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Crises and Friendship

Experienced shrinks know that folks are more open and less resistant to change during a crisis. The most obstinate, chauvinistic husband, once the wife he loves demands a divorce, can be surprisingly receptive to what he previously viewed as abhorrent, touchy-feely couple’s counseling.

This openness to change and new ideas can also occur during health crises. Folks who discover they have only a short time to live often become open to spiritual ideas and religious practices they previously had shunned. They also discover their IRAs and stock portfolios aren’t much comfort during such times and often develop a deeper appreciation of their relationships with supportive friends and family.

I recently experienced a health crisis and, predictably, my defenses came down. Feeling very vulnerable and mortal, I found myself appreciating and assessing my friendships. I discovered that I missed one friend very much-a friend I’d been close to for a very long time but with whom I’d had a falling-out some time earlier.

As I struggled with my post-op difficulties I sat thinking about how short life is and how permanent death is. Then, not wanting to go another day without my friend back in my life, I decided to call him and try to patch things up. The false pride and stubbornness I had been feeling and which had contributed to the friendship impasse seemed to dissolve in the light of such a powerful perspective. I called and he very gracefully responded to my overture. We had a satisfying catch-up phone conversation and it was clear that we would be close friends once again.

If we adopt a positive attitude, the tough times can give us important and helpful perspective. Toward the end of my dad’s life, when he was struggling with serious, debilitating health problems, he never complained. When I asked him how he managed to handle his situation so stoically, he said, “There is a saying-‘I felt bad because I had no feet until I saw a man with no legs,’-things can always be worse, Ron. I’m thankful I’m alive.”

It is this perspective which can allow us to transcend petty grievances and to take the high road with our friends. It can also allow us to find a humorous way to frame difficult times. Somehow, being able to laugh at our predicaments makes them more bearable. Sometimes even dark humor works.

In this vein, Ron-a musician friend–was for many years a serious amateur photographer. There was nothing he liked better than getting up at 5 AM and climbing a mountain or walking a desolate area and taking photos. He has a wonderful eye and I looked forward to his annual Christmas cards, each of which would feature some wonderful nature scene. He worked hard as a musician and as a frame-shop owner and saved for his retirement. His plan was to travel the world, take photos and eat in fine restaurants. Then, soon after he retired, he developed a spinal condition, lost the use of his legs and became wheel chair bound. Some time after this occurred we were at a restaurant sharing a meal and I asked him how he was holding up. He said, as though talking to himself, “Ah yes-retirement–welcome to the f—  golden years!” Then he laughed, shook his head, and said, “Hey, man-when I’m sitting talking with a friend, I’m a ten! When I’m alone and trying to get around using that damn walker I’m a two!”

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Humility and Friendship

Howard, a buddy of mine since high school, told me about his friend, Marvin. He explained Marvin’s popularity in the following way. “When he is asked his opinion about something, he will give it but will always follow it with a disclaimer–‘Heck, I don’t really know. I’m just guessing.'”

It is Howard’s opinion that because Marvin never risks offending anyone by having a strong opinion he is popular. While I agree with Howard’s explanation of Marvin’s popularity, I’m not sure Marvin’s approach is in his own best interest. Discounting one’s own opinions on a regular basis does, I believe, take its toll. I believe one can have an opinion without offending others. However, Marvin’s approach sure beats the other, argumentative end of the opinion continuum-i.e., “You’re wrong and I’ll tell you why.”

I personally find the combination of humility and humor to be attractive. It does not surprise me that funny, self deprecating people are usually popular and do not want for friends. For example, Woody Alan’s film comedy protagonists are usually fellows who have little self esteem and are quick to admit it. However, they couple their humility with ironic wit and insight and thus we find them appealing, entertaining and non-threatening.

My friend Manny, a talented composer and conductor, is genuinely humble and also very funny. One evening my wife and I were watching PBS talk show host Charlie Rose interview Riccardo Muti, the talented and articulate Italian conductor. During the course of the interview Muti was asked what it was like conducting Mozart compositions. He responded enthusiastically and said something to the effect, “When I conduct Mozart’s compositions it is as though I and the orchestra are floating in the cosmos hand-in-hand with God.” 

