Navigating the Protective Rules of Friendships

Two friendsTraumatic events teach you that severe dangers exist and that life is not always safe. However, we all need to feel a certain amount of safety in order to function within the wide world. So how does a survivor of trauma gain a sense of safety when she or he inherently knows that the world contains serious dangers?

One way is to create rigid rules and attempt to follow them flawlessly. But while these rules can give someone a greater sense of safety, thus enabling her or him to engage in more of life, these rules also tend to give bad advice that leads to less-than-desirable outcomes.

These rules tend to have an all-or-nothing hue to them, for example: “All sadness must be avoided, otherwise I will cry, never stop, and drown in my pain,” or “All romantic partners will leave me so I must leave them first.” Ultimately, a better way through this conundrum is to build flexible guidelines and save the rigid rules for genuine life-threatening issues.

Almost every life domain can contain these “mixed blessing” either-or rules. The domain of friendship is a wonderful facet of life through which to explore this issue of rigid rules, because even without traumas, navigating friendships can be a tricky feat. But when traumatic life events are a part of your life story, friendships can become a source of intense difficulty, fears, and perceived danger.

We will look at two common rigid rules that often proliferate around the issue of friendship. The first is that someone is either a good, loyal, trusted, and true friend, or they are nothing. The second rule is that unless you spend consistent, frequent, and regular time with a friend, it is not worth spending any time with them.

Each of these rules has protective functions: if you only are friends with good, loyal, trusted, and true individuals, you are less likely to be hurt, and consistent, frequent, regular contact will allow you to notice an approaching relational threat, giving you (theoretically) plenty of time to protect yourself. Each of these rules also has grains of truth—it is wise to have good, loyal, trusted and true friends and to have consistent, frequent, and regular social interactions. But life is complicated, people are complicated, and so these hyper-rigid and oversimplified rules can become a recipe for an ineffective social world.

A way through this is to place these rules onto a continuum. Each extreme statement within the rule becomes one of the ends of the continuum. For example, a good, loyal, trusted and true friend becomes the definition of the high end of friendship, the maximum friend, while the other extreme, someone meaning nothing to you (with regards to friendship, not with regards to the person’s value or worth) becomes the opposite anchor, the definition of the absence of friendship.

Now you can sprinkle the remaining space of the continuum with the vast array of friendships that life both offers and requires you to have, navigate, and understand. The friendly, though lacking deep trust, relationship with your neighbor will register on the lower end, while your best friend of 20 years who recently showed little loyalty can register towards the higher, but not highest, end. You now have permission to have an array of maximum definition friends, good friends, casual friends, acquaintances, people you are friendly with and those you merely exchange pleasantries with. In addition, it is also possible to have the same individual move up and down the continuum across the history of your friendship, giving (healthy) friendships a better shot at lasting across your lifetime.

This exact same concept of transforming a rigid rule into a continuum can be done with the rule surrounding the amount of time spent with a friend. The high end of the continuum is the idea that friendship entails consistent, frequent, and regular contact, while the low end of the continuum is not spending time with someone at all. Just as before, this continuum now grants you permission to have flexibility.

You can have friendships with people who always have a limited and moderate amount of contact, such as friends you hike with on a monthly basis but do not do other activities with. You can also have friendships with individuals where your interactions are erratic—sometimes consistent and regular or sometimes infrequent. You can grant permission for the amount of contact you have with a very close friend to waiver depending upon the demands or circumstances of life. Rather than having to end a friendship because of unpredictable or limited time spent together, you can now enjoy that friendship for what it is and when it crops up in your life.

Ultimately, friendships enhance your life, enriching your days and deepening your experience of life itself. Friendships ought to be a vibrant component of your life, yet rules forged out of the wounds of trauma and rigidly applied can sap the vibrancy out of friendships. At their best, they are ineffective, and at their worst they can cause the very loneliness or hurt they were desired to protect you from.

I encourage you to practice applying the notion of continuum to some of the friendship rules you may possess. Odds are high that you have the capacity to create vibrant, enriching, and adaptable rules that govern your navigation of friendships, and that doing so will carry you one step further in your healing. As always, know that you do not need to do this healing on your own. Feel free to reach out to a trained professional and use that healing relationship to grow.

© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Susanne M. Dillmann, PsyD, therapist in Escondido, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Sabrina

    Sabrina

    April 3rd, 2012 at 3:41 PM

    Sometimes you need a break from those friends but it is nice to know that you have some people in your life who no matter what happens or how long the time is between talking to one another, you will still be there for each other. Being able to navigate this kind of territory can be tricky, but true friendships are able to stay afloat through most any situation.

  • NikkiGreene

    NikkiGreene

    April 3rd, 2012 at 4:57 PM

    Friendships hould not have to feel like they are ruled by such rigidity.

    The good ones are going to be true and constant and fluid, meaning that they can change when either of you needs it.

    They should be allowed to grow just like the friends do individually. They can no more stay stagnant than can any relationship.

  • dawn h

    dawn h

    April 4th, 2012 at 4:17 AM

    just have a feeling that if you live in this box of rules and you expect people to hurt you, then they will

  • Janet

    Janet

    April 5th, 2012 at 12:22 PM

    Friendships are the best relationships ever.there is no heartbreak(often),no breakups and no possessiveness or commitment as in relationships.A friendship where in you are comfortable and so is your friend is a treasure to cherish.

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