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  • Dan Connors

Friendship- the invisible bond that makes life worth living

Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make—and Keep—Friends

"A friend is someone who understands your past, believes in your future, and accepts you just the way you are." Unknown

"People began to tell me they felt isolated, invisible, and insignificant. Even when they couldn’t put their finger on the word “lonely,” time and time again, people of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds, from every corner of the country, would tell me, “I have to shoulder all of life’s burdens by myself,” or “if I disappear tomorrow, no one will even notice.” It was a lightbulb moment for me: social disconnection was far more common than I had realized. In the scientific literature, I found confirmation of what I was hearing. In recent years, about one-in-two adults in America reported experiencing loneliness. And that was before the COVID-19 pandemic cut off so many of us from friends, loved ones, and support systems, exacerbating loneliness and isolation." Surgeon General Vivek Murthy

According to the US Surgeon General, one of the most pressing health problems today is loneliness. It is believed to raise the risk of premature death by more than 60% and affect a majority of teens and senior citizens today. Oddly, one can be surrounded by people, or have hundreds of Facebook "friends" and still feel lonely. Loneliness only goes away when we feel heard, seen, loved, and appreciated by at least one other person in our lives, (preferably more).

There have been many theories about the causes of the loneliness epidemic, from increased internet use to cell phones to loss of community resources to Covid-19. Humans evolved to be social creatures, because our superpower was the ability to connect and protect each other from the many things that wanted to kill us. Without that connection, our brains are wired to feel pain, so that we realize that being lonely isn't good for us, and to motivate us to find new connections.

Into this crisis comes a new book by author Marisa Franco called Platonic. Ms. Franco is a professor, writer, psychologist and "friendship expert", and this is her first book. Platonic proposes to use scientific evidence to help people make and keep friends, thus breaking the back of the loneliness epidemic.

Social attachment has been proven to affect health more than diet or exercise, about which thousands of books and plans have been devised to improve lives. If this is true, why are we so willing to spend thousands of dollars on diet and exercise plans but not willing to start a conversation with the person next to us on an airplane? As a life-long introvert, I had to find out what the science has to say on this.

As one would think, a lot of this starts in childhood. We form an attachment style from birth that regulates how trusting we are of other people, and those styles default through most of our lives unless we make a concerted effort to change them. The three styles are:

Secure attachment. These people are confident, willing to trust other people, and believe deep down that they are worthy of love.

Anxious attachment. They need to feel loved, but are haunted by self-doubts that they could be abandoned at any time. Anxious people tend to cling more to friendships that don't serve them, and sacrifice much more than others in unbalanced relationships.

Avoidant attachment. Some people choose to avoid intimate connection entirely, afraid of being betrayed, hurt, or vulnerable if they let their guard down. They may appear confident on the outside, but they rarely reach out for help and can be secretly miserable.

It's possible to exhibit all three attachment styles at once depending on the people and the environment, but in general people tend to favor one style over another. And how they are treated in childhood by the adults in their life certainly influences which of the three styles they end up with.

Ideally, we all want to aspire to secure attachment styles, because deep down we are all worthy of love and acceptance, no matter how flawed. Getting there is the challenge, especially when our past flawed assumptions prevent intimacy today, leading to negative feedback spirals that never go anywhere. Breaking free from the past is never easy, especially when you have to make yourself vulnerable, but it's worth the risk.

Here are the author six suggestions for how to make and keep better friends.

1- Take the initiative in starting relationships. Many of us prefer to think that friendships happen organically, and that putting it all out there makes us look pushy and needy. Research shows that to generate more true friendships, we have to ask for what we want, even if it means feeling awkward or starting small. Perhaps this is the crux of the loneliness epidemic- we are much more tied to screens than ever before, and this comfortable, remote way to interact with the world takes us away from real relationships more than we'd like to think.

Most of us are remarkably bad at estimating how much others will or won't like us, research has shown. There's something called the liking gap, that causes us to assume the worst when so much better is readily available if we just ask for it. The author admits that this may be the hardest part for some, but taking initiative is the crucial first step. We need to acknowledge ourselves for every attempt, even if it doesn't work out, because by the law of averages we're much more likely to make meaningful connections by putting ourselves out there and inviting strangers to come into our circle.

