Last night, I visited my eldest sister in the hospital, where she lay recovering from open-heart surgery. By nature, I’m a hypochondriac, so any time I find myself in a hospital, I have a tendency to obsess about my own health instead of focusing on the individual I’m visiting. I’m not going to lie to you, as that did happen again last night, but something else was foremost on my mind. I couldn’t stop thinking about who would be visiting me if it were the one lying in that hospital bed. I’ve written on many occasions about my strained relationship with my birth family, so it comes as no surprise that I’m not really sure if I would want them to be around my hospital bed. It did cause me to pause, and to think about friends in my life, and what sort of relationship I have with them.
In his book “Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendships”, Geoffrey Greif divides friendships into 4 categories that I think we can all identify with--Must Friends, Trust Friends, Rust Friends, and Just Friends. Our “Must Friends” comprise our inner circle, and they are the people we trust with our darkest secrets. For me, this intimate group includes people who have come and gone in my life. I would even hasten to say that with the exception of my wife, no one else has been constantly present in this select group. The second category, “Trust Friends”, includes those in our life with the utmost integrity. These are the people you turn to with certain issues, but you typically don’t spend a lot of time with members of this group. I would place my friends from my addiction recovery program, and most recently, other survivors of childhood sexual abuse into this group. I have a special bond with these friends that I don’t even have with wife. Despite sharing a very intimate and vulnerable part of myself with this group, we rarely socialize outside this context. “Rust Friends” include all those peripheral friends that have been with you for what seems like forever. They are like that old chair sitting in the corner of your living room—You don’t really think about it unless it’s broken or suddenly, no longer there. The final group, “Just Friends” are the people we are thrown together with due to circumstance. They include other parents you see at your child’s school functions, neighbours you socialize with at community events, and even people you might share a hobby or passion with. I’m fortunate to have had a few “Just Friends” evolve into “Must Friends” over the years.
The older I become, the less tolerant I am for “meaningless”, or “superficial” relationships. Gretchen Rubin, the author of “The Happiness Project” suggests an interesting activity to help analyze friendships in our lives. On a piece of paper write all the people you consider friends and group them into shared clusters. Highlight anyone’s name whom you consider a “connector”, someone who has brought other people into your life. When I did this, I discovered that the “connectors” in my life are indeed amongst the most important people to me. Sadly, they are also the people I most take for granted—Maybe it’s time I let these individuals know how important they are to my well-being and sense of belonging.
As I started to go through my list of friends, I decided to assign them labels or subcategories. There were people I think of as “leaders”, those who I aspire to be like. I had “mirror friends”—people who reminded me of myself, and to whom I most identify. I think we all have what is referred to as a “trophy friend”, the person who makes you feel “cooler” just because you know him/her. One of my favourite labels was the “vicarious friend”. I assigned this name to the people in my life who seem to travel in a different “orbit” than I do. When my wife and I were new parents trapped at home with a baby, these were the carefree friends who traveled, stayed up late, and seemed to have more money than they knew what to do with. The remaining people on my list included those people I often avoid because they are “gossips”, “energy vampires”, or “emotional Eeyores”.
When it comes right down to it, I think friends are like cookbooks—You definitely need more than one because you really only identify with certain parts, or qualities, in each one. Bernard Meltzer, the late US advice columnist, once said: “A friend is someone who knows the song in your heart and can sing it back to you when you have forgotten the words.” The last, and I think the most important category of friendship, is what I refer to as your “lifeboat friend”. This is the one person you would want in your lifeboat—The person you’d want to be headed towards a desert island with, or the person with whom you'd want to spend the last hour of your life. Twenty-seven years later, I’m more confident than ever to say that Mary-Anne is not only my wife but also my best friend—my “lifeboat friend”. Talk about having “friends with benefits”…