How Friendship Hit the Rocks (October 2006)

Saturday, 02 April 2011 12:24

Published in Saga Magazine

October 2006

How Friendship Hit the Rocks

A common sight on Australian roads is a well polished sedan car with four occupants, two middle-aged or elderly men in the front and two middle-aged or elderly women in the back. It can be assumed that the women are discussing family, friends and shopping while the men are discussing important matters, that is, sport. They are either going to or coming from some social event. The two couples have known one another for many years and they are regarded by themselves and by others as being good friends.

 Similar pairs of couples existed widely in Britain, though the minutia of social behaviour might be different from that of couples in Australia. Such friendships can be tremendously rewarding. A shared history means that so much does not have to be explained. An abiding affection means that individual peculiarities are tolerated, and individual disasters result in sympathy and support, not criticism. Alas, not all friendships between couples bring such rewards. Some friendships start off well and remain so for many years, but the changes that increasing age bring can mean that tolerance of one another, even affection for one another become harder and harder to maintain. Some friendships have always contained a measure of difficulty because one member of a couple is not the easiest person in the world to get along with. In the early years of the friendship the other couple tries to adapt to the prickles and quirks of the difficult one, and in the privacy of their own home they discuss their friends in order to relieve their own negative feelings and to work out a way of dealing with their difficult friend while supporting the difficult friend's long-suffering partner.

 As the years go by, we all change. Some of us mellow. We come to realise that the things that were two thousand per cent important to us really aren't important at all. We get more confidence in ourselves, and so we don't have to maintain our personal pride by winning every point, or demonstrating our superiority to others. In short, we become nicer. Unfortunately, not everyone gets older in this way. As my Sydney University lecturer Jack Lyle used to say, 'The older we get, the more like ourselves we become.' We become fixed in our ways, more certain of the rightness of our views, and we see no reason why we should change. These kinds of changes mean that we become less of the person we might have been.

 Thus the young man who was so passionate in his determination to eradicate injustice in the world becomes the carping critic of the world, oblivious to anything that might mean that there has been some improvement. Try to draw his attention to a benefit, and he attacks it with all the cynicism of the world-weary. The fact that you see it as a benefit shows how stupid and ill-informed you are. He may be expressing his profound disappointment over the way his life has turned out, but knowing this and sympathising with him does not protect you from the sharpness of his tongue. He may have married a woman with spirit, but over the years he has worn her down to unhappy acquiescence. The couple who are their friends have to learn to avoid any topic which provokes a tirade, and they try to give support to his wife without letting him know that they are doing so.

Then there is the woman who as a small girl had discovered that she could charm the grown-ups into helping and cosseting her when perhaps they should have been directing her towards self-reliance. By lavishing endearments on those who took her complaints about her health and her discomfort seriously she never lacked a coterie of helpers. Anyone who was insufficiently helpful to her was soon branded as being unacceptable and banished from her sight. She married a man who saw his task in life as looking after a woman in need of care. The husband might be trying to master a trauma in his childhood, such as being unable to cure his mother when she was dangerously ill, by caring for a woman whom he sees as being like his mother, but, even though you understand this, and understand that the wife might be trying to capture the attention of a father who deserted the family when she was a child, you find yourself wishing that the husband would not waste his energy on a hypochondriacal wife. Thinking this worries you because, if the wife suspects that you are siding with her husband, she will fall out with you in a very unpleasant way

 As part of a couple you can discuss these matters with your partner and at least give one another support, but, if you lose your partner through death or divorce, your relationship with the other couple can become increasingly fraught. You want to maintain your friendship with one member of the couple but not at the cost of enduring the unpleasantness of the other. Not to see the couple seems like abandoning a dear friend, but how much unpleasantness can you endure?

 All of us in our childhood, youth and middle age had to endure many kinds of unpleasant situations because other people controlled at least part of our life. We had to please our parents, teachers, employers, and put our children's welfare ahead of our own. But, once we are no longer beholden to employers, our parents are either dead or we are no longer in their power, and our children are grown up, we are free to decide how much unpleasantness we need to endure in order to ensure the benefits of a particular situation. Thus it is possible to draw up a kind of profit and loss account where the difficulties of the situation are weighed against the benefits. Where the other couple is concerned, these might be enjoyable activities that otherwise might not be available to us, the pleasure of being with the member of the couple for whom we have great affection, or even the fun we can have when the difficult one is in a good mood. If the good outweighs the bad, then making this clear to ourselves can lead us to an extent of patience with the difficult one that we never knew we possessed. If the bad outweighs the good, then our task is to find some graceful way of exiting from the scene. That eternal feature of our lives, being busy, can provide acceptable excuses, while the greeting card industry can profit from our desire to appear affectionate while not actually acting to show that we are.