgivings when I imagined how our differing expectations, budgets, and tolerance levels could create problems. My therapist brain started thinking, “Can
couples therapy principles work for friendships too?”
Walking My Walk
During the inevitable tense moments of the trip, I decided to walk the couples counseling walk with my friends. Four things were helpful. I listened and mirrored. Expressing empathy, I affirmed my friends. Addressing conflict with respect was connecting. Nurturing the connection helped us.
Listening and Mirroring
● Listening and mirroring are a shortcut to deeper connection.
Often when we’re listening to someone, we’re already planning our response, which takes us out of the speaker’s experience and keeps us in our own. In an Imago dialogue, we practice listening without opinions, judgment, or defensiveness, by simply mirroring back what the speaker said. When my friends and I were able to listen and mirror each other, we felt immediately understood and heard.
● Empathy transforms perspectives and understanding. Like in an Imago dialogue when we validate our partner’s experience or imagine how our actions impact them, we can strengthen our empathy muscles in friendships to create
greater intimacy, connection, and safety. Accepting and affirming others’ experiences and feelings as their reality, regardless of how different they may be from our own, helps them to feel understood and seen.
● How we address conflict matters. Just like in romantic relationships, we need to be respectful of the different ways people engage with conflict. By using “I feel___ when____…”, we exchange a tone of blame and criticism that may cause the receiver to shut down for one that increases receptiveness and productivity.
●Nurture your friendships the way you would romantic relationships. We’ve all been guilty of letting our friends fall to the sides in favor of romantic partners, but as Esther Perel discusses in her book, Mating in Captivity, expecting our spouses to provide the same amount of support we previously got from friends, family, and others is absurd. We need to diversify our relationship portfolios to include a variety of supports in order to relieve pressure from our primary relationships. Studies show that people who have an expanded network feel more fulfilled and tend to be happier in their romantic relationships over time. So, commit to friendships, old and new, by working through conflicts and differences, making time for one another, and communicating with one another about needs and boundaries.
Don’t hesitate to flood your friends with love and appreciation. The best part of doing this? What we give, we also receive. Expressing gratitude and positivity benefits the speaker as well as the receiver and makes both feel connected and loved. And, next time your friendships feel a bit rocky, remember: a little couples therapy wisdom can make things smoother than ever.