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The Friendship Formula: Valentine’s Day Myths and Missteps

By Dr. Lisa Dunne It’s the Hallmark week of love, and, big surprise, the world system has this topic all twisted up. We see the fallout in the trail of broken relationships, the ghosting phenomenon, the attachment crisis, and the tragic stats on STDs in the youngest generation. But did you know there is actually a faith-based formula to friendships? I didn't grow up knowing this. In fact, when I was 19 years old, I boarded a plane bound from Miami, Florida to London, England, and on the flight, I penned these angry words in my journal: “I will never fall in love again.” Through a series of relational wounds, abuse, and abandonment, I had allowed a proverbial layer of ice to settle around my teenage heart. But little did I know that the God who ordained every day of my life had prepared for me to meet a young man on the very first day of that trip, a man who would melt the icy crust off of my heart and become my husband. We’ve now been married 32 years. Maybe you can relate to this feeling of icy-heartedness. Dr. Henry Morris, founder of the Institute for Creation Research, once called this a “spiritual cardiosclerosis,” an intentional hardening of the heart. What are some of the reasons we close ourselves off to others? Maybe we have been wounded and lost trust, maybe we’ve been raised to think of ourselves as overly self-sufficient—as fiercely independent rather than interdependent. C.S. Lewis said in the four loves that we can lock our heart up safe in a vault where it won’t be broken; instead, it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. “To love at all,” he says, “is to be vulnerable.” All across America today, we see a trend toward isolationism. It’s not a new social disease, but it has been exacerbated, I think, by counterfeit mechanisms that can make us feel connected temporarily but which are ultimately poor substitutes for the real thing: F2F relationship. The rise of social time online (65% of teen social time). and a perceived sense of general, constant busyness: Couple this with the stats on loneliness, bitterness, and general anxiety, and we definitely have a recipe for socio-emotional disaster. I love these word that Paul gave to the church in Corinth: “We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians, and opened wide our hearts to you. We are not withholding our affection from you, but you are withholding yours from us. As a fair exchange…open wide your hearts also.” Instead of closing ourselves off emotionally from others, God calls us to “open wide our hearts” and love one another. Friendships are tremendously beneficial, physically and psychologically. An article in the Journal of Psychiatry (2016) notes a reduction in heart rate, blood pressure, cortisol levels, fewer incidences of disease, and even a longer life span for those with socially supportive relationships. But we often face obstacles in mindset and methodology. Let’s talk about some of the myths and missteps of friendship. Many of our GenZ friends have grown up in a culture that taught them to “live and let live,” and that leads us to Myth 1: A friend should never challenge you or cross you. On the contrary, a friend speaks the truth in love. Proverbs 27:6 says, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but an enemy multiplies kisses.” In other words, someone who flatters you is not necessarily your friend. Friendship is defined here as the willingness to speak truth, even if it hurts, when it’s for the good of the person or the relationship. A true friend will call you out to call you up. Myth 2: You can be friends with everyone! Proverbs 12:26 says a righteous person is cautious in friendship, that she chooses friends carefully. As Christians, we have a biblical obligation to be friendly to others, but that doesn’t mean that every person you meet should become part of your inner circle of closest relationships. Our closest friendships, whether virtual or interpersonal, will influence our behavior. As 1 Corinthians 15:33 says, “Do not be deceived. Bad company corrupts good morals, or good character.” We need to choose our influences from people bearing good fruit. We will eventually become like them. Myth 3: The perfect BFF can meet all your relational needs: No one friend is going to meet all your relational needs, and that includes your spouse. You will never share every single value, hope, dream, goal, like, dislike, and favorite ice cream flavor with another person. That’s just not realistic. If you have a few close friends, each one of them will likely represent one aspect of your unique relational needs. You can’t be intimately close friends with everyone. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar looked at consistent patterns in human relationships and found that on average, most humans can handle 5 intimate friendships, 15 good friends, 50 close friends, and 150 friends. As the circle extends, the potential for relational closeness decreases, so for most people, that real circle is about five. We should always keep the door to friendship open, though, because we never know if the next great friendship might be waiting in the wings. In the social sciences, we look for patterns of behavior that can inform our intentional interactions. From studies in interpersonal communication, we see that friendship is actually pretty formulaic. If that sounds robotic or simplistic, let me give you an example: You can’t gain emotional closeness with another person without revealing something of yourself. That’s a formula. Now I know this word “formula” might make some people nervous, as it makes friendship seem rather unnatural, non-grass-fed organic. It doesn’t mean that there are never exceptions to the patterns, but one of the tremendous benefits of research is that it actually helps us to analyze these patterns and use them to better approach our own relational challenges, and these often stem from our sense of identity. Identity is described as a relatively stable set of attitudes that defines who you are, or at least who you think you are. It’s a subjective self-image that comes from your past experience and then guides