A short time later, while chatting with Manny on the phone, I brought up the Muti interview and quoted his description of how he felt when conducting Mozart. I then asked Manny, “Do you have a similar kind of experience when you conduct Mozart?” Manny paused, then said, “Nahh…we just fly around the neighborhood a little.”  I still laugh when I replay Manny’s answer.

On another occasion, I asked Manny, after he had conducted a retirement city’s community orchestra, how the concert had gone. He said, “Great—when we finished there wasn’t a dry seat in the house.”

As much as I admire genuinely humble folks, I strongly dislike false humility. When I read an interview by some famous athlete who brags about himself on a regular basis but then, when interviewed says, “My mother taught me to always be humble,” I think of the following quote: “Humility is like underwear, essential, but indecent if it shows.” 

In this vein, a related quote-“Humility is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less”-reminds me of the story about the famous Italian tenor. On his first date with a lady he talked about himself non-stop for two hours and finally, with a big magnanimous smile, leaned forward and said to her, “Well, that’s enough about me, let’s talk about you. What do you think about my new CD?”

One great advantage of being genuinely humble is that it keeps one’s mind open and allows one to clean up and heal those mistakes and hurts which inevitably occur between friends. There is great truth to the saying, “Humility leads to strength and not to weakness. It is the highest form of self-respect to admit mistakes and to make amends for them.”

Following are a number of quotes about humility which I have found to be either amusing and/or thought provoking.

“If you would have people speak well of you, then do not speak well of yourself.”

“We’d like to be humble but what if no one notices?”

“Humility is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less.”

“I have often wished I had time to cultivate modesty … But I am too busy thinking about myself.”

Bob Hope to President Kennedy when being presented with a gold medal for services to his country: “I feel very humble but I think I have the strength of character to fight it.”

“The proud man can learn humility, but he will be proud of it.”

“To be humble to our superiors is duty; to our equals, courtesy; to our inferiors, generosity.”

“Flattery is all right so long as you don’t inhale.”

“Nobody stands taller than those willing to stand corrected.”

“Lord, where we are wrong, make us willing to change; where we are right, make us easy to live with.”

Do you have a question or comment for me? Feel free to post it by clicking on the comments link below.   

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True Friendship

 Whenever I hear somebody rave about a restaurant which I believe serves mediocre food, I’m faced with a dilemma.  I must choose between telling them I don’t share their opinion and saying something benign and glossing over our differing perceptions.  When I do the first I worry that folks will infer that I don’t respect their ability to distinguish between good and bad food.  When I do the second I worry they’ll mistake my reply for agreement. A friend of mine, when I told him about this concern, said, “What’s the difference.  Good or bad food is in the eye of the beholder; no one is right or wrong-it’s all opinion.”

I don’t agree with this position at all.  I believe there is a basic truth sitting out there and if we are discerning enough–that is, if we pay attention over time–we can spot it.  If I prefer Chef Boyardee spaghetti to a dish of Mario Batali’s home made pasta I’m demonstrating a lack of awareness. My palate is simply not yet discerning enough to know the difference. I’d add that if I were to prepare a dish for Mario Batali he would find umpteen things he would have done differently and I am convinced he’d probably be correct on all counts.

I find the same thing to be true with music.  I’m not a fan of rap music but I’m sure there is good rap and bad rap and some knowledgeable folks out there who have thought about and listened to a lot of hip hop music can probably tell the difference.  I know this is true because there is good jazz playing and bad jazz playing and I believe I can tell the difference.  It is your perfect right to prefer Kenny G. to Miles Davis but I can assure you that Kenny G.’s music is puerile and boring by comparison and if you listen to both with an open mind you will, over time, most likely recognize this to be true.

