Friendships give strength to partnership08 March 2021
Linda Bloom, L.C.S.W., and Charlie Bloom, M.S.W. :
Linda: I live in Northern California where we can frequently see the ancient redwood and Sequoias, which are the largest and tallest trees in the world. They grow to a height of more than 250 feet tall and up to 30 feet in diameter. As tall as they are, you would probably expect them to have a deep root system, but they don't. Surprisingly they have a shallow root system. Nevertheless, they cannot be blown over by the strongest wind. The secret of their stability is the interweaving of each tree's roots with those that stand by it. This vast network of support is formed just beneath the surface. In the wildest of storms, these trees hold each other up.
It takes a great toll on our primary relationship if they are the only one we turn to. If we do not have a network of support, like the giant Sequoias, the expectations of our partner or a spouse can be so great, that they could damage the primary relationship.
It was about this same time that I was reading a book called Bowling Alone, The collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert Putnam, It's a survey of social patterns in the United States going back to the 1940s. Friendship ties are breaking down. It was reassuring that my experience is not idiosyncratic to me. It is a national phenomenon. Putnam sites the Needham Life Style Archive, whose research says that in the 1960's the average American entertained friends at home fourteen to fifteen times a year. By the 1990s that figure had fallen to eight times a year, a decline of 45% in two decades. Putnam's study shows that with the dwindling of friendship ties, the amount of people who are depending solely on their spouse for close contact is increasing.
Putnam states that one major factor in social life becoming stretched with fewer contacts is due to the onset of the Women's movement in the early 1970s when a massive amount of women entered the workforce. These women, who had organized the family's social calendars, are now too busy to organize social events the way they had in the past. They are too busy and too tired. We have heard a great deal over the years about men taking on more responsibility for cooking and household tasks, and dad's increased involvement with their children, are all necessary steps in the right direction. But another essential position, that of social director, has been scaled way down by most women. For many men, the social calendar may not be on their radar screen, so social contact is diminishing.
In an article that I read about social isolation in America, by Miller McPherson from the University of Arizona and Duke University together with Lynn Smith-Lovin from Duke, and Matthew Brashears of the University of Arizona.
They conducted a survey of Americans throughout the country in 1985, asking how many confidants the study participant had. In the first study result was one in four people said that they had only one confidant or none. I thought that was a sad and terrible finding that such a large number of people had no one or only one person that they could confide in times of trouble. But I was even more distressed to find that when these researchers repeated the study in 2004, things were getting worse rather than better. In the more recent survey, now it's one in two people who say that they only have one confidant or none. This is an alarming social trend.
It is of utmost importance to have confidants because there are some things that we discuss only with the people who are very close to us. We all need support, need people we can turn to for help in a crisis, to discuss options with when we have important decisions to make, and to know that we are not alone in this sometimes demanding challenging world. To thrive, we need to speak about our intimate relationships, finances, health, work problems, and other interests. The study in 2004 showed that as a result of their social isolation, people are less likely than in 1985 to see others as fair. They are more likely to see others as willing to take advantage of them. They are less likely to see others as helpful, and more likely to see them as looking out for themselves. This skepticism is a distressing trend because strong ties with family and friends are not only important to our emotional psychological well-being, but they impact our health and longevity. To enjoy life, we need people to play with to amplify our pleasure by sharing with others.
Many researchers observed that when people feel stressed, they don't turn to family and community, they work more. In our highly materialistic society, hard work and money seem to be the answer to all problems. That's where most people seem to put their energies. They might be aware of the statistics that have shown for years that after you make it out of subsistence level to have food and shelter, there are the same numbers of happy and unhappy people in every income strata.
They might say that "money can't buy happiness," but they aren't living that way. They don't put their energy into deepening their friendships. Massive numbers of people may know the truth on some level that the largest boost to our happiness comes from our closest personal ties to family and friends.
But so many don't seem to be living from this truth.
In our review of the literature of the happiest countries in the world, one of the variables that cut across all the happy countries is that family and community get a big part of their lives. The happiest countries in the world all have certain traits in common. In Denmark for instance which often is rated as the happiest country in the world, everyone goes home from work by 5:00 PM. 95% of the people in the country belong to clubs of all kinds, where they meet regularly with others that are passionate about the same kinds of hobbies. Danes have a dark period in the winter, and because so many people get the blues in this season, they have regular parties where they decorate with candles, to meet with each other, enjoying human contact and picking up their spirits. And they take all their vacation time.
Some of the small Central American countries like Panama, Costa Rica, and Columbia have about the seventh of the annual income that we have in this country and yet they are much higher on the happiness charts than the United States that ranks a low 20th. Mexico, with an inferior educational system to the United States, and an inferior medical care system compared to ours, and a police force that most Mexican citizens don't trust and hold as corrupt, scores much higher on the happiness scale than we do. They don't overwork and spend a lot of time in the fiesta, party time, going to church together, and hanging out with family and friends.
Unless we are awake and aware, those around us will influence us. Too many of them are not taking great care of their relationships. It is the rare person that is conscious of how dramatically their life is negatively impacted by the loss of a close relationship, and enhanced by the positive impact of having many who are close dear confidants, and playmates. So it is important for each of us to ask some important questions:
1. Am I willing to do a lot of outreach to bring those that I care for together?
2. Am I willing to plan dinner dates months in advance.
3. How important is it to me to have strong connections with friends?
4. Do I have friends that are so close that I can call them "my family of choice"?
5. Does connection mean so much to me, that I will do whatever it takes to make this part of my life thrive?
6. Am I blessed to have many confidants?
With a fierce and clear intention, we cannot only steer our lives in the direction of happiness, but we can impact the trend that is taking us in the wrong direction. Here's wishing you close connections with others, friendship with breadth and depth to enhance your life and to strengthen your partnership.
(Linda Bloom, L.C.S.W., and Charlie Bloom, M.S.W., are the authors of Secrets of Great Marriages: Real Truths from Real Couples About Lasting Love).