your interpretation of what you learn about yourself through your interactions with others. American sociologist George Herbert Mead said that our identity is formed through our interactions with others and our feelings about ourselves. American philosopher and social theorist Charles Horton Cooley described this as our looking glass self, a mirror, the perception we adapt of ourselves based on what we think others see in us. In this view, identity is the culmination of how we perceive ourselves to be perceived by others. Along that same line, self-acceptance, as defined in the social sciences, means having a high regard for yourself. It doesn’t mean you are arrogant or cocky; it means you feel like you have worth, value. And there is a fascinating correlation here for relationship: The more self-accepting you are, the greater your level of self-disclosure. The less self-accepting you are, the less you self-disclose, probably because of the intense fear of rejection that would confirm what we already believe about ourselves. This creates a cycle. The less we self-disclose, the less likely we are to develop and maintain deep friendships. That’s another formula. As Dr. John Steward notes in Building Bridges Not Walls, psychologically healthy people tend to see themselves as being liked, capable, worthy, and acceptable to other people. Of course, there is a spectrum here, but at the foundation, we see a pattern: the better our view of ourselves, the better our treatment of others. Jesus alludes to this concept in the tiny but very important caveat he provides when ranking the Great Commandments in response to the Pharisees’ question, which one is the greatest: Jesus says the second greatest commandment is to love others as we love ourselves. Those four little words at the end of the phrase are cornerstones for our interactions with others. He’s not telling us to be self-absorbed narcissists; he’s saying that we will ultimately treat others as we treat ourselves.

Social media use breeds isolation and perfectionism, enemies of friendship. Loneliness has reached such epidemic proportions around the globe that in 2019, the United Kingdom appointed a Minister of Loneliness to deal with their country’s epidemic. In the US, the Center for Disease Control says that loneliness in GenZs has reached epidemic proportions. A 2022 study in Psychology Today said that 73% of GenZ report feeling alone, the highest level of any generation, so it’s clearly a significant issue. One of my favorite relational patterns in the social sciences was theorized by Dr. Mark Knapp, a professor at the University of Texas. He developed a model that gives us a pretty cool stairstep formula of relational development – it’s called Knapp’s stages of relational development. The model is a two-sided staircase, with the left side being the steps to a budding relationship and the right being the steps to a dying relationship. What’s so fascinating is that you can really see these patterns of behavior in relationships all around you. Most importantly, you can take action if you see the relationship heading toward destruction! Pretty dramatic wording, I know, but I really want to see us become a culture that values relationships. Instead of seeing them as the equivalent of paper plates that we can just throw away when we’re finished using them, we want to value them as heirloom china: precious, unique, irreplaceable. How do relationships develop? There are several factors that social scientists have shown to be important, and many of the dating sites have picked up on these as well. Proximity is an important one; that means you have regular interactions with one another. The old joke about the Mrs. Degree in college or “find your spouse in the house” at church are both part of that ideology—close interactions with another person give us the opportunity to get to know each other. Similarities in likes and dislikes also often draw us together, though we may connect with someone who has opposite traits (as Paula Abdul reminded us in the 80s, opposites attract). Still though, for the relationship to thrive, there needs to be enough of a base of core values that are similar, even if likes and hobbies are different. Knapp’s stages fall along a stair step line. The left side of the stairwell is called “coming together.” This includes initiation, the stage where we are making an impression on the other person, and much of this phase is based on overall appearance including how we look or dress and also how the other person interprets that visual information. The second stage is called “experimentation,” because in this phase people look for common interests so they can decide if they want to maintain a relationship on any level. This means that we have to have conversations and ask questions of the other person. It means we have to be brave, take risks, face the potential of rejection. There really is no possibility of relationship without the risk of rejection. We have to develop a level of resilience to that. The third step on this side is called “intensifying.” Here people become a little less formal with each other, revealing more about who they really are. They look for ways to strengthen the relationship like gifts or spending more time together. If there is no disclosure in this stage, or even moderate disclosure in the initiative phase, there will be no relational development. We simply cannot have deep and meaningful relationships with another person if we can’t yield to self-disclosure. If all of your relationships seem superficial right now, this is the likely c. Ask the Lord to show you what you're holding back and where you need healing to be able to trust. The fourth step on the coming together side is called “integration.” For a romantic couple, this would be when they start to be seen as “an item.” For a friendship, a romantic relationship, or a business relationship, this might be a grouping, a “we” delineation where others begin to see the interconnectedness of the two entities. The final step in the coming together stairstep is called individuation. This is a phase where we develop or display a strong sense of individuality within the relationship – we understand our uniqueness, but we also