On the Couch: The Rise of Friendship Therapy

There’s no roadmap for dealing with struggling friendships; no tried-and-tested path to healing after a painful friend breakup.

Article by Alexandra English

Photography by Lisa Fotios.

As a therapist, Rachel Voysey has spent her entire career dealing in the expected — though not insignificant — dramas of infidelity and divorce within couples. The past few years, though, have seen a new type of couple appear on her couch: best-friend clients. It’s a logical transition, she says, as many couples’ therapy techniques directly translate for friendships; lessons in empathy, listening, responding without judgement, making time for healing.

While over the past few years, couples’ therapists in the US and the UK are increasingly seeing best friends sitting on their couches, the idea is only now starting to take off in Australia. “Friendship therapy is probably not as well-known here because Australians have more stigma around therapy than the Americans do,” says Voysey, who is also the founder of The Relationship Room Sydney. “Everyone seems to be fine with life coaches, self-development, and even corporate psychologists, but people don’t [seem to] want to know what their friendship style is.”

And therein lies the problem, she says. There’s a general understanding among her clients that romantic relationships take work, yet when it comes to friendship, if there’s conflict or tension, a lot of the time the relationship is either dismissed or left abandoned through lack of communication skills.

It’s not surprising then that on the ladder list of life’s priorities, friendship has been falling rung by rung over the centuries. Aristotle, considered the first major authority on the subject, saw friendship essential to a well-lived life. Saint Augustine, who held many deep friendships, considered love for a friend to be equivalent to love for God. During the Renaissance, though, philosophers started arguing. Later, Kant thought friendship was selfish, that we only wanted our friends to be happy so that we could be happy; Nietzsche argued that by fighting and challenging us, our friends made us better people. Montaigne put one up on Aristotle, believing that friendship should be a complete merging of two selves into one, so that there is no longer even a friendship, but a single identity. Of course, we know now that many ancient friendships turned out to be same-sex relationships shrouded in the innocence of “he’s just a friend”, but A.C. Grayling, in his book about the nature and significance of friendship through the ages, says for the ancient philosophers, platonic love was equivalent to divine love, and even transcended physical love.

Photography by Lisa Fotios.

Not only have friendships changed over the course of history, but they also change over the course of one’s life. At some point, life begins to conspire against friendship as families are formed, careers ladders are climbed, responsibilities mount, and the attempt to exercise, stay hydrated, sleep for eight hours, and keep up with the news, all just becomes overwhelming.

Voysey explains some of her clients insist friends are highly important to them, yet when a friendship begins to feel as though it’s teetering on the edge, they often let it slip — or give it a swift push — and continue on their way, complaining occasionally about how hard it is it make new friends as an adult. Paradoxically, she says, there are the old friendships kept on life support through social media. (Think of the annual “Happy Birthday, hope you’re well!” to someone who, in pre-internet years, would by now be a stranger.)

Friendships may be ideologically important, but they’re also physiologically important. A 2005 Australian study found that older people who had maintained a large social network were 22 percent less likely to die in the 10-year study period than those who had kept fewer friends, and in 2008, Harvard researchers reported that maintaining strong social connections could also promote brain health. It’s crucial, though to ensure you’re maintaining the right friendships in the right way — especially this past year, when extended lockdowns and periods of isolation changed the way, and with whom, we communicate. Research shows that texting, messaging and sending links online can help to maintain an already strong friendship. However, if that’s the only form of communication, the friendship may seem to be motoring along, but is actually stalled.

Photography by Lisa Fotios.

This is where therapy can assist to help a dwindling friendship to flourish again. In their recent book Big Friendship (Hachette), co-authors Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow have written about their journey through couples’ therapy to save their long-term, long-distance platonic love. They were inspired by the unlikeliest of sources: Silicon Valley. After hearing that Big Tech business partners had been seeing couples’ therapists during crisis points in their partnerships, Sow and Friedman decided to see if the same approach could work for their friendship, and it did. “We didn’t know what it looked like to fight for a friendship. We would have to make our own way through it,” they explain.

Voysey says the outcome of friendship therapy is usually positive. “It’s easier for friends to unpick their issues than it is for couples, partly because there aren’t as many layers of blame and assumptions involved,” she explains, adding the very fact that two friends have cleared their schedules and made time for one another puts them halfway there. “When any two people are in a therapy room together, there’s already a level of investment — they’re showing they matter to each other.”

However, there are instances when friendship therapy might make it clear that the best thing to do is end the friendship and Voysey believes it can avoid a lot of pain and heartbreak. “If the therapy outcome is not good — if it means the end of the friendship — you get the value of having some closure and understanding what and why it went wrong,” she explains. “When humans don’t understand why, we get stuck on it, and we go around and round, sometimes for years. Closure is an excellent thing; you don’t feel bitter or rejected or scarred. Sometimes it really is better to walk away, and with closure, you’ll be able to.”

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