2- Express vulnerability. Most of us are reluctant to share our flaws and feelings with the world, and instead we choose to project strength and power as if we had it all together. Showing too much vulnerability, or showing it too fast, can scare people away, but hiding it completely is also a problem. There's something called the central relationship paradox that says that hiding our true selves behind a fake wall eventually sabotages intimacy. By suppressing feelings and trying to look perfect, we push away the very people we want to attract.

Vulnerability, done correctly, is very attractive. It shows both depth and confidence, and invites others to come in and help where they can. Ms. Franco writes about the need to practice self-compassion through kindness, mindfulness, and commonality to get over reluctance to share vulnerabilities. Just be careful to monitor how others react to your vulnerability and not overshare with the wrong person.

Men, in general, have a much harder time with vulnerability, which is why many of them struggle with intimacy issues in both romantic and platonic relationships. Without vulnerability, men are trapped in emotionless and superficial bonds that do very little to combat the scourge of loneliness.

3- Pursue authenticity. Authenticity is hard to define, but we all know a fake person when we meet one. Their facial expressions and body language often don't match who they are or what they are communicating. Their laughs sound fake and their eye contact is awkward. Inauthentic behavior is a defense mechanism. It's especially common in business settings where a transaction is expected and personal thoughts and feelings matter less. It is often used to persuade others, especially in politics or sales, and most of us can see right through it.

In order to be taken seriously as a potential friend, we have to let our true selves shine brightly. To do this optimally, we have to feel safe, and words of kindness and reassurance work wonders in setting that atmosphere. Authentic people tell you what they think, and emotionally intelligent ones let you know unpleasant things in gentle and appropriate ways.

The author delves briefly into the area of authenticity that is affected by race and gender. When people expect to be discriminated against, or feel in a situation where others have more power than they do, they feel threatened enough to hide their authentic selves. This little fact shows how distrust and misunderstanding can be so prevalent when entire groups don't trust each other. To fight against this, both parties have to recognize the elephant in the room.

4- Don't be afraid of conflicts. Fights and disagreements are where many relationships fall apart. And when they do, wounded souls are that much more reluctant to reach out and trust again. As any good psychologist would tell you, conflict is healthy and natural in any relationship. Some friendships may not be worth the hard work of repairing them and should be let go, but many more are worth fixing.

There are two kinds of anger according to this book. The anger of despair means that we have lost all hope and want to destroy and punish those that have hurt us. The anger of hope is a more positive prompt that something is wrong in the relationship and action needs to be taken to fix it. It feels cathartic to give in to anger, but it rarely accomplishes anything. For toxic people, we need to detach 100% (without getting revenge), and for everybody else we need to work through the conflict.

Working through conflict means listening, rephrasing, and validating both sides of it. It means de-escalating things before they get out of control and not bringing up past hurts like weapons in a war of words. Ask for what you want and be willing to compromise unless you want to end up feeling right but lonely.

5- Be cautiously generous. Give to others, but have boundaries. Make the friendship a priority and don't be afraid to be generous where you can. This means doing things like sending cards, cooking meals, running errands, babysitting, driving a friend to the airport, or just taking the time to sit and listen to them in moments of sadness or crisis. When a relationship is reciprocal, we can then expect friends to be there for us when we need us.

How many Facebook friends would actually show up in times of need? This is where true friendship is tested. Friendship should be a win/win for all concerned, and any time that an imbalance occurs, it could be because of an insecure attachment style. Healthy, secure giving is what makes life worth living, while martyrdom and excessive sacrifice can bring misery and resentment.

6- Give affection. This is a book about platonic friendship, and here is where sometimes romantic complications can mess things up. Romance is an entirely different thing with heightened expectations, but affection is crucial to both types of relationships. In platonic relationships, affection often takes the form of praise, compliments, smiles, and warmth. Respectful hugs are not only appropriate, but necessary in many platonic friendships.

Gary Chapman wrote a famous book about the five love languages that people use. What means love to one person might not mean the same thing to another, so we need to be aware of what types of affection and appreciation mean the most to our friends. (The five different love languages include words of affirmation, gifts, acts of service, quality time, and physical touch.)

This means that we can't expect others to know what our love languages are- we need to tell them, and we need to ask them for what means the most to them to optimize the feelings of love that come from showing affection appropriately.

This is a great book and it has inspired me to reach out in my own life. I've mostly had an avoidant attachment style, (as have many men), and it's about time to try something different. If it works, I will write on it further in this blog.

Here is a 12-minuteTed talk by the author on this subject should you want more.

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