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Friends as Family?

"Is it possible to create my own family of friends who will care for me?"

March 2001

Article: Friends as Family: Is it possible to create my own family of friends who will care for me?

I'm an HIV+ female in my mid-thirties, single and having trouble with my friendships, or rather my group of friends. It's been two years since I found out I was HIV-positive, and at first my friends were supportive and caring. However, now they don't live up to my expectations. I guess I have developed a higher standard of what friendship should be since my HIV diagnosis. Thus far I've been fighting with the same friends that I had been attempting to create a "family" with.

These are friends from my high school, college and place of work, and for years we have hung out in a group going to bars and dance clubs. I thought these friendships were 'for life,' but now I don't know. When I am feeling depressed, I will call my friends to talk but they will get off the line quickly and not call me back. They have always shown up late or cancelled engagements with me; currently we seldom see each other. When I stated that they are my family and I need them, a couple of them acted shocked and stated their boyfriends and husbands came first.

These friendships have lasted for at least 10 to 15 years, a lot longer than any of them have been with their husbands, boyfriends and lovers -- and doesn't years in friendship mean anything? I now wonder looking back over the years if I just a 'bar buddy' to keep them all company when we were out looking for guys? When they did find boyfriends I was the one who really got dropped! Has my HIV-positive status caused them to reject me? I am forever single, but is it possible to create my own family of friends who will care for me?

First off, it is always a good thing to look back and evaluate where you met this group of friends and why you developed long friendships with them. One main factor may have been your environment. The friends you write about are from your high school, college and place of employment and are based on a common environment aside from your mutual interests. Seeing the same people day-to-day can play a strong part in keeping many friendships alive.

For many people, once the structure of high school, college or a job has left, it is not uncommon for these emotional ties to loosen and eventually end. To place 'family' demands on any of these friendships may be problematic. These friendships sound like there were many environmental trade-offs, but I sense little else. Group or gang friendships are a normal natural part of our culture, and play a very important role in a person's social development. In addition to all group activities, there are 'mate hunting' adventures which friends do together. This is socially acceptable and begins in junior high or high school. Rather than going to a social event by yourself, it can be more enjoyable and safe to do it when escorted by others, and many friendships -- male and female, young and old, homosexual and heterosexual -- are created this way.

However, this situation doesn't always lay a great foundation for a reliable friendship. When one of the friends does meet someone, it is equally common to find that those friendships disappear and only reappear when the love relationship has ended. If you have chosen to leave that activity and environment, since you state you are 'forever single' you may or may not have the 'glue' to keep your friendships together.

Often people feel that the length of a friendship does demand certain behaviors. However, time and years should not suggest that you place can greater demands on people with whom you have been friends for a long period of time. Although you may believe or have come to expect that time in friendship equals a higher level of reliability, I feel this would be a mistake in judgement. In adulthood, the quality of relationships seems to be more important than the quantity. Having at least one close friend, for example, helps ensure