My childhood chum and I did everything together. Dennis and I played ping-pong until we fell from exhaustion. A brief snack later, we played Monopoly until his parents sent me home. I returned after dinner to play basketball into the night. Who needed to see the hoop? We were best friends. All we needed was each other.
Ultimately, I moved away, and our friendship faded. But childhood friendships stay alive in adult minds. They bring forth warm memories of innocence, loyalty and love.
Adolescent male relationships have a unique flavor. They taste of adventure and competition. Together, my friends and I scaled the cliffs of adolescence. Roped in with clothesline, we rappelled down sheer slopes. Bruised and battered, we landed on our feet — sometimes, just barely.
Teenage girls relate differently. “Girls are more inclined to tell everything to each other,” said Kathleen, a 17-year-old high school student. “They’re able to tell each other their innermost secrets. Boys keep these feelings to themselves.”
There are significant differences in how males and females form and maintain friendship in our culture. Female relationships are more complex. Dr. Jean Miller, a psychologist, developed “relational” theories of female maturation. These models suggested that relationships are central to a woman’s sense of self at all ages.
I always watched with awe when my daughters were young and interacted with their sophisticated circle of friends.
At 9 years old, I observed how emotional currency was exchanged, bartered and sometimes leveraged. Occasionally, I observed how cruel girls can be with each other. Exclusion is their weapon of choice. Selectively and thoughtfully administered, it can wound and pierce the self-esteem of even the hardiest girl.
Naturally, I am more familiar with male patterns of relating. Boys simply beat each other up. Primitive, but equally effective, brute force is the childhood coinage of male friendships. This is followed by intense competition on the playing field — and then everywhere else.
Friendships, throughout the life cycle, are meaningful. In childhood, best friends teach each other important lessons about intimacy, honesty and commitment. In adolescence, the peer group shapes teenage behavior, values and morality. Adults friendships, often patterned during teenage years, provide practical and emotional support. They’re very important.
It’s ironic. Husbands and wives don’t take each other’s advice — especially when it’s good counsel. Children never listen to their parents, and parents rarely listen to their children’s suggestions. But friends, freely chosen, listen to and seek out each other’s words, advice and support.
Ultimately, adults fulfill deep emotional and psychological needs in their friendships. They find a common language and vocabulary in these connections.
In their romantic involvements, men and women struggle to understand each other. Often, they feel lost, confused and misunderstood. But especially in same-sex friendships, men and women return to familiar ground — they come home. So much is understood intuitively and immediately in these relationships. It’s a welcome relief from the intricacies of romantic attachments.
While many adults do have close friends that may span many years (There is nothing quite like old friends!), it is important to develop new friendships, too. This can be a challenge.
Nurture friendships. The pick-up and delivery pace of family and everyday life leaves little time for quiet moments with friends. Despite this scarcity of time, it’s important for men and women to carve out space for these relationships. Cultivating and maintaining relationships takes work. But this work nourishes and feeds the spirit.
My good friend Tracy and I have lunch together almost every week. Our weekly lunch is a time to share news and catch up. And, his 98-year-old mom joins us, too.
Create new friendship opportunities. Have you met someone at church, work or elsewhere that you would like to get to know better? Invite him or her out to lunch or over for a meal. Reach out to the possibility of new relationships. These new possibilities will enrich your life.
Paul Schoenfeld is director of The Everett Clinic’s Center for Behavioral Health. His Family Talk Blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/family-talk-blog.