Because there is basic truth in the world, certain folks who are truly talented are likely to be appreciated as such and their endeavors will hold up over time. The endeavors of those who are not particularly talented (but may be good at salesmanship) are likely, over time, to fall by the wayside.  For example Billie Holiday’s recordings are still selling well and she’s been gone for almost fifty years.  The recordings of Theresa Brewer, a pop singer from that same era, are all but forgotten. Further, it’s a safe bet few present day music fans even know who she is. She was a mediocre singer who sold her songs with a couple of vocal tricks and over time her music did not hold up.

Let me clarify-I am not talking about preferences. If someone prefers spinach over kale or jazz over classical, there is no “basic truth” involved. I’m arguing that awareness, experience and time will allow us to make determinations about the quality of an endeavor, be it music making, cooking, wine making or painting. Even in the incredibly murky arena of politics, time and perspective allows us to separate the good politicians from the not so good. 

I make these points because I think the ability to be a true friend is an endeavor which can be assessed over time. There are charming folks in this world who form friendships easily but cannot maintain them. When we pay attention to the behavior of our new acquaintances we can usually, over time, spot those qualities or behaviors which do or do not allow the relationship to deepen and become richer.

The ability to build and maintain real friendships is a highly valued quality. One has only to attend the funeral of those with such ability (assuming they have not outlived their friends) to see and hear about their importance and value in their friends’ eyes. Happily, such qualities can be learned and refined. The qualities that seem to be essential to friendship are genuine interest and inquiry, respectful communication, empathy, thoughtfulness, supportiveness, absence of judgment, and loyalty.

If you read through the friendship articles posted on this site you will find these friendship qualities discussed and analyzed. Our goal is to help visitors to this site improve their friendship skills and enrich their social lives.

Do you have a question or comment for me? Feel free to post it by clicking on the comments link below.   

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Cormorants, Dogs, Expectations and Friendship

On Christmas morning, after breakfast and the opening of gifts were concluded, I walked out onto the lanai to enjoy both the balmy Florida weather and the lovely little lake which sits sixty feet away. As I was settling into my lounging chair a cormorant landed at the lake’s edge and prepared to begin his daily hunt.

I thought, “He’s working on Christmas day. No opening of gift boxes. No family hugs or holiday toasts. For him this day is like any other and he is doing what all wild animals do each day; he’s hunting for protein.”

Unlike humans, animals live in the moment. They do not romanticize other creatures or imbue certain days with special meaning. If a dog is sitting in a yard scratching himself and a meatball is thrown over the fence he will eat it, lick his chops and resume scratching. He couldn’t care less about who threw the meatball or why. He doesn’t say to himself, “Wow, how sweet! A loving person threw me a meatball. I wonder who it was.” He eats the protein and that’s it.

It occurs to me, though, that some folks are similar to the cormorant and the dog and don’t romanticize people, dates or places. Other folks are the opposite and ascribe qualities and meaning to people, dates and events that may or may not be there.

Norm, a client of mine, when asked by his wife if he has ever felt the urge to find and get to know his relatives in Europe, said, “Not really. What for? I don’t know them–they don’t know me; why would I have any interest in meeting them?” He is comfortable with his bare bones, non-sentimental view of the world. Amy, his wife says that when she waxes eloquent and becomes teary eyed describing her new found, loving relationship with relatives in Europe, Norm listens patiently but then good naturedly shakes his head in wonderment as though she’s being kind of sappy and silly.

Norm views the world through non-sentimental-reality based glasses. Amy, on the other hand, views the world through glasses that ascribe positive and loving qualities to people, dates and events. It is this difference between people I find intriguing in terms of its implications for friendship.

Norman’s bare-bones, unsentimental view of people will probably protect him from being hurt by friends. He does not romanticize his friendships. By keeping his expectations low he is less prone to be disappointed. The tradeoff for him is that he will lose out on the closeness that comes with “jumping in” emotionally. The ability to let go and allow oneself to become close to friends is a gift. Emotional closeness cannot be experienced without accompanying emotional risk. This is true for our platonic friendships as well as our romantic ones. Norman, for balance, needs to open up and allow himself to see and acknowledge the special qualities in his friends which will allow him to get closer to them.

