I glanced around the room to see pockets of young adults chatting amiably with snacks in hand. Four sat by the fireplace, three played pool, and others hung around the woman and man for whom this engagement party had been thrown.
The groom-to-be was our son, and in the crowd of twenty or so I recognized his high school buddies, long-term college friends, and people with whom he worked up north. Spirited laughter filled the room. Close friends.
Weeks before, in a different place, I had opportunity to speak with a man who described his life as troubled. He was separated from his wife and suffered from depression, anxiety, and spiritual confusion.
“Do you have any friends who can support you during this time?” I asked.
“No,” he answered. “I have no friends.”
I have no friends! No wonder he had opened up to me, a stranger. As we talked I learned that he interacts with adults regularly—his psychiatrist, counselor, social worker and a disinterested sister. But no friends.
We all need one or two confidants with whom we can share anything and be understood and accepted. We call these relationships close for reason of their social and proximal intimacy. But they are more than that.
What is a close relationship? How might its features help us understand the party-goers and the desperately lonely man?
In close relationships we depend on each other to negotiate life. We get up in the morning knowing a flesh-and-blood person will be a part of our world in a meaningful way.
In close relationships we enjoy mutual influence, that ability to speak into someone’s life, and they into ours, with respect and dignity. We need to feel like our ideas and plans matter to someone.
People who are close hang out a lot talking, eating, playing and crying. If you and I cut out regular communication, we don’t have close relating. In fact, if we eliminate communication altogether, we snuff out the relationship.
But if we talk, and talk a lot, we develop unique patterns that build meaningful bonds. It’s the little things like pet names or favorite drinks or who sits where in the car that make us unique. These rituals give us comfort knowing we live in sync with another human being.
But perhaps more than these features, the litmus test for close relationships also includes experiencing strong emotions, especially of attachment. Closeness means we feel head-on love, trust, and admiration, and at other times, robust frustration, disdain and disgust. Feeling emotionally engaged tells us each other matter; feeling flat might signal drift.
When we’re close we know important needs are being met, things such as intimacy, security, and intellectual stimulation. We know we’re close when we seek to serve each other without thought for our gain. In fact to only take for our own needs indicates a lack of mutuality and maturity. When we’re close we are eager to help, serve, and support.
Finally, close relating gives the true sense that our friend or partner is irreplaceable. Life would be irreversibly changed if this person were not in our world.
The party goers and lonely man seemed at opposite poles of the closeness continuum. Where do you see your relationships on that line? What events and people have led to where your relationships are today? What choices have you made along the way?
Bill Strom, Author
I am a believer by faith, a professor by vocation, a husband by choice, a father by blessing, and a friend by hanging out. Along the way I have learned about close relating through my experiences, biblical models, and social science research. Hopefully my ideas and encouragement show up here in ways meaningful to you.