Almost everybody has friends. It is part of life to have them. Some of us have loads and some have very few, but we all feel that they are important in our lives.

And we all know who our friends are. They are people who are not our family, not our neighbours, and much more important than acquaintances.

(Of course, some people count some family members as friends and married people often say that their spouse is their ‘best friend’. This is a wrinkle that needn’t worry us here.)

We get together with friends when we can, we talk to them in person or on the phone, and generally view them as a significant addition to our well-being.

But although there is a single word – friends – for all the people in this category, in actual fact they do not all mean the same to us at all. They play very different roles in our lives.

Friends who provide us company

You probably have some friends who you enjoy doing things with – they provide company, diversion, and a chance to explore new things. They are often people you see in a group.

There are loads of activities which you might undertake with such friends on a regular basis. You could meet to play tennis, to go for walks, to explore the meaning of books, or to sing together in a choir.

There are also all sorts of other meeting places, where you might get together on a regular basis for a drink or a meal ­– depending on the country, a local wine bar or cafe or pub.

These people tend to share your tastes, whether in movies or sports. They are fun to be with.

We see these friends a lot, but we often don’t really know them very well. We chat about day-to-day events, but don’t go any deeper. They might even be in the middle of a divorce and not tell us about it.

Many of the activities we undertake with such friends are not possible – or are severely hampered – during these difficult times of Covid. You might keep in touch with some of them by phone or email, but that would be it.

Friends who provide us intimacy

In contrast, you probably have other friends who you tell your problems to and listen to theirs. They understand your character and the deeper recesses of your mind – and vice versa.

You tend to see them on a one-to-one basis, at least some of the time, so you can have more intimate discussions.

These friends, whether you do or don’t do things with them, have an importance well beyond the amount of time you spend with them. You may not even see them for years, but the telephone, email and, nowadays, Zoom enable you to keep up to date.

And when you do meet up with them, even after a long break, the connection is so deep that you talk with them as if you had done so yesterday. Uncannily, you pick up where you last left off.

Indeed, you may not bother with the usual niceties (the weather, a minor cold, small irritations), but go straight to the important stuff about what is going on emotionally for you.

It is to these friends that we go when we are worried about something or need to make an important decision. They know us, care about us deeply and always have our best interests in mind.

These friends are often people we knew in school or college and have kept in touch with over the years. They were there for all the ups and downs of early relationships, they knew when you were trying to have a baby, and followed your career choices and dilemmas over time.

But they might equally be people you met through any number of circumstances – perhaps at a dinner or through work or any activity which enabled you to talk comfortably. Somehow, you made a very deep connection and felt there was no need for lots of explanations.

You probably have fewer such friends. Perhaps just one. There is no question of losing touch with them because of the pandemic.

Helping people to make friends

These distinctions became very clear to me over 30 years ago. At that time I doing research on friendships among people with learning difficulties. Many were being released from the hospitals where they had lived most of their lives and much attention was given to fostering their well-being.

There was great enthusiasm for moving them into what was always called ‘the community’. The term is falsely reassuring and makes the new environment sound warm and full of friends.

It was thought that they would then be free to do what they liked, when they liked, just like other people.

But social workers began to notice that, in the course of a day, these people only spoke with shopkeepers and the like. And so, they wanted to help them to find friends of their own.

A popular solution was to arrange discos where they could meet. Their intentions were good, but the effect was limited. How many friends – of either kind – would you make in the loud surroundings of a disco?

A colleague and I wrote a report on the issue, but I am not sure what happened as a result. I would hope that more imaginative ways were found to help this group of people to develop and sustain relationships. It is certainly what I would have wanted if I had a son or daughter in that situation.

The importance of friendships

Friendships are important, of whatever kind. Human beings are social animals, a fact that has become particularly visible as social activities have come under strain during the pandemic.

Our individual needs differ, with some people wanting loads of casual friends to make themselves feel comfortable. Others have less need for activities with other people but feel a real need for one or two close friends.

I hope that you have managed to sustain your friendships during this difficult – and sometimes lonely – period.

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