Amy, on the other hand, ascribes great qualities to all of her friends and as a result has high expectations of them. While it is a wonderful quality to see the best in others it can be painful when their behavior doesn’t match ones expectations. Thus, Amy is sometimes disappointed because her friends appear to let her down. For balance she needs to lean more toward “assume the best but keep expectations in line with reality.”

A fine example of this difficult choice within a romantic friendship occurs in the wonderful film “Shadowlands” which features Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger. Hopkins played a middle aged English writer (C.S. Lewis) who for his entire life had played it emotionally close to the vest. He falls in love with Debra Winger, an emotional and demonstrative American. Once he commits to her he tells her in a moment of soul baring that he cannot bear the thought of losing her now that he has allowed himself to love so completely. She responds (I’m paraphrasing), “That’s the deal isn’t it? We can’t have love without letting go and we can’t let go without the emotional risk.” Sadly, she dies of cancer and he suffers the great emotional pain he feared so much.

This example, while focused on a romantic relationship, perfectly represents the dilemma we all face when dealing with our platonic friendships. We must allow ourselves to become emotionally involved by assuming the best about our friends, “letting go” and trusting them. If we don’t do this we miss out on the wonderful, satisfying intimacy and support that friendships offer. The risk we run when we do make this trusting leap is that we can be hurt when our friends let us down. But as the Debra Winger character says, “That’s the deal, isn’t it.”

Do you have a question or comment for me? Feel free to post it by clicking on the comments link below.   

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A Budding Friendship

My daughter told me about a touching conversation that took place between Lars and Cole, my two grandsons, during a recent visit. Lars, five years old and big for his age, was visiting and playing with Cole, who is three years old.

Like all younger kids, Cole considers it a big deal to spend time with his older cousin and is aware that Lars is bigger and stronger. Though Lars is older, he’s very respectful of Cole, and they play well together. In my my daughter’s words:

Dad, yesterday, Lars came by for a visit and then stayed over. It was the last chance for him and Cole to be together before we left for the holidays. They played all day and had a lot of fun. Later that night, they were tucked into bed and stayed up talking for a time. Here’s part of the conversation they had just before falling asleep.

Lars:  Tell your mom to go to TJ Maxx and get you some Hulk  or Spiderman pajamas.

Cole:  My mom says I can’t go there.

Lars:  Why?  It’s really close.  You can also go to Home Depot. That’s where you can buy houses.

Cole:  When I asked my mom for a present she said no because presents are only for special days like birthdays or Christmas.

Lars:  I work for my mom to get money.  I worked with her today and she gave me five dollars.

Cole:  I wish it was my birthday again so I could be four years old.  Then I would be closer to your age.

Lars:  But then I would be six.

Cole:  Then I wish I was five.

Lars:  But then I would be seven.

Cole:  Will I ever grow up to be your size?

Lars:  Maybe when you’re a grown-up.

Then silence, and the boys finally fell asleep.  Precious!

From a friendship perspective, I find this exchange between Cole and Lars both touching and fascinating. They are already demonstrating the kind of communication that can lead to a lifelong friendship.

The first part of the conversation is typical kids’ stuff. They exaggerate; they discuss superhero clothing; they share their desire for gifts and toys; and finally, they face the reality of the limits on those desires.

However, the conversation then goes to a more emotional level when Cole admits to Lars how much he wants to be as old and as big as him. He even fantasizes out loud about having an extra birthday or two to achieve that.

Lars, not quite getting that Cole wants an extra birthday, logically points out that if Cole had another birthday he himself would also have one and so things would stay the same. Cole patiently repeats the wish and Lars gently repeats his answer.

At this point, letting go of his fantasy, Cole plaintively wonders out loud if there is any hope of ever growing to Lars’ size, and Lars lovingly leaves the door open for hope down the road.

These exchanges are deceptively important. Such communication will, over time, lead to an immense level of trust between my grandsons. And isn’t this what we all want in a friendship? Someone who is empathetic, supportive and honest?

