Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Real "Secret"

What if someone discovered a magic elixir that would help you to live longer, would increase your chances of beating cancer, would make it more unlikely that you will catch cold, would lower your risk of heart attack, would help you lose weight, and would promote brain health?

Would you want to know what it is? Would you take it? Would you want to know why there aren't any infomercials trying to sell it?

Surely, you would.

The answer might be surprising. This "secret" is not hidden away in some guarded vault. It is all around you, in plain sight. As Tara Parker-Pope told us in the New York Times a few days ago, it is: friendship. Link here.

Why have we not all embraced it? Perhaps because it requires work, far more work than taking a pill or a supplement. And it also requires good behavior, something that is often in short supply in our celebrity-driven culture.

As Parker-Pope presents it, psychologists have been wracking their brains to discover the keys to family relations and true conjugal love, while they should have delved more deeply into friendship.

Professor Rebecca Adams of the University of North Carolina put it well: "There is scads of stuff on families and marriage, but very little on friendship. It baffles me. Friendship has a bigger impact on our psychological well-being than family relationships."

And yet, all of the interpretive keys that psychotherapy has taught us to use to decipher hidden motives lead back to family.

Why has friendship been neglected? I do not think that the oversight has been intentional.

Developmental psychology has good reason for beginning with the mother/infant dyad, moving on to the family unit, and then assuming that every other relationship merely replicates the basic family structure.

But this assumes that we never really put away the toys of our childhood, a dubious assumption, and one that ought at least to be questioned.

If it all goes back to your childhood relations with your parents and siblings, then, what matters is blood ties. And the central moral fact about blood relations is that they do not produce a connection that is based on behavior. You do not have to do anything to be related by blood. And you only have to do the minimum to stay connected.

It takes a major effort to be disowned by your family.

As for romantic love, mostly we believe that it is a precursor to the creation of a new family and new blood relations. We also hope that it will be unconditional.

Don't we expect that true love will entice people to overlook the kind of bad behavior that a friend would never tolerate? True love provokes emotional excesses that would kill most friendships.

Friendship, however, is a social tie. F
riendship feels like belonging to a group, like having earned one's place within a group.

If societies are alliances between families, then they are modeled more on friendship than on blood relations.

And friendship promotes ethical behavior. To maintain a friendship you need to behave yourself. If you want to have a lot of friends you need to develop the good habits that build character.

Thus, Aristotle saw friendship, not romantic love, as the basis for ethical behavior in human community.

Friends are more therapeutic than family because, as Aristotle put it, we tend to see the best in our friends. Being your best self and seeing the best in those who are close to you makes your relationships more harmonious and enhances your self-esteem.

Freud saw human life as a family romance writ large. As a result, he wanted us all to see the worst in our blood relations. Freudian therapy is about exploring the limits of human depravity: molestation, incest, patricide.

But a process focused on the worst in self and others could hardly be therapeutic.

Nowadays research shows that patients are most likely to improve in therapy if they have a good human connection with their therapists. This suggests that therapy works best when there is something like a friendship between patient and therapist.

All those years of advanced psychological study and now they tell us that what really matters is the ability to get along. I venture to guess that precious few clinical psychology programs have courses in how to be a good friend!

If friendship is the basis for improvement in therapy and if friendship is a social tie that involves neither blood relations nor libido, then the transference-- considered as a re-enactment of unresolved childhood eroticism-- can only be an obstacle to anyone ever getting better.

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