Changing Health, Changing Friendships

One of the big challenges in friendships happens when we go through a transition, and a particularly difficult one is when one of us becomes ill or faces a major health change.

There are many different kinds of health related situations and challenges that can affect our friendships:
– feeling fatigue, physical or emotional pain.
– being diagnosed with a chronic physical or mental illness or a life long health issue.
– becoming disabled or experiencing changes to our mobility that require adapted equipment.
– having a cognitive or neurological impairment that we know will gradually, eventually, worsen.
– living with a disease that makes us increasingly frail and dependent on others.

We have personal beliefs, attitudes and values about being healthy, health, illness and frailty though we may not be aware of them. That is, until a health event or crisis heightens our awareness and offers new insights into our beliefs and feelings.

One famous friendship that deepened because of a health issue is beautifully depicted in Bird + Magic: A Courtship Of Rivals. The relationship between basketball champions Magic Johnson and Larry Bird changed drastically in 1991 when Magic revealed that he had received a diagnosis of HIV. This was when it was still a terminal diagnosis that carried great stigma. To his surprise and joy it was his greatest rival on court, Larry Bird, who barely spoke a word to him, that supported him most and had his back when life dealt him this unexpected diagnosis. Simultaneously, it was with great disappointment that he realized some of his closest friends, those he expected to show up, didn’t. It happens to everyone — you just never know. You don’t know who will be able to handle it and who will not.

Health events and crises are times in our life where we notice who shows up and who doesn’t, which friends can be there with us and which ones cannot. It might be a temporary thing, it might be longer, maybe permanent.

Would you keep the door open to the possibility of continuing the friendship?

I have personally dealt with the unfortunate ending of a friendship that was in part due to a chronic health issue. When I was in my 20s I felt increasingly unwell with agonizing stomach cramps and fatigue that forced me into a horizontal position. I might have looked well but I felt like crap.

When I felt okay and had energy I made plans with the best intentions to be there. The truth was that I did not know whether I’d be well enough to get there or not. I was constantly in a kind of limbo not knowing how I would feel later. A dear friend could not understand why I regularly cancelled our plans and she felt disrespected by my cancellations. I remember feeling her “shoulds” pile up on my shoulders: how I should be(have), what I should do, how I should show up. The expectations and guilt were too heavy and burdensome for me on top of my feeling unwell.

A few years later I was diagnosed with a chronic digestive condition and have worked hard to peel away layers of toxicity from my body and life. I was very sad to lose her and to lose our friendship, while at the same time, I was meeting people and making new friendships that were born from a different place than before.

We don’t know how our friends will be when we experience a health crisis or diagnosis. It is an entrance into The Unknown and it is unpredictable. Moreover, our friends don’t know how they will be. We don’t know how we’ll be with our friends’ health crisis or diagnosis either.

If a health crisis happens to your friend, if s/he is diagnosed with Alzheimers or a mood disorder, an accident occurs that requires a wheelchair, will you be there?
Will you show up?

Acknowledging and leaving space open for whatever shows up: fear, discomfort, awkwardness, silence, sadness (and whatever else) can be a growing moment in friendship. A health situation in our life can be a growing moment towards a deeper friendship.

Questions to ponder:
* What do you expect from your friends if a health crisis or event happens to you? What do your friends expect from you if they have a health crisis?
* What are your beliefs about friendship (friends) and illness?
* How can you stay open to whatever unfolds in your friendship during a health event or crisis?

“When you face a crisis, you know who your true friends are.”     ~ Magic Johnson

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Building Trust in Friendship

Most people will agree that trust is an important element in their friendships. What does “trust” mean? And why is it important in friendship?

Trust can mean something slightly, or dramatically, different to each of us. Being clear with your friends about what trusts does mean to you can be the first step in building trust in those friendships. Think about the words you associate with trust — dependability, responsibility, integrity, honesty, and commitment are some words that might help to understand and clarify the meaning of trust for each of us.

In friendships, as in all relationships, trust is one of the foundational building blocks. We need trust to establish and deepen our friendships. Trust allows us to feel safe with friends: safe to make plans and safe to share ourselves and our lives. Trust requires that we keep our promises and show demonstrations of dependability, respect, and honour.

In friendships, as in all relationships, the betrayal of trust can be devastating. Betraying a friend’s confidence, that is, sharing something that a friend confided in us, can dent the trust in a friendship. This is only one example of how trust can be betrayed in a friendship and we will be exploring this topic further in a future blog including how to recover from the betrayal of trust in friendship.

So how do we build a trustworthy friendship?

It is important to explore and understand what trust means to us and what it means to our friends. It is also important to show that we are trustworthy to each other. We have to demonstrate to each other that we are trustworthy. For example, matching our actions to our words.

Trust can be built and maintained in many different ways in a friendship.

In the beginning, when we are first creating a friendship, some ways to demonstrate trust are to:

Be dependable: return calls and messages, be there, show up (more or less on time).

Be kind: if one person changes or cancels plans, we will contact each other to find out if everything is alright.

Be fully present: Trust that we will listen with our full attention, put down the devices, resist advice giving, and offer our presence. This can be more challenging today with technology accompanying us when we spend time with friends. “Designing” the environment so that we can listen to each other might be a helpful strategy. For example, designing how you will deal with your devices, or talking about whether you want to be listened to or receive advice.

Be thoughtful: communicate and respond with respect, empathy, and kindness. Sharing too much intimate information about ourselves in the early phase of a friendship can be overwhelming, for both people. This can be a good opportunity to talk about what we can do to build trust in the relationship.

Be reciprocative: give and take, mutually and with reciprocity. For example, invite our friend to do things and trust that our friend will invite us too.

As we move further into a friendship, some ways to demonstrate trust to maintain or deepen the friendship are to:

Demonstrate integrity: show that we can be trusted with intimate, private information that our friend shares with us. Show that we trust our friend with intimate, private information that we share, trusting that our friend will not gossip about it with others. Discussing and being clear about our boundaries, what is and is not to be shared, is one way to take care of ourselves as well as take care of and strengthen the friendship.

Demonstrate inter-dependence: show that we will ask each other for help. Trust that we will each ask for help when we feel scared, panicked, or desperate. The act of asking for help and the type of help we can offer a friend are great conversation topics to have with friends and can also strengthen friendship.

Demonstrate commitment: reach out and stay connected with each other through distance, space and gaps.

“I don’t feel very much like Pooh today,” said Pooh.
“There there,” said Piglet. “I’ll bring you tea and honey until you do.”
~ A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

It takes effort, patience, and time to build trust in a friendship. Talking about what we can do to build or deepen trust in the friendship is a great way to secure the foundation of trust.

Questions to ponder:
How can you build trust in your friendship(s)?
What does trust mean to you? What does it mean to your friends?
When do you talk about what a friend has shared with you? When does it become gossip? When does it become harmful to a friendship?