Whatever Happened to Friendship?

by Nancy Ann Jeffrey. The Wall St. Journal.

In this overstressed, hyperlinked age, some people seem wired to everything but each other. Nancy Ann Jeffrey shows how the struggle to balance career and family has had an unintended casualty: friends.


ABOUT twice a year, when the guilt becomes too much to bear, Jim Hoffman sits down and answers neglected e-mails from a half-dozen pals he hasn't seen in ages.

The New York Internet executive says he just doesn't have time for his friends anymore. With a wife, a young daughter and a busy job, "I'm already at 120%," says Mr. Hoffman, 42 years old. "There really is no room for anyone else."

Didn't we used to have friends? Everyone from high-level executives to stay-at-home moms seems to have the same complaint these days: People just don't put the same priority on friendship anymore. Blame it on longer hours at work, soaring business travel-up 14% since 1994 - and the flood of infotainment that keeps us wired to just about everything but other people. Inflated bank accounts also play a role, as people buy weekend homes that lure them from their friends or hire nannies rather than enroll in group child care. And e-mail, touted as a way to keep in closer touch, often has the opposite effect: Real friendships become, quite literally, virtual ones.

Ironically, Americaís recent obsession with balancing work and family may have accentuated the problem. While countless companies have become more family friendly-even letting workers bring their pets to the office-friendship isn't on the radar screen. Instead, the importance of spending time with friends is played down as an optional indulgence that steals scarce hours out of an already jam-packed schedule. "People are saying, 'It's the one thing I can give up,"' says Jan Yager, a sociologist and author. "They're diminishing the value of friendship."

Indeed, for some, spending time with friends-outside of the office gang-is a guilt trip. "Having drinks or dinner with a friend is like taking time away from my family," says Deborah Bohren, a vice president for Empire Blue Cross & Blue Shield in New York. "You feel a little selfish."

Mrs. Bohren generally leaves for work at 7 a.m. and often isn't home until 8 p.m. Weekends are reserved for her husband, who commutes to Washington, D.C., durmg the week, and her 12-year-old son, Jonathan. Recently, when explaining to Jonathan that she was planning to take a rare night out with a girlfriend, Mrs. Bohren was so apologetic that he threw his arm around her shoulder and consoled her. "It's OK, Mom, he told her. You need a social life too."

Health Benefits

People with good friends usually have less stress and maybe even longer lives. In a study of 2,500 men and women over 65, those with more friends had a lower risk of health problems, and recovered faster when they did develop them. "Having contact with a larger number of friends gives you a sense of meaning and purpose in life," says Carlos Mendes de Leon, associate professor of medicine at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago and lead author of the study. A separate study of 10,000 seniors at Yale University showed that loners were twice as likely to die from all causes over a five-year period as those who enjoyed close friendships.

But some people just don't have time for friends right now. Mr. Hoffman, the Internet executive, moved friendship down on his priority list a few years ago, after his wife "whacked me in the head and said, 'You've got to make time for your daughter."'

Though his work keeps him on a "24-7" schedule, he says, he now devotes weekend mornings to outings with six-year-old Kelsy. He and his wife try to meet for a "date night" once a week. He's also increasingly felt the need to carve out some "time for Jim Hoffman," to play guitar or just watch some mindless television at the end of the day. The only pals who actually see him anymore, he says, are the few who "push their way in," such as one friend who recently flew halfway across the country to meet Mr. Hoffman while he was on a business trip in Los Angeles.

Less Spontaneity

Because of conflicting schedules, spontaneous get-togethers with friends are also becoming less common. Deborah Whitman, a marketing director for Microsoft Corporation, recently had dinner with several friends Ė an outing that took 2 Ĺ months to arrange. Last year, she spent months organizing a reunion of her college housemates that takes place every few years; then she took three days off work for the event, a long weekend at the beach. "We all made time in our schedules to do this because we really want to keep each other" as friends, she says.