understand ourselves as a we: A me and a we. Now this is a tricky phase, because if we fall too far into the other side of the parallel stairstep, differentiation, then we get too focused on how different we are from the other person, and that becomes a point of contention. The other side of the stairwell shows the stages of coming apart, or relational disintegration. Again, I know the formulaic idea can sound a little unbelievable, but as you hear these stairsteps, think about a relationship you’ve had that’s ended or is in the ending phase, and see if these stages don’t just totally describe it. On the “coming apart” stage, we have differentiating, circumscribing, stagnating, avoidance, and termination. Differentiation is where we start thinking as a “me” instead of “we” on a consistent basis, where we become less willing to work for the good of the team and more focused on serving our own needs and interests. Now again, this is a balance, because we do need a healthy dialectical tension between individuation and differentiation, but we can’t fall too far to one side or the other for very long without the relationship being adversely affected. After differentiating comes circumscribing, and this is where we begin applying limits to conversations and stop having authentic open discourse. This leads to the next phase, stagnation, where the relationship ceases to grow. Communication becomes more limited, and the relationship fails to develop and flourish. From here, partners typically enter the avoidance stage, where they intentionally avoid contact and restrict themselves from communication, often in order to avoid having an argument (another important reason to embrace and discuss conflicts openly early on, so they don’t become gaping relational wounds). After this stage, the inevitable termination usually follows. If we don’t make the efforts to move the relationship back to that sweet spot at the top of the stair step, the relationship generally ends. For GenZs and Millennial cuspers, social media and screen use have dramatically affected the stages of relational development. In talking with GenZs, the adaptation of the stages include hanging out with a group (step one), talking one-to-one (step two), low-key official / soft launch, which might be accompanied by a post of a casual picture at dinner with the person showing their hand shoveling up a mouthful of food (step three). And then, the final, dramatic step four of relational development: social media official. Some of the reasons for these shifts include a general overfamiliarity with others, which I think is the result of oversharing on social media and peering constantly into the lives of strangers, hearing turmoil and frustrations that previously would have been shared in the context of relationships. I saw this shift around 2005, where I noticed a trend in student journals and classroom introductions. Whereas in previous generations, we had to pull details out of students (self-protection was a characteristic of the previous generation). But this change was overt; suddenly, students were sharing too much too soon. On the first day of class, they would pour out their whole life story to a roomful of strangers. Self-disclosure is not just sharing our success stories, our Instagram highlight reel. It’s peeling back the veneer and sharing our trials as well as our triumphs. Something important to note is that self-disclosure should be reciprocal in nature. If you share something, and the other person doesn’t open that door back to you, that might be a red flag. Do you remember the scene in Star Wars where Princess Leia finally admits her feelings for Hans Solo? She takes a risk to self-disclose by saying, “I love you,” and how does he respond? Instead of reciprocating, he says, “I know.” That is definitely not the level of reciprocation we are talking about here. In a healthy relationship, there should be a mutual sense of deepening affect, emotion, and trust on both sides. The other significant shift in our youngest generations, I think, is the fear of missing social cues. This stems from the adaptations of the brain we see in the research that teens lack empathy, and there is a clear connection there to screen use, especially video games where there is a common thread of living vicariously, watching someone else experience the adventure instead of making our own. On the terminating side of Knapp’s staircase, GenZ style, we see the rise of ghosting, which is a conflict-avoidant formula for relational destruction. It’s certainly not a biblical model or a healthy conflict model, but it’s definitely prevalent today. GenZs tell me they think these shifts stem from being raised in a culture of idealistic movies, social media, and parents who said “do the opposite of me.” They need role models, examples. Even in writing papers, they need to see a specific example. How much more so in the area of relationship? Parents, we need to model this well in our own marriages and friendships. Our cultural rulebook tells us to be independent, to celebrate personal freedom and autonomy. But without others to challenge and sharpen us, we will remain stagnant or fall into the cultural cesspool of isolationism and its emotional and physiological downfalls. God has given us support systems that can help others and help us serve as the hands and feet of Christ. That is really the true definition of biblical friendship. It’s also important to remember that friendship takes patience, something we aren’t accustomed to in our microwave, Amazon Prime culture. As George Washington once noted, “Friendship is a plant of slow growth that must undergo and withstand the shocks of adversity before it is worthy of the appellation” (the name). It takes time, patience, pain, and resilience to develop healthy relationships. Looking at this overall view, we see a relational sweet spot between individuation and differentiation. We need to keep the healthy balance between the “me" and the “we” in order to maintain a healthy relationship: a threefold cord that's not easily broken. And that is the friendship formula. #love #valentinesday #relationships #friendship #marriage #leadwell

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