Monday, January 4, 2010

“When a Best Friend Dies”

Best friendships are arguably the most underrated of all intimate relationships. And yet, research has shown that close friendships act as a kind of “behavioral vaccine,” as two female researchers wrote. Strong social supports improve an individual’s sense of happiness and overall well-being. Conversely, loneliness and lack of social supports are linked to an increased risk of heart disease, viral infection, and higher mortality rates.

My big sister Julie’s best friend died on Christmas Day. Bev had been hovering near death for ten days before she died at 91 in hospice with her six children gathered around. Nearing eighty herself and a widow, Julie had never before had a best friend. Oh yes. She had coffee klatch friends that typically are found in small towns across mid-America. And church basement ladies with whom she had served countless after-funeral lunches. And friends she saw at work or in her volunteer activities. But never a best friend. Until five or six years ago, when she and Bev became chums.

She had proudly introduced Bev to me twice. And she told me stories of their trips to visit her friend’s daughter in Florida. And of excursions to the Wal-Mart in the next town. This is the kind of hanging out that female best friends enjoy. So I knew when I received the first e-mail from her saying that her friend was gravely ill, this would be significant and difficult for Julie.

I began e-mailing her daily. And on Christmas Eve, I called her. Normally, Julie likes to exchange basic information while on the phone and finish the call. That day, however, she talked for over 35 minutes, reminiscing and worrying for her friend’s safe passage. I felt complimented that she would let me take care of her, rather than the reverse as she had done so many times throughout my life.

Even before Bev died, Julie began using the past tense in referring to her, as though she was already dead. I thought that was curious, so I mentioned it to my best friend, Karen, when we spoke. “She has lost so much, so she is used to experiencing the death of loved ones.” Indeed, she already was preparing herself to deal with Bev’s absence.

I wondered and continue to do so what it will be like for Karen or me when one of us has to bury the other. And my other best friend as well. I have already asked them to make certain their partners notify me if anything happens to either of them. I suspect that, because both Karen and Faye live in different cities, it will be easier for one of us to be left behind. It also will be easier for us to remain in denial, with our minds playing tricks on us to blunt the loss. If so, that will impede our recovery.

I know this much is true. I am blessed by all of my friendships, particularly those to whom I can tell all my secrets -- my best friends.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

"Dear Anonymous"

I had two strong reactions when I read the comment you posted on my blog on 12/23. Thank you for leaving it. I invite all of my readers to comment. It puts me in touch with the caring community I am building online.

My first was heartbreak for you. After five years with this woman and three sessions with a counselor, you are primarily being beaten up? It sounds like you haven’t gone back to see the counselor, and I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t. It is possible for a well-trained family systems therapist to work individually with one member of a couple and then bring the other partner into joint therapy. However, doing so requires extraordinary skill. In order for that to work, the therapist must know how to balance alliances to and join with both of you.

Clearly, your relationship issue with your significant other requires more skill than the male-bashing that this counselor does in the guise of therapy. It may seem like she is helping your s.o. out by siding with her. But look at it this way. After 3 years, she’s still suffering from the after effects of the divorce, and the counselor is both allowing and encouraging her to remain in her misery? Your s.o. has won only a small victory!

Your story is exactly why I wrote my first book, HELPING MEN CHANGE: THE ROLE OF THE FEMALE THERAPIST. It was not because I felt that men needed to do all the changing in a relationship. However, that was the prevailing sentiment at that time. It was a time of feminists’ backlash against the power men had claimed in relationships up until the 1950’s. HELPING MEN CHANGE was published in 1993 after an editor who heard my presentation about my men’s groups offered me a contract on the spot at the end. She said, “I’ve been looking for two years for the right woman to write this book. If you want a contact, you’ve got it.”

What made me “the right woman?” My ability to see relationships as systems. I believe to my core that relationship are an interlocking web of covert agreements that people strike between each other that stabilize and perpetuate their relationship. So to blame one of them for all the relationship’s woes is simply not accurate. Nor is it fair. It really does take two to tango.

My other reaction was anger at the counselor. Male-bashing is simply not an adequate therapeutic strategy! Nor would the reverse be appropriate if a male therapist were to perpetrate it on female clients. Her response to both of you belies unfinished business of her own that has created a major blind spot for her and has crept into her work. I can only theorize about what that might be. But I can tell you this. It is indefensible.

How do I work with couples differently from this? The core of how I work focuses around a few key questions. Often, they can't be answered the first, the third, or even the tenth time I ask them. These are abstract, emotionally-laden issues. But they must be answered by people.

1. What are you getting out of continuing to fight with each other about this situation?
2. How is it helping you? (Yes, you read that correctly.)
3. What do you suppose you two would be thinking about and working with if you weren’t struggling with the aftermath of her divorce?
4. What’s in it for you to stay?

I don’t have to tell you that five years is a long time and a lot of investment. So it behooves you to advocate for your relationship by finding the best therapist you can to help you. And if your s.o. refuses to see anyone other than the person she’s been working with (who, as you see, has not been very helpful) then get some help to sort through your feelings and questions on your own.

If you can’t answer the questions above and would like my help, remember I offer a complimentary consultation. Just call my toll free number (888-546-1580) to schedule a appointment.