What my daughters and I hope is that Lars’ and Cole’s associations and experiences with other boys over the coming years will not lead to emotional hardening and a rejection of these vulnerable and supportive exchanges. They’re the stuff of lasting friendships.

Do you have a question or comment for me? Feel free to post it by clicking on the comments link below.   

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Seeing the Best and Seeing the Worst

It was my eighth grade school graduation and my father, mother and all of my uncles were in the audience.  When my name was called for my diploma I ascended the short flight of stairs, approached the school principal, shook his hand as he handed me my diploma, left the stage and went back to my seat.

Afterwards, at the party in the back yard of our house, my Uncle Len walked up to me and while waving an Italian sausage sandwich in the air, said, “Ronnie, you were the only student who shook that principal’s hand like a man.  You looked him in the eye and smiled and gave him a good firm hand grip and shook his hand like you meant it.  God damn it, I’m proud of you.”

This happened almost sixty years ago in the spring of 1950.  I still remember the glow I felt when he said those words.  In that moment I saw my self through his eyes and I liked what I saw.  My Uncle Len had a way of doing that and to this day, though he’s long gone, I count him as one of my best friends.

In this same vein, there is a female comic, I can’t remember her name, who tells a story about how she loved to visit her grandmother because she made a fuss over every little thing she did.  “Look at the way she holds that fork!  What poise, how perfectly she uses her fingers.”   “Look at the way she steps into the swimming pool.  How elegant she is.” She concluded her story about her grandmother by saying, “I used to run to her house after school. I could not get there fast enough.” Her grandparents made her feel very special, loved and safe.

This ability to see the special aspects of others and to let them know you see them is one of the secret ingredients of friendship. It comes naturally to some people. They seem to be born with the ability to see and appreciate the unique and admirable qualities in others. The great gift they offer is allowing us to see the very best in ourselves. Since they see only the best we bask in our reflected good qualities.

With some people, the opposite is true. They see only the negative qualities in others and are not shy about pointing them out. Such people are difficult to be around and are often shunned socially because they generate hurt feelings on a regular basis. It is not fun spending time with someone who constantly points out the weaknesses or shortcomings of others.

Negative people often rationalize their critical and negative ways by describing themselves as “honest” or “frank.” They often brag, “You always know where you stand with me.” I describe such behavior differently. I call it “Hostility under the guise of frankness.”

Those folks who see the best in us are those we want to spend time with. Folks who see the worst in us are those we avoid. The question we all have to ask ourselves is, “Where, on the continuum between these two extremes, do I fall?” If you decide you are too critical and uncharitable with your family and friends you might want to begin practicing seeing the best in others rather than the worst.

The way to do this is to ask the following question when you are tempted to be critical of another’s behavior: “What is the most charitable explanation I can come up with to explain this behavior?” You will be surprised how many times you will be able to find such a charitable explanation. Further, you will be amazed at how often your alternative explanation turns out to be true. The fact is, most folks’ motives are good and if you assume the best you are usually correct.

Do you have a question or comment for me? Feel free to post it by clicking on the comments link below.     

           

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Becoming a Friend to Your Adult Children

Luke, a successful professional and a therapy client, recently came in to discuss his relationship with his 19-year-old daughter, Kendra. He said he was very worried he was losing her friendship and described the following sequence of events.

Last year, Kendra, a fine athlete and student, decided to leave the expensive private school she was attending and enroll in a public high school for her senior year. She complained that her classmates were “stupid and silly,” and she couldn’t identify with them. Luke counseled against it, explaining that a diploma from a more prestigious high school would help position her for a more successful college career. But she insisted and switched schools.

Then, this year, after enrolling as a freshman at the University of Colorado with the goal of taking pre-med classes, she changed her mind one month into the semester and notified her father she was no longer interested in medicine. Instead, she was going to become a photographer.

Alarmed, Luke lectured her about the difficulties of making a living as a photographer and told her she was heading toward a low-income lifestyle. She balked at his feedback. He reacted by saying she was difficult to get along with (citing a recent family trip during which she had been angry and distant) and accused her of creating a lot of tension at home among her brothers because of her mood changes. He admitted to me that during this exchange he had been judgmental and angry. She responded by moving out of Luke’s house and in with her mother. During the four weeks since leaving, she has had nothing to do with Luke and has been resisting his attempts to get together and talk.

