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On Health

Andy, my friend of 20 years, called this morning just as I was on my way out. He was struggling with something his daughter said and wanted my support. Last night, eating dinner with my childhood friend, Phil, I shared the challenges I was having preparing for an upcoming meeting. These experiences highlight the back-and-forth sharing and listening that forms the foundation of a good friendship. Andy called me because he anticipated I would listen and also offer him meaningful support. Sharing my hopes and worries with Phil helped me to think through how I could best prepare for my meeting.

Being able to form and maintain friendships over time is a hallmark of healthy human functioning. Considerable research over the past 40 years documents the extraordinary power people gain from offering and receiving support from others. Well before the present meaning of “social networks,” abundant research demonstrated how the support we feel when we are connected with others provides us with broad benefits. Social support helps improve our physical health and maintain our emotional well-being.

Friendship is an essential subset of our wider social support network. While this wider network might include family, colleagues, a religious community, a therapist or other groups of like-minded people, having and being a friend offers something distinctive. Families can be supportive, but for many people the inevitable shared history of being in a family can inhibit the closeness a friendship offers. Likewise, it is sometimes useful, even necessary, to talk things over with a therapist who is not judgmental, or clergy who can offer advice. But while friendships provide us with benefits that are similar to what the wider social support network offers us, there are several features that set friendships apart. These relate to time, mutuality and communication.

Friendships are interpersonal connections that we build and maintain over a significant period of time, often across many decades. This feature, the longevity of friendships, as well as the time spent developing and maintaining them, is one of their essential characteristics. Another vital aspect of friendships, mutuality, is about how we share the responsibilities of being a friend. If only one person carries the weight of the relationship, it can spell trouble for the friendship. It is important to feel that what we offer or provide to a friend is reciprocated. A lack of adequate give-and-take between friends can create conflict. This is where another important element of friendship comes in. Communication between friends, not just about what is going on in each other’s lives, but what is happening in the friendship itself, is an important part of maintaining a healthy friendship.

Like any close relationship, being able to talk face to face about the difficulties that crop up between us makes the bonds of friendship stronger and more resilient. While some people seem to get by without close friends, most of us benefit from having at least one or two friendships we maintain over time. Friends are the people we can count on and who count on us to share the joys and challenges of life in intimate, long-lasting relationships.

Today’s column is dedicated to my friend Gary.

Tony Hacker, Ph.D. is a Seattle-area psychologist who sees individuals and couples in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. Reach him at