Chart

But with everybody feeling so time-pressed, friends are increasingly willing to accept their role as second, or third, bananas. Every few months, Ms. Whitman and her fiance, Cam Clarke, a software developer, have a "no plans" weekend for scheduled downtime. During those weekends, they donít make advance plans with friends, instead choosing to hang around the house doing nothing. Friends understand, she says. In fact, when she's in the mood to socialize, Ms. Whitman says she has called other couples, only to be told that they're exhausted ~ and would rather be alone.

The marginalization of friendship is a historical anomaly. In ancient Greece, friendship, between men anyway, was sometimes held in higher regard than even marriage. In America, it has been a staple of popular culture from bridge clubs to buddy movies. Not anymore: The early Ď90s kaffeeklatsches on "Friends" and "Seinfeld" have given way to shows about teen angst and various ways to become a millionaire.

Ditto for real life. When Gary and Debra Kreissman invited three couples to a wine-tasting night in New York last year, they assumed it would be be a straightforward proposition. Instead, they had to reschedule after nearly everyone begged out a few days before the wine-fest becayse if business travel or other projects. "A social event like this just isnít a priority anymore," says Mr. Kreissman, a senior executive at a financial information company.

Yet neglecting friendships poses risks. "Too many people are finding out when the marriage doesn't work or thereís some family tragedy that no oneís there for them," says Dr. Yager, author of "Friendshifts: The Power of Shapes Our Lives."

When Judy Walters got divorced years ago, she found that the couples with whom she and her ex-husband had socialized with quickly stopped calling. Instead, she turned to several single and divorced girlfriends, with whom sheíd kept in touch during her marriage. "They saved my life," says Ms. Walters, a vice president at Investor Relations Group, a financial communications firm in New York.

Her friends, she says, listend to her late-nigh phone calls, cheered her up when she was depressed, and told her when a guy she was dating was a "bridge" person who wasn't going to last. "I probably would have had to go for therapy without them," says Ms. Walters, in her 50s and now engaged. "I would have had to pay a stranger to listen to me."

Pendulum Swinging Back

There are signs that the pendulum may be beginning to swing back. As Baby Boomers move toward retirement, some are, to their own surprise, rediscovering old friendships. Dr. Yager cites a couple who, when their kids went off to college, rejoined the same bowling league they had belonged to 17 years earlier-and found that many of the couples they once bowled with had rejoined as well. "As your life shifts, your need for friends is going to shift as well," says Dr. Yager.

And despite the shortcomings of e-mail as a means of personal connection, it may help keep some relationships afloat, at least for the short term. Kathy Lafferty of Freehold, NJ, for example, uses email to stay in better touch with a circle of high-school friends, in her case by sending along anecdotes and digital photos of her children.

Maintaining those connections has bolstered her during tough times, particuly when her father died of cancer a few years ago. "They knew my father and they understood how close I was to him," she says. "When I needed to have an "Iím losing my mind," talk, I went back to these friends."

Chart

For these people and others, the key is realizing that maintaining friendships takes extra effort, just the way balancing work and family does. Laura Kassner Christa, 44, is a Los Angeles lawyer and mother of two who also volunteers for her kids' class projects and has coached her daughter's soccer team. Yet every year, Ms, Christa manages to arrange a long weekend in Santa Fe, N.M., for herself, her husband and about a dozen friends.

She plans the weekend with workplace efficiency, sending out invitation letters and fax-reply forms, reserving lodging space for the group and getting advance tickets to the Santa Fe opera. "Iíve handled complex litigation," she says. "Organizing a Santa Fe weekend isnít that hard."

While some folks treat their lives as a house of cards that could topple if they add just one more obligation, Ms. Christa thinks of friendship as an integral component to her life. "You can't wait to live your life," she says. "If you like being around friends and want to continue to have a relationship, you canít put them off."

 

The Wall Street Journal, Friday, March 3rd, 2000



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