He told me, “I know I’m doing something wrong but I’m not sure what it is. I feel as her father I must give her guidance, but she turns her back on me. I don’t want to lose her friendship, but I don’t want to shirk my responsibilities as a father, either.”

I asked Luke, “Do you trust that Kendra will be able to self-correct if and when she does make mistakes in judgment?”

He pondered the question for a bit and said, “I think so. But I’m so used to trying to head off errors and helping her avoid pain that it’s difficult for me to trust her to do the right thing without my help.”

“You’re at an interesting juncture as a parent,” I said. “You’ve had 19 years to teach her your value system, which includes your approach to problem solving and decision making. But she isn’t going to follow all your suggestions at this point in her life. As a young adult in college, she is trying to establish her independence and is seeking to make decisions that meet her needs even if they don’t fit your expectations. It may be time to switch to another way of relating to her.”

“It’s killing me. She has the brains to be a doctor, and I see her choosing a path that won’t come close to tapping her potential.”

I said, “Let me recite an old, wise saying that can give you another perspective on Kendra’s decision to be a photographer.”

My grandfather was a laborer

So my father could be a businessman,

So I could be a professional, 

So my daughter can be a poet.

Luke thought for a minute. “So you’re saying she has benefited from the lifestyle I’ve been able to give her to the extent she feels safe enough to pursue a more risky artistic career—and that is a good thing?”

“I suspect this is the case. Given everything you’ve said about Kendra, she is solid. She has earned good grades, has demonstrated success at sports, and was brave enough to switch schools her senior year. She seems very confident. Yes, she’s moody and difficult at times, but that is not unusual for a teenager. You know the old saying about over-emotional teens: ‘Freeze ‘em at 15 and thaw them out at 24.’ ”

He laughed. “So, to cut to the chase, you’re saying I’m at the point where I have to shift from an overprotective parent-educator to a trusting parent who says, ‘I believe in you. Do what makes you happy. I know you’ll be fine.’ ”

“It think so. The lecturing and unasked-for advice is not working. Further, you need to tell her you love her and believe in her, and you’ll back her decisions. Reassure her that you’re available whenever she needs to talk, and you won’t be offering uninvited advice anymore because you believe she can function well out in the world. Let her know you trust that if she makes mistakes, she’ll grow from them and figure out solutions and move forward.”

At this point, Luke was nodding his head and appeared receptive to my suggestions. I believe he’ll seriously consider altering his role with his young adult daughter.

It has been my experience working with parents that children of Kendra’s age present a difficult transition challenge. I personally have had to relearn it with each of my three daughters. Luke’s love for his daughter and his long-term habit of educating and giving advice hindered his ability to switch gears and accept the next phase of parenting required by a 19-year-old young adult. This phase can be referred to as the “Adult Friendship Phase.” It is the beginning of a more equal, accepting, yet still supportive role for the parent and a more independent, autonomous, and experimental role for the young adult.

In Luke’s case, once the Adult Friendship Phase is established, Kendra will probably feel safe enough to ask for advice, realizing she’ll no longer be judged for choosing to reject it.

Do you have a question or comment for me? Feel free to post it by clicking on the comments link below.   
 

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An Ambivalent Visit

When I was in my middle thirties and still a clinical psychology doctoral candidate at the University of Nevada, I remember discussing a personal family problem with my supervisor, Dr. Duane Varble. He and I had finished talking about one of my clients and since we had twenty minutes left in our appointment, he asked me what I was planning to do over spring break. I told him I was going to New Jersey to visit my parents and added I was feeling strong ambivalence about the trip. Interested, he asked me if I knew what that was all about. I said I didn’t, but it was something I should probably discuss since it had been bothering me.

