Friendships are among the most important relationships in our lives, often outlasting love affairs, marriages, even, at times, family connections. In True Friends, PATTI MILLER shared with us the joyful making and then painful ending of a long, close friendship. It was a deep and influential relationship in her life, but when it inexplicably unravelled, she was left searching for answers. In this article Patti explores the common threads of friendships and why we might make friends with some people and not with others.
I found a new friend, Sylvie, by leaving a note on the wall of my apartment building in Paris. I was looking for a conversation partner to practise French, but from the first meeting I knew she would become a friend. She was warm, open, French-of-Indian-origin (self-described) and she loved books as much as I do. We had a shared passion.
I’ve realised that a passion for literature has been a common thread in nearly all my friendships. If we both know and love that vast world inside books, then it means we probably have a lot in common. Of course, it doesn’t have to be books (it does for me), but I’d argue there needs at least one shared interest – anything from football to knitting to rock-collecting – that creates a common terrain. It’s not that you need to talk about football or rocks, it’s just that you each know it matters – which makes me wonder if sharing a sense that something matters is the heart of friendship.
It could be a shared cause. Shared politics, or at least values, is an absolute for many. It’s not that your friends have to vote for the same political party, but that the values underlying that choice, a sense of justice, or care for the environment, or the importance of family, need to be shared. I’ve noticed at the beginning of possible friendships there is always a ‘testing of the waters’ where we each offer opinions to see what the other person thinks, what they value.
Sometimes a friendship will be based on a shared situation; work, parenting, studying. You know the other person must deal with the challenges and joys, just as you do. These situational friendships often don’t last after the situation has changed – it turns out that Margo was only the mother of your son’s friend, Kate was only a coffee-break connection at work.
All of which makes me wonder, what we are seeking in friendship? Who are we friends with and why?
According to the neuroscience of friendship – a new area of study – we are all biologically programmed for friendship – the evolutionary model argues it’s necessary for our survival to be valued by more than just our family. We need a larger community of allies to get through the jungle alive. Even animals need to be part of a group. So how do we select who will be on our side?
The research suggests that the central connection between friends is that they share a similar ‘schema’ of themselves, and of others. It means if I value insight in a friend, she also values it in me, and we also see and value the same qualities in others. There is something doubling in this idea – that together we are more than what we are alone. The singularity of our existence is transformed into a warm human reality as you and I recognise each other.
Then there are the roles that are allotted in friendship. The one who leaps excitedly in and the one who follows; the pretty girl and her acolyte; the wild one and her sympathiser; the needy one and her defender. Perhaps these are repetitions of family patterns.
‘All I got from my mother was that I was the wrong kind of person’, a quiet friend said to me one day. When I asked her what kind of person her mother wanted her to be, she said, ‘Optimistic, I suppose. Full of relentless enthusiasms. Like my older sister.’
Like me, I thought. Do we seek out in friends the same relationships as in our family and try to do a better job of it than we did before. My mother and younger sister were reserved, like my friend.
None of this takes into account that we are attracted to some people and not to others, even before we know what they are like. All the other criteria are there; a shared passion, values, situation, but you are simply not really interested in each other. Other times there is a spark, an instant recognition, like love at first sight, where you know you are going to be friends. For me, if I know someone is a reader, then I am immediately interested, whatever the person’s character or personality. Perhaps a test for true friendship for me is the ability to be able to read quietly together without having to talk!
According to research, friendship is strengthened by the way friends affect each other’s bodies – friends can strongly affect heart rate, blood pressure and sleep. It appears to be due to the mirror effect; the same neurones light up in our brains when we watch someone act as we do ourselves. When Sylvie stretches her body, lifts an eyebrow, mirror neurones light up in my brain as if my body were also stretching, lifting a quizzical eyebrow.
She is reflected in a mirror inside my body – and I in hers so that we see not just each other, but ourselves. That is how we both know we are here – we are seen.
What more can we do for each other? All it takes is a note on a wall.
Find other books by Patti Miller here.