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Some Friends, Indeed, Do More Harm Than Good

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    Some Friends, Indeed, Do More Harm Than Good

    Some Friends, Indeed, Do More Harm Than Good


    Friends are supposed to be good for you. In recent years, scientific research has suggested that people who have strong friendships experience less stress, they recover more quickly from heart attacks and they are likely to live longer than the friendless. They are even less susceptible to the common cold, studies show.

    But not all friends have such a salutary effect. Some lie, insult and betray. Some are overly needy. Some give too much advice. Psychologists and sociologists are now calling attention to the negative health effects of bad friends.

    "Friendship is often very painful," said Dr. Harriet Lerner, a psychologist and the author of "The Dance of Connection." "In a close, enduring friendship, jealousy, envy, anger and the entire range of difficult emotions will rear their heads. One has to decide whether the best thing is to consider it a phase in a long friendship or say this is bad for my health and I'm disbanding it."

    Another book, "When Friendship Hurts," by Dr. Jan Yager, a sociologist at the University of Connecticut at Stamford, advises deliberately leaving bad friends by the wayside. "There's this myth that friendships should last a lifetime," Dr. Yager said. "But sometimes it's better that they end."

    That social scientists would wait until now to spotlight the dangers of bad friends is understandable, considering that they have only recently paid close attention to friendship at all. Marriage and family relationships - between siblings or parents and children - have been seen as more important.

    Of course, troubled friendships are far less likely to lead to depression or suicide than troubled marriages are. And children are seldom seriously affected when friendships go bad.

    As a popular author of relationship advice books, Dr. Lerner said, "Never once have I had anyone write and say my best friend hits me."

    Dr. Beverley Fehr, a professor of psychology at the University of Winnipeg, noted that sociological changes, like a 50 percent divorce rate, have added weight to the role of friends in emotional and physical health.

    "Now that a marital relationship can't be counted on for stability the way it was in the past, and because people are less likely to be living with or near extended family members, people are shifting their focus to friendships as a way of building community and finding intimacy," said Dr. Fehr, the author of "Friendship Processes."

    Until the past couple of years, the research on friendship focused on its health benefits. "Now we're starting to look at it as a more full relationship," said Dr. Suzanna Rose, a professor of psychology at Florida International University in Miami. "Like marriage, friendship also has negative characteristics."

    The research is in its infancy. Psychologists have not yet measured the ill effects of bad friendship, Dr. Fehr said. So far they have only, through surveys and interviews, figured out that it is a significant problem. The early research, Dr. Fehr added, is showing that betrayal by a friend can be more devastating than experts had thought.

    How can a friend be bad? Most obviously, Dr. Rose said, by drawing a person into criminal or otherwise ill-advised pursuit. "When you think of people who were friends at Enron," she added, "you can see how friendship can support antisocial behavior."

    Betrayal also makes for a bad friendship. "When friends split up," said Dr. Keith E. Davis, a professor of psychology at the University of South Carolina, "it is often in cases where one has shared personal information or secrets that the other one wanted to be kept confidential."

    Another form of betrayal, Dr. Yager said, is when a friend suddenly turns cold, without ever explaining why. "It's more than just pulling away," she said. "The silent treatment is actually malicious."

    At least as devastating is an affair with the friend's romantic partner, as recently happened to one of Dr. Lerner's patients. "I would not encourage her to hang in there and work this one out," Dr. Lerner said.

    A third type of bad friendship involves someone who insults the other person, Dr. Yager said. One of the 180 people who responded to Dr. Yager's most recent survey on friendship described how, when she was 11, her best friend called her "a derogatory name." The woman, now 32, was so devastated that she feels she has been unable to be fully open with people ever since, Dr. Yager said.

    Emotional abuse may be less noticeable than verbal abuse, but it is "more insidious," Dr. Yager said. "Some people constantly set up their friends," she explained. "They'll have a party, not invite the friend, but make sure he or she finds out."

    Risk takers, betrayers and abusers are the most extreme kinds of bad friends, Dr. Yager said, but they are not the only ones. She identifies 21 different varieties. Occupying the second tier of badness are the liar, the person who is overly dependent, the friend who never listens, the person who meddles too much in a friend's life, the competitor and the loner, who prefers not to spend time with friends.

    Most common is the promise breaker. "This includes everyone from the person who says let's have a cup of coffee but something always comes up at the last minute to someone who promises to be there for you when you need them, but then isn't," Dr. Yager said.

    Some friendships go bad, as some romantic relationships do, when one of the people gradually or suddenly finds reasons to dislike the other one.

    "With couples, it can take 18 to 24 months for someone to discover there's something important they don't like about the other person," said Dr. Rose of Florida International. "One might find, for example, that in subtle ways the other person is a racist. In friendships, which are less intense, it may take even more time for one person to meet the other's dislike criteria."

    Whether a friendship is worth saving, Dr. Lerner said, "depends on how large the injury is."

    "Sometimes the mature thing is to lighten up and let something go," she added. "It's also an act of maturity sometimes to accept another person's limitations."

    Acceptance should come easier among friends than among spouses, Dr. Lerner said, because people have more than one friend and do not need a full range of emotional support from each one.

    But if the friendship has deteriorated to the point where one friend truly dislikes the other one or finds that the friendship is causing undue stress, the healthy response is to pull away, Dr. Yager said, to stop sharing the personal or intimate details of life, and start being too busy to get together, ever.

    "It takes two people to start and maintain a friendship, but only one to end it," Dr. Yager said.

    Friendship, because it is voluntary and unregulated, is far easier to dissolve than marriage. But it is also comparatively fragile, experts say. Ideally, the loss of a bad friendship should leave a person with more time and appreciation for good ones, Dr. Lerner said.

    "It is wise to pay attention to your friendships and have them in order while you're healthy and your life and work are going well," she said. "Because when a crisis hits, when someone you love dies, or you lose your job and your health insurance, when the universe gives you a crash course in vulnerability, you will discover how crucial and life-preserving good friendship is."