He then asked, “When you go home to see your folks, what do you want to have happen?”  I thought for a bit and said, “I wish during my visits that they would inquire about my life. They don’t seem to have any interest in what I’m doing here in the doctoral program or how I view the world in general. Whenever I visit, all my dad wants to do is garden and cook, and all mom wants to do is watch movies and do crossword puzzles.”

Duane said, “So, your ambivalence about the visit is tied to the worry that you won’t be nurtured.” I nodded in agreement. He then said, “Maybe you need to think about which Ron you want to send home for the visit. Is it Young Ron who wants nurturing and parenting, or is it Adult Ron who accepts his folks just as they are? If you buy a plane ticket for Young Ron, I suspect he’ll be disappointed again.”

“Why must my visits be on their terms?” I asked.

Duane answered, “Because they are who they are. They don’t know how to relate to you in the specific manner you deem acceptable. I’d suggest you consider taking the high road and send Adult Ron home to visit-he’s the one who is more willing to accept them exactly as they are.”

I gave Duane’s interpretation of my ambivalence a lot of thought and decided it would be worth the effort to send “Ron the Adult” home for the spring-break visit. I decided I’d suspend all my expectations about how my folks should relate to me and that I would gracefully and enthusiastically join in any activity they wanted to pursue.

I did so and what occurred was magical. I had a wonderful four-day visit. I gardened with my dad and moved yards of dirt, and together, we planted boxes of flowers and veggies. I also spent time with him in the kitchen. I picked his brain about how he cooked some of his Italian specialties. While we were doing some of these activities, he told me stories about his family and the Italian traditions he learned growing up.

My mom and I did crossword puzzles together and watched movies. While doing these things, she began to talk about her childhood, her life before marriage, and what it felt like getting older.

I’m sure they could not have put into words what I was doing differently during my visit but I knew they could clearly feel I was more present and more involved in their lives. My need for them to relate to me in more psychologically sophisticated ways dropped away. Our connection during those four days felt rich and right, and it confirmed Duane’s belief that I needed to shift my expectations.  

Over the years, clients have come into my office with this same dilemma. And I have asked many of them the two very important questions that Duane asked me: “What do you want to have happen during your visit,” and “Which person will you decide to send home to visit with your folks?”

This little story illustrates the powerful effect unrealistic expectations can have on our friendships. The more we are able to accept our friends and family exactly the way they are, the less often our hopes will be dashed when we relate to them. The great gift, of course, is that we may even find out that dipping into their world is great fun.

Do you have a question or comment for me? Feel free to post it by clicking on the comments link below.   

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Keeper of the Memories

Note: I recently received a touching and thoughtful email from Dr. Rod Skager of Monterey, CA, in response to my articles about aging and friendship.

Ron,

A year ago in March I lost my two closest, lifelong friends within two weeks of each other (Ralph Montee, a college roommate and Sy Simon, a graduate school buddy). They are irreplaceable. So is something else that goes along with close friendships—the experiences that close friends share together.

The other day I was reminiscing about the summer between our sophomore and junior college years when several of us, including Ralph, worked at the infamous potash plant in sweltering Trona, California, only 30 miles or so from Death Valley. There were vivid experiences on that job, things we talked about during the rest of our many get-togethers over the years. We had lots of laughs going over how miserable it was and even shared the stories with our families.

There was the insidious rash that developed while running centrifugals extracting potash from a caustic chemical stew the company pumped out of Searles dry lake. The most hilarious memory (in retrospect) was both the best and worst experience we had together: shoveling potash dust from an elevator pit in 110 degree plus heat. We took turns, one on top hauling up the bucket and the other down in the knee-deep dust. We joked about it at the time and for the rest of our lives. It was an unforgettable achievement and we did it together.

Thinking about the guys I shared that time with, I realize that I am now the only survivor of the six fellow University of Redlands students who worked in Trona that summer. I’m the keeper of the memories of events, friends, and the experiences we shared—of “the way we were” in those days. 

I am grateful to be the survivor, especially because four years ago I had good reason to expect that I would not still be around in September of 2008. This is something that aging assigns to us—a sense of responsibility to remember and thereby do homage to people one cared about so very much.

