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Intentional Friendship: One of Life's Purest Gifts

Twenty years ago I called a friend I’d already known for fifteen years and said, “You’re my best friend, but we’ve dwindled down to a phone call now and then and a card at Christmas. I want to spend more time with you on a regular basis. What do you think?” He immediately said, “I feel the same way.” We decided that day to maintain phone contact regularly, meet halfway between our homes (three hours apart) a couple of times per year, and go on retreat together for three days yearly. This decision to create an intentional (on purpose) friendship has been like Miracle Gro for that relationship. Over the past twenty years we’ve spent about 60 days on retreat together, talked thousands of times on the phone, and accompanied one another through joyful and difficult times. Our friendship is a mix of boyhood energies that includes roughly equal portions of shared enjoyment of sports, wacky humor, and soulful conversation.

Research indicates that women generally have more open, confiding friendships than men. One researcher estimated that only about one man in twenty has a confiding friend other than his intimate life partner. I increasingly hear from women in my therapy work, however, that they too are struggling with finding soulful friendship. This is not surprising in a culture that is so much about doing, for friendship at its best is about enjoying time being together. We lack a clear way for friends to express commitment to one another—to clarify that they value the relationship enough to give time to it regularly. This results in lots of “Let’s do something sometime” statements that keep the friendship in limbo and may leave us wondering if we really mean much to the other person. When we keep things this vague with a friend, sometime usually takes a long time to roll around.

Counselors and therapists would have much less job security if people had more soulful, confiding, intentional friendships. When I bring up tension with my wife to the friend I mentioned above, his first instinct is to say, “Let’s look at this from her perspective.” At times I’ve protested this, but it is a gift to have a friend who wants to support the marriage commitment at the center of my life by challenging me rather than jumping onboard with my temporarily distorted view of my partner. In a very real sense, deep friendship is therapeutic.

Creating an intentional relationship requires a bit of what communication experts call “metacommunication”—the willingness to communicate about how we are communicating or doing our relationship. When I called my friend that day twenty years ago, we metacommunicated about the kind of friendship we wanted to create together. At times, intentional friendship also requires metacommunicating about tensions that arise in the relationship. This is the point at which many people just back away, thinking Who needs a friendship that adds stress to life? Clearly, we are free to let go of friendships that do not go as we hoped, but some friendships, especially those we have created with care and intentionality for years, deserve our best efforts to talk through misunderstandings when they arise.

It takes a risk to ask someone about creating an intentional friendship. If they say, “I’m just so busy right now…” we might respond, “Fine, no big deal” but walk away with a sense of having been rejected. I believe the gift of intentional friendship is a jewel worth the risk inherent in taking the initiative to create it.

Often couples tell me that they are deeply stressed because one of them has created an emotional connection—often online or through texting or phone calls—with a person of the opposite sex. As I help them sort through the pain this has created, we talk about the reality that the human longing for intimacy and soulfulness is larger than any one person can fulfill. Creating soulful friendships that pose no threat to a core committed relationship is an important pillar of support for an individual’s and a couple’s wellbeing. It is also, on its own, one of the purest gifts this life has to offer.

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