Illustration: Karolin Schnoor

LIFE HONESTLY

Does your friendship need therapy?

Couples' counselling is more commonplace than ever, yet we're reluctant to discuss any discord with a close friend. Anna North asks whether we should start investing in our friendships more openly

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By Anna North on

Think about the last time you were mad at your best friend. Maybe she cancelled on you for the third time this month. Maybe she spent hours complaining about her terrible boyfriend, but seemed no closer to breaking up with him. Maybe one or both of you were going through a big life transition – graduation, new job, marriage, divorce – and it was forcing you apart instead of bringing you closer. Whatever the cause, think about how you felt about your friendship right then – and what you did about it.

If you sat down with your friend and talked about what was bothering you, you’re a braver person than most. As the essayist and advice columnist Heather Havrilesky recently wrote, “even close friends rarely talk things out and dig to the heart of their conflicts the way married couples or family members do. And as a result, we (as a culture!) discount friendships while privileging romantic partnerships and families over all else”.

We’re in a time when couples therapy is more widely accepted than ever. The writer Elizabeth Weil sought therapy to make her already-good marriage even better. According to Maureen O’Connor of New York Magazine, some couples in their early twenties go to therapists to deal with the transition to a more grown-up relationship (sometimes, that transition means breaking up). We’ve pretty much acknowledged that even a solid romantic relationship might need some professional help from time to time. So why don’t we feel that way about our friendships?

Close friends rarely talk things out and dig to the heart of their conflicts the way married couples or family members do

It’s an especially pressing question because female friendship is having something of a cultural moment right now. On Girls, the most important relationships (and the most soul-wrenching fights) are between female friends. Samantha Harvey’s novel Dear Thief charts the course of a lifelong friendship that’s as complex and important as any marriage, if not more so. The film Frances Ha centres around a friend break-up (and, ultimately, a friend reconciliation). Rachel Vorona Cote recently wrote about the film on Jezebel, as part of an entire series she started about fictional friendships. Clearly, our appetite for watching friendships unfold (and, perhaps, learning from their ups and downs) has never been greater.

Given all this, maybe we need to get comfortable truly hashing out our differences with our friends the way we might with our romantic partners. Maybe we even need to consider friend therapy.

“Because friendships are voluntary relationships without any legal or blood ties,” says Irene S. Levine, a friendship expert and professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine, “people are more likely to give up on these relationships than they would be to work on a volatile marriage or remedy a rocky relationship with a relative.”

But if two friends do want to work on their relationship, a therapist might help them do that. Seeing a therapist, she says, “may help friends gain more insight into each other’s point of view or help them improve communication skills to resolve specific problems”. And therapy can give friends a place to discuss conflicts in the past that they never really got a chance to resolve.

“Often, as our lives change, we ebb and flow in how we interact with people and we need to learn new ways of being together at different stages of life,” says Shasta Nelson, author of Friendships Don't Just Happen! The Guide to Creating a Meaningful Circle of Girlfriends. A therapist could help friends “figure out what is preventing greater safety, positivity, and intimacy for both people.”

Therapy might be especially helpful if communication or trust have broken down in a friendship, says Nicole Zangara, author of Surviving Female Friendships: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, or if “the friends are feeling a shift and can't put words to what's going on”.

Therapy might be especially helpful if communication or trust have broken down in a friendship

While she hasn’t personally considered friendship therapy, she believes that “for some friendships that need an outside perspective, it could be a wonderful thing”.

“Friendships are a lot like dating a romantic partner, in that you need to communicate and share your feelings with one another to keep the friendship going,” she says. A therapist may be able to guide this communication so that friends can work out their differences.

How do you decide if it’s time to see a professional, or time to let the friendship go? “My rule of thumb is that the more I’ve invested in a relationship, the more I’m willing to do whatever I can to repair it,” says Nelson. “So I’d go to therapy with anyone I’ve loved, practised a healthy friendship with before, and who I still hold hope could be a meaningful relationship in my life.” 

And Levine believes “therapy might be helpful if two people are committed to the relationship, have a significant investment in their friendship, and think there is some potential for saving it”. 

Not every friendship will be saved, though. “Through therapy,” says Levine, “the person might also realise the relationship isn’t worth saving and get advice on how to end the relationship.”

Friendship counselling isn’t commonplace yet. It’s received some media attention — Lucy Cavendish wrote at The Daily Mail that she and a long-time friend fought over Cavendish’s divorce, so they decided to see a relationship counsellor. The session brought them both to tears, and gave Cavendish renewed hope for their friendship. And Rebecca at xoJane praised the idea of friendship therapy, saying that if preserving her relationships with her friends “means dragging them to therapy, I will totally be that girl”.

Still, says Levine, “it would be difficult to find a therapist who specialises in friendships.” Instead, friends can look for “someone trained and experienced in helping people with relationship problems”. 

It’s less work ultimately to repair something that’s been meaningful than to start all over every time our needs aren’t met

But Nelson hopes therapy for friendships will become more common. “I would love if more friends cared enough about their relationship to do whatever they could to repair or enhance the relationship,” she says. “Maybe when we realise that we want deep friendships and that it’s impossible to be there without going through some conflict and disappointment, then we’ll choose to invest the time and feelings into taking care of what we have. In the long run, if we care about having intimacy in our lives, it’s less work ultimately to repair something that’s been meaningful than to start all over every time our needs aren’t met.”

If nothing else, the very existence of friend therapy should remind us that we can work on our friendships. I’ve definitely seen the power of honest communication in my own friendships. Sometimes, opening up about what’s really bothering you can do more than solve the problem at hand. It can bring you and a friend closer together, because you’ve shown that you’re willing to do something hard and scary – actually talk about your feelings – in order to keep the friendship strong. 

Stephanie Sprenger, a co-editor of My Other Ex: Women’s True Stories of Losing and Leaving Friends, once fell out with a friend over some unsolicited relationship advice. For eight months afterward, they didn’t speak. But, then, her friend reached out and they went to dinner. “We talked through it, figured out what each of us was most hurt about and what we could each take accountability for,” says Stephanie. “And then we moved forward.”

Now, she says, “if my best friend and I had another falling out, knowing now how essential her friendship is to me, I would most definitely see a therapist with her. After all, I see one for myself, and my husband and I have a marriage therapist, so why not my best friend?” However, she wouldn’t go to therapy with just anyone: “I wouldn’t spend the time or energy if it wasn’t a friendship I considered absolutely irreplaceable.” 

Friend therapy likely won’t ever be for everyone. Some people will always prefer to hash out their differences themselves, without getting a professional involved. And some friendships just have a natural shelf life – sometimes friends grow apart, and it’s best to say goodbye.

But as friendship becomes more and more central to our lives, it’s worth it to ask whether our disagreements with our friends are really a sign that the relationship should end – or maybe an opportunity to go deeper. Maybe when we start really working at our friendships, we’ll realise how fulfilling they can be.

Illustration: Karolin Schnoor
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Anna North
Friends
Therapy
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