Women’s Friendships: The Forgotten Priority?

nelsonShastaWisdom comes when we hold the possibility that there might be a better way to approach life. — Shasta Nelson, Friendships Don’t Just Happen

As a mother of three, CEO of a social network and publishing start-up for women, and someone with a well documented BFF relationship, the last thing I thought I needed to read was a friendship book.

Well, I was wrong.

After reading Shasta Nelson‘s Friendships Don’t Just Happen!: The Guide to Creating a Meaningful Circle of GirlFriends, I realized that I have honed my skills at bringing people close, but not too close. Like an eager puppy, I love new people and attention, but like an old dog, with old habits, I retreat to my husband and BFF of two decades as my most intimate confidantes.

It turns out I have some friend circles I need to develop to live a happier, healthier life, and some priorities I need to evaluate. As Shasta helped me understand in our conversation below, friendships don’t “just happen.” We have to do the work.

Reading this book is an imperative for all women who want to have and maintain the most healthy and important of our relationships — our friendships.

CB: I told you pretty much right when we met that we were going to be good friends and you looked at me funny. What were you thinking?

SN: LOL! I don’t really remember that but it probably had something to do with the fact that I teach that friendships aren’t just discovered as much as they are developed. You and I certainly had a chemistry — that feeling where I left saying, “I want more of her!” — but we both know that doesn’t automatically create a friendship with the many amazing women we meet. Making sure we schedule the time to actually develop something together. Maybe I was looking at you and just hoping that you weren’t just being friendly, but actually committed to co-creating something more? Ha! Good thing I didn’t scare you away with the funny look!

I have that cliché BFF and another wonderful newer, but close “BFF.” Are we outliers?

I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s outside the norm, but research does show that 25 percent of us don’t feel like we have a confidante, and another 20 percent of us feel like we only have one such person — so the fact that you have a couple BFFs puts you with about only half of us.

And I’ll add that according to happiness and health research, we are happier with several BFFs so I do think what you’re experiencing should be the goal. We never want to just have one person as that leaves us with unmet needs and more expectations than one person can fill, more frustrated when they aren’t always available, and definitely more vulnerable should they move away or the relationship shifts and we find ourselves with no one.

Which circle do you think is the one I need to work on?

You? I don’t know! Ha! Only you would know what types of friendships you’re most craving! One of the temptations for really busy and networked women is to do too much with too many people when they might be more fulfilled with doing more with the same few people, but you also said you have close BFFs so that’s good! The questions I guess I’d ask you would be:

1) Is there an area of your life where you wish you had some more Common Friends — women who shared a specific experience with you? In other words, are you connected to enough mothers? Enough entrepreneurs? Enough inspiring feminists? And any other area of yourself you want to develop or relate about?

2) Are there some women you want to develop more intimate and consistent friendships with?

But it’s entirely possible that you feel you’ve got all the Circles more-or-less filled right now!

I rekindled an old friendship after reading this quote of yours, “Many of us are afraid to reconnect with people from our past. They represent a time in our lives we’d rather forget or remind us of who we used to be.” But I have A LOT of people in this category… how do I pick which person/people to resurrect friendships with?

That quote speaks more to the invitation to not start over in the friends department in every chapter of our lives, as we want to also bring some people with us into our new beginnings. It’s a balance between giving ourselves permission to make new friends that reflect us today, while also recognizing that there are some relationships that we can maintain, even irregularly, that can support us in different ways.

How did you come up with the five stages of frientimacy?

Well, when it comes to romantic relationships we have all these terms to help us articulate the various stages — like we know the difference between “going on a date” and “dating.” And we know that at some point we have the conversation about whether we’re both dating exclusively or still dating around. And we know that dating sometimes leads to engagement and marriage. We have all these ways of seeing the progress in those relationships and it got me thinking about how we lack that vocabulary for our platonic friendships. Over time I started grouping together various characteristics that I witnessed in relationship growth to better articulate the movement and maturation of our friendships and ended up with those five stages that seemed to really make sense to the women I was teaching. And I use “Frientimacy” — Friendship Intimacy — because it is intimacy we crave, but that word has such romantic and physical associations for many women that I needed a word that better expresses the platonic depth we want to reach.

You write that most friendships don’t get off the ground because we don’t initiate because of: 1. A lack of time 2. Uncertainty as to whether the feeling was mutual 3. No instant attraction 4. Hope that the other would initiate 5. Just too tired. Those seem impossible to surmount! You say it is a lack of priority… so is it friends before sleep?

Well, hopefully not before sleep — I list that as one of the most important spiritual practices of our time! But the reason I talk about priority with women is because it’s important for us to accept the truth that when we add something, we also must subtract something. There’s a freedom in realizing that we can’t just say “yes” to something without also being willing to say “no” to something else. And, sometimes we have to say “no” to another priority because one ranks higher than the other.

So in the case of friendship, we have to ask ourselves how important is it really to us and are we willing to give up one night of TV each week, or not put our kids to bed one night, or take an occasional afternoon off of work for someone?

But in the end, what it comes down to is that we cannot foster meaningful friendships without putting in the time. What makes this most tricky, I think, is in the beginning stages of friendship it takes a lot of time and energy and doesn’t always have the pay-off feeling, but it’s only in putting in the time at these stages that down the road we get a much bigger pay-off — more spontaneity, more just hanging out, more intimacy — with seemingly less time and energy required.

Now that you have all this friendship knowledge is it hard to be spontaneous in your friendships?

Hmmm… interesting question. I don’t think so. In fact, I’d say maybe the opposite is true? I think after as much study as I’ve done on this subject I actually feel much greater commitment to my friendships and appreciate them even more, which translates into saying “yes” more often.

I’m also much more open to making new friends even when I feel like I have all the people I need in my life. Because if I’ve learned anything it’s that our friendships are known to keep shifting and I want to be connected with enough amazing women that I have options as I continue co-creating meaningful friendships.

How did you manage your friendships as you took time to write this book?

LOL! I wish I could say that I juggled it all without missing a beat, but alas I certainly had to make decisions, and that means not saying yes to everything.

What I did during that time was say “no” to a lot more Left-Side friends — the women I don’t know at all yet that wanted to meet me for coffee and the women who I know but am not that intimate with.

I did make sure during that time that I kept seeing my close friends — and I’m a big fan of group friendships where we can connect with several friends at once. But even then, I certainly wasn’t as available or flexible so that’s when I’m so glad my friends have healthy circles of other friends that they can rely on besides me.

We all go through seasons — with our kids, caring for aging parents, big projects at work, with different stressors and moods — it’s good that we have several people in our lives we can draw from, rather than expect it from one person all the time.

This column first appeared on the Huffington Post