Do you have a question or comment for me? Feel free to post it by clicking on the comments link below.

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Uninvited Advice: Pros and Cons

There are certain rules of friendship thatare easy to accept because they make absolute sense. For example, One should not gossip about a friend is a difficult rule to challenge. I cannot come up with a single scenario that justifies an exception.

However, there is a friendship rule that is not so easily defended: Do not give friends uninvited advice or feedback. I personally like this rule and I almost always follow it. It is my experience that uninvited advice, like burnt eggs, is bitter to the taste and, worse, can negatively affect a friendship.

One clear exception to this rule is if your friend’s suspect behavior or decision is directly affecting you. Then, of course, it is entirely appropriate to give feedback. But when your friend’s behavior has nothing to do with you, the rule makes great sense.

What makes it so difficult to observe the rule is that we care about our friends and we don’t want to see them suffer. So, when we see them behaving or making a decision that we think will hurt them in some way, we are tempted to give them advice despite not being asked to do so.

Here’s a typical scenario that might tempt you to ignore the Do not give uninvited advice rule. Your good friend has begun dating someone you don’t like. You believe your friend will be hurt by this person, but your friend is blind to what you perceive as the other person’s shortcomings. You justify giving uninvited advice or feedback with the hope you will help him or her avoid being hurt.

I personally made this mistake with a friend who was dating a woman I perceived to be mentally unbalanced. Fearful for his well-being, I volunteered the opinion that the woman was deeply troubled and feared the relationship would end badly. My friend, outraged, attacked me verbally and said some hurtful things. He ended his retaliation by saying, “And besides, who asked you to evaluate her?” Realizing my mistake and valuing his friendship more than being correct, I apologized, saying, “Perhaps I have misjudged her. I’m sorry I’ve offended you. It may be that I’ve rushed to judgment, and you’re correct, you did not ask for my opinion.”

I have also been on the receiving end of uninvited advice and it is never fun. Even feedback about benign little issues can be hurtful. Some time ago, a friend said to me, “I don’t care for your haircut. It’s way too short and not attractive.” I said,”I don’t remember asking you to critique my haircut. Did I miss something here?” She responded, “Well, I’m just telling you—it’s not a good look.” The fact that I’m writing about this incident two years after it happened tells you how unpleasant I found the uninvited critique.

However, having presented the above thoughts, I must share a discussion I had with my Florentine friend, Doctor Bruno Depaolo, about this rule as it relates to child rearing. He questioned the Do not give uninvited advice rule in the following way. When I told him that I made it a policy not to give advice to my grown children unless asked, he said, “I absolutely disagree with that policy. If you see your children making bad decisions, you owe it to them to point out their poor judgment regardless of their age. If they become angry at you, that’s the price you pay as a parent. Your duty to educate and protect them continues as long as you are alive.”

My rejoinder was, “I see your point Bruno and it is a good one. I can’t reject your position because it’s based on genuine concern and a sense of parental duty. However, I choose to put the relationship with my grown children first. If the uninvited feedback generates hostility and the decisions under discussion turn out to be bad ones, I fear my children will no longer perceive me as a person they trust and come to for advice. Additionally, I’m not sure I believe we can or should protect our children from the consequences of their bad decisions.”

We went back and forth a bit as good friends do and then we agreed to disagree, at least in part. However, my discussion with him did prompt me to look more closely at letting the severity of the possible consequences to one’s friend determine whether or not to give feedback. Clearly it’s a judgment call, but I still feel that nine times out of ten, it’s best to withhold advice or feedback unless it is requested.

Finally, I suggest a tactful wording for giving uninvited advice. “Joe, this isn’t any of my business, I know, but for your consideration, please consider the following. I am concerned that your decision to do X may lead to some painful consequences for you for the following reasons. (Give reasons). I know you didn’t ask me for advice about this but I hope you’ll give it some thought.”

I hope this examination of a difficult friendship issue is helpful. We owe it to our friends to make good decisions about when to give—or not give—uninvited advice.

Do you have a question or comment for me? Feel free to post it by clicking on the comments link below.   

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