Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Toxic Friendships

The latest scientific research has offered a sensible view of friendship. It has concluded: you don’t need a lot of people and there are a lot of people you don’t need.

One notes that most theories that float through the therapy sphere see life in terms of family relationships. They have very little to say about friendship, about making friends, sustaining friendships and even ending longstanding friendships. A strange neglect, indeed.

And yet, Aristotle declared that friendship was essential to your moral being. After all, you are related to your family members no matter what you do. Since friendship is voluntary it requires a higher degree of virtue. Since friends do not have any blood ties or a defined relationship they stick together because of the way they behave. Friends, the philosopher said, will like you for what is best about you. Family members, I would add, are your kin no matter what you do. You will have noticed that people who are intensely tribal tend to defend members of their tribe or even their own political party no matter what. They live in an amoral and asocial ecosphere.

Now, science has told us that in your lifetime you are not likely to have more than 150 close friends. But, science has also suggested that you are not likely to have more than five very close friends at one time.

According to Robert Dunbar your brain-- and even my brain-- is designed to function within a small community. It evolved at a time when people lived in small communities, not in a large cosmopolitan metropolis. Since the laws of evolution tell us that the human organism takes tens of thousands of years to undergo significant change, the rise of big cities has not had very much impact, yet. The human brain still functions as though we were all living in small communities.

Marissa Higgins explains it in Bustle:

When it comes down to it, it's realistic to recognize that our brains are only able to store so much information; as such, it makes sense that when it comes to the people we're the most connected with, they're likely to take up more room, energy, and attention in our minds. This doesn't mean other people are unimportant, just that their relationship is different, in terms of how your brain handles it.

Higgins makes a number of interesting points. Most importantly, she sees the limit on our ability to have close friends in terms of information storage. We tend to think of friends as people who share feelings with each other, but a close friendship involves exchanging and sharing information. You know more details about a friend’s life than you do about an acquaintance’s. If you want to show that you care, it is less persuasive to say that you care than to show that you recall his dog's name or his wife's illness. You confide in friends more than you do in acquaintances. You trust them more with potentially damaging disclosures.

Trust between friends must be built... gradually. You do not open your heart and soul to someone you met an hour ago. You confide small things and arrange casual meetings in order to see whether he can be trusted. You increase the intimacy level as you see that he is someone in whom you can confide.

Thus, friendship involves confidence and trust, confidence in the other person’s discretion and trust that he will keep your secrets. But it also involves stored information. And that means, recalling enough information to make conversation more economical. You can get to the point more quickly with your close friends because they know the players and the game. If you had to explain it all to different people each time you wanted to discuss an issue you would quickly find the task unnecessarily burdensome.

But, the amount of shared information, especially shared intimate information, makes a friendship very difficult to break. If your friend becomes an enemy he will find himself in possession of information he can use to damage your reputation and your other relationships. It’s like what happens when a teenager sexts another teenager. If true love should ever turn to hatred, the pictures can be used to humiliate the sender.

Another important aspect of friendship, one that it obviously shares with family relations is that friends become an integral part of each other’s routines. Obviously, they are not as integral to one’s life as immediate family, but friendship is often routinized. Contacts between friends have a rhythm. The fact that a friend is sufficiently thoughtful and concerned to keep appointments with you, to keep in touch, to show up on a regular basis… all of these aspects affirm the existence of friendship.

As happens with any relationship, the consistency of contact and the routinization of meetings and communication provide a sense of security. It shows that the friend is loyal and trustworthy. And one needs to understand that these activities are all voluntary. You will certainly establish routines in your daily life in your family, but since your family is your family no matter what, family routines are less a matter of free choice than of necessity.

Not all friendships are equally beneficial. One does not like to think that one should be getting something out of a friendship, but once a friendship becomes toxic it will be taking more from you than it is giving. A toxic friendship distracts you from the tasks at hand, undermines your confidence, occupies your mind with needless drama and conflict. At that point, it will need to be ended.

Recent research by Dr. Daniel Yadager has shown that some friendships are bad for your health… literally. A friend who is constantly stressing you out will cause your metabolism to produce higher levels of a protein that causes inflammation and damages your health.

Some people are all give and no take. Others are all take and no give. In either case, the imbalance causes stress. Some people use their friends and remain close only for whatever advantages can accrue to them. Others choose friends who will make them feel important, who are sycophants and suck-ups. Still others choose friends who they can put down, the better to boost their self-esteem.


Ares Olympus said...

Overall a good summary. I was curious about the title "toxic friendship" while that was only mentioned at the end, and with minimum commentary.

As a side note, a long while ago I read C.S. Lewis's book "The four loves", and he called friendship #2, Philia.

This blog also didn't attempt any differentiation between male friendships, female friendships, or male-female friendships, assuming the third exists in nonfamily relations outside of romantic interests.

We've also neglected the question of how friendships change with age, with peer groups being more important for youth, and how friendships can form across generations, or whether if those end up more mentoring friendships.

Finally back to the "toxic" aspects, I admit this quote from Stuart sounds more like what I see from my 20yo niece's facebook posts or motivational graphics, worded much better, but just as fatalistic.
Stuart: "Not all friendships are equally beneficial. One does not like to think that one should be getting something out of a friendship, but once a friendship becomes toxic it will be taking more from you than it is giving. A toxic friendship distracts you from the tasks at hand, undermines your confidence, occupies your mind with needless drama and conflict. At that point, it will need to be ended."

My experience might show people who talk about "needless drama and conflict" are the ones most experienced with creating drama and conflict. Or it might be high-drama and low-drama people play off each other in ways, or maybe like extroverts and introverts who have different sorts of struggles.

I suppose I'd see most of the problems coming down to a need for assertiveness, learning how to assert boundaries and defend them, and when your skills are lacking its too easy to say its someone else's bad behavior that you can't say no when you want to say no to what they're doing or saying or asking of you.

And for that matter, I'd say family relationships are where those skills are learned, and where bad defense mechanisms are learned before we know what we're doing, and so if you want to prefilter out "toxic people" probably the best best is to look at family relations, and if a person can't get along with family, visibly, and contemptuously, you can guess they'll have poor skills to keeping friendships.

Shaun F said...

I agree with the observation about certain segments of society being tribal and defending members of their tribe to the point where they become dogmatic and ignore facts and truth. Of course, I would view that as misplaced and blind loyalty.

I gave some thought to Marissa Higgins observations. I can't say, for myself, that the people I am closest to I think of very often, be it friends or family. I can say that I have a depth of knowledge about their lives and experiences I can draw from.

And sadly, some friendships have to end. It's rarely pleasant and often is painful. However, as an astute person remarked "Everything ends badly, otherwise it wouldn't end."