Making Friends: Insights on Friendship from the World’s Leading Experts - Pt. 2, Andrea Bonior

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Last week, I launched a new series designed to boost readers’ friendship skills. Whether you already have a satisfying social life, or whether you are unhappy with your track record in connecting to others, you'll find the experts featured here will expand your understanding of how community works.

To check out last week's interview with Dr.Geoffrey Greif, a researcher who has studied male friendships, click here.

Meet Dr.Andrea Bonior

Dr. Andrea Bonior is a licensed clinical psychologist, professor, and writer with degrees from Yale University, American University, and George Washington University. She currently maintains a private practice and has served on the staff of four university counseling centers, as well as various mental health agencies. She is best known for her weekly mental health column in the Washington Post Express.

Social Media, Co-Ed Friendships, and Unhealthy Connections

Sarah: The media tends to write a lot about problems women experience in dating relationships, but the truth is platonic friendships can be just as painful. What motivated you to write about this aspect of women's lives in The Friendship Fix?

Dr.Bonior: I was struck by the fact that self-development books (in addition the media, as you mentioned!) seem to overwhelmingly focus on romantic and family relationships, as if friendships don't really matter to well-being. My clinical practice kept showing me that friendships--or the lack thereof--sometimes were making or breaking people's lives, truly. They were the good, the bad, and the ugly, and they could significantly help someone overcome depression on the one hand, or actually be part of the cause of it on the other! And the more I studied friendship in the research literature, the more struck I was by how crucial it was to physical and emotional health, for instance being one of the major predictors of longevity. So I desperately wanted to get that conversation going.

Sarah: It's funny that the headlines often ignore the influence on friends on a person's life. Let's take a specific example of this. Sometimes women seem attracted to date men who mistreat them. Is this kind of unhealthy choice seen with friendships as well? What should people keep in mind when trying to choose a friend who will contribute good to their lives? Dr.Bonior: Absolutely. In fact, because friendship is not expected to be monogamous, I think sometimes it can be even easier to excuse keeping someone toxic in your life, because you don't have to 'break up' with them in order to have other friends. So I've worked with lots of women who are in friendships with people they know don't treat them well, but through guilt, fear of awkwardness or conflict, or a misplaced sense of loyalty, they keep them as friends. They convince themselves they can just try to spend less time with them. Of course, when a person is toxic, they are often dominating and controlling, which makes it very hard for this backing-off-from-them strategy to succeed! Sarah: So interesting! Let's focus for a minute on how these friend dynamics play out in today's generation. How has modern technology like smart phones or the internet, for example, changed the way friendship works today? What are some good rules of thumb or etiquette you suggest? Dr.Bonior: In some ways, texting has made it easier to build friendships. Beginning to text someone can open the door to conversation that in the past would have had to wait until people saw each other again (because they didn't know each other well enough to start calling just to chat.) And it can be a blessing for keeping friendships going when someone has moved away. It can approximate the proximity of being physically close. But, it also can splinter us off from meeting people in-person, as we perhaps get less skilled and comfortable with striking up conversations outside of our phones. It can take us away from the friend we're having coffee with in the moment, making us less engaged and more distracted. It can be worse than voice-to-voice contact because it lacks the spontaneity and nuance of real back-and-forth spoken conversation. A good general rule of thumb is, when you're engaging with someone, engage with them. So don't interrupt real-life conversations for a quick glance at your phone (yes, your friend notices.) Keep balance. Don't text someone way more incessantly than they text you. And communicate honestly and respectfully about what works and what doesn't. If it's getting on your nerves that your friend keeps putting references to your personal conversations on your facebook wall, say so! Sarah: What about social media? What are the things you see people doing that subtract from the quality of their relationships? And how, on the flip side, might social media benefit them as well? Dr. Bonior: Social media has been amazing for keeping in touch and keeping on being part of someone's daily life when you no longer have physical proximity. It can also allow you to meet people you may have never met otherwise, connecting people within certain communities to others with shared experiences and support. On the other hand, a common problem seems to be getting sucked in to an endless cycle of checking social media over and over again and having no real emotional connection to show for it. It increases our sense of being "busy" and we may be less likely to make dinner or brunch plans because we've gotten too comfortable being at home and scrolling through our newsfeeds without actually having to interact (or wear pants!). Social media makes it far too easy to value quantity over quality, and it can increase our sense of jealousy or even disconnection when we constantly compare ourselves to the highly stylized and calculated photos that everyone else is putting out there. It can make us feel worse about ourselves, and we may spend all our time clicking "Like" on some video we didn't even bother to watch instead of actually having a real emotional engagement with our friends. Sarah: I feel like technology could consume this entire piece because it's such a big part of how people relate today. But I want to ask about other areas too. You wrote about the role of co-ed friendships, for instance. Do we see more of these now than previous generations or is that just our perception. What extra challenges and benefits do co-ed friendships offer in your experience? Dr.Bonior: Absolutely, there's data that does point to co-ed friendships (or at least people endorsing their importance or admitting to having them) having been on the rise compared to past generations. I think they can be wonderful and often help bring a diversity of perspectives and experience to someone's friendships. They help demystify the opposite sex and can increase empathy and help both genders value each other in ways beyond physical attraction. Their downfall, of course, comes if there is sexual or romantic drama, if one person wants to be more than friends (which of course can happen in same-sex friendships as well). Expectations can be muddied, and there can be pressure or hurt when someone wants more.

Sarah: I think some people will really relate to that, to both the value and challenges of co-ed friends. But let's talk to people who are really struggling socially for a second. If someone found themselves in mid-adulthood with no support system, what would would you suggest they do to find and develop friendships?

Dr.Bonior: First, recognize this is common, and you need not take it personally. Friendships often dwindle during life transitions, and it can feel embarrassing, but that will only make it harder to work on. View it as a tangible problem to conquer. Focus on building community. A sense of belongingness can be important even outside of the individual friendships it brings. Volunteer organizations, fitness classes, dog parks, neighborhood listservs, book clubs, alumni organizations, meetup.com groups, even frequenting the same manicurist or teleworking from the same coffee shop can make you start to feel part of a community.

Think of what's of interest to you and pursue it. Introduce yourself and follow up beyond small talk by remembering something they said and getting deeper into it, asking questions and really listening to the answers. Share something about yourself that makes you a little vulnerable. And most of all, don't be afraid of sticking your neck out and even asking someone if they want to have coffee. It's a numbers game; it will take a while and that's okay. You can even make reference to the awkwardness; humor and vulnerability is all good too!

Special thanks to Dr.Bonior for taking the time to share her insights with Huffington Post readers this week. Check back next week for another installment in the Making Friends series.

Read the next post in this series on friendship here. Or check out Truth or Dare: The Podcast That Boosts Your Social Health.

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