This year, OnePoll together with Evite produced a large study which examined the intricate social dynamics of Americans. In other words, they were looking into how many friends people have. The average number of friends an American has is 16 but those they counted as their very nearest and dearest was only three.
Why are our friendships so important? Well, I think that’s obvious, but there are many well-documented benefits of having friends and friendships. Some of these include:
- Improved self-esteem and self-worth.
- A greater sense of belonging and purpose in life.
- Increased happiness.
- Increased ability to cope with traumas, such as illness, loss of a loved one, job loss, etc.
- Healthier lifestyle choices when friends are good role models.
But when things get tough, how can we be sure that we can actually rely upon our friends to step up and be there for us?
Unfortunately, for many people facing an illness, the person they always counted on as their rock, their best and closest friend or family member, is the very person who withdraws. This happened in my case, and it was a very emotionally and psychologically painful experience that I never expected.
My assumption, after being diagnosed with cancer, was that everyone would rally and I would be immersed in a cocoon love. As I found out, times of turmoil are exactly when our friendships are tested the most. And here are some reasons why.
It is challenging finding out a friend is really sick and many people genuinely don’t know how to handle it when someone they know becomes ill. They feel fearful for their friend and for themselves. Naturally, many start to grieve the loss of their friend before a person has died.
Friends can have great difficulty expressing their emotions. Often, very uncomfortable feelings come up when someone they know is ill. Yet, they believe they have no right to feel such emotions when their friend is experiencing something unimaginable. As a result, most of them say nothing at all. Many times, people withdraw from the life of the sick friend and never return.
Some people decide the person who is ill probably needs their privacy and space. Rather than checking if there is anything they can do, or even better, offering some specific help, they stop calling almost overnight. It’s abrupt and hurtful.
Others are reminded of their own personal traumas or demons, so they steer clear to avoid those memories rising to the surface.
Some feel they have no experience with helping someone who is ill, so they believe they have nothing useful to offer.
Some people would rather wait it out and go back to the way things were once the person gets better. They hope their friend will go back to their old self again after treatment and that the friendship will just pick up where it left off. Unfortunately, for the person who has received treatment for an illness, the experience has been one of abandonment. As a result, there is little desire to resume that friendship. This is what the term “fair weather friend” means.
There are also the “fix-it” friends who believe they have the solution to the problem and offer advice as to how to “beat it.” When someone plays pseudo-doctor and contradicts the professionals, it can cause the person with the illness to withdraw from the friendship.
However, the bottom line and the most overwhelming reason why friendships fail in times of need is vulnerability – for both the ill person and their friends. The problem is we are constantly being told to toughen up. But this approach is failing us and our friendships miserably. By hiding our hurt and not wanting to be seen by our friends as exactly who we are in times of turmoil, there is no way either party can ever receive what they need.
By allowing ourselves the space to acknowledge our fears and anxieties, we make a path for love and connection to flow. And that’s all we really want – to feel loved and be held, physically and/or emotionally.
If you recognise your friends or family members in any of those descriptions, or if you recognise yourself in a situation with a friend or family member, take heart. There are ways to better deal with these circumstances.
Alexandra Stewart has authored the book, Friendships: The Hidden Victims of Cancer. She has taken her first-hand experience during her cancer journey and turned it into a resource to ensure others are better able to navigate the tricky waters maintaining friendships through illness. Copies can be bought at www.kee-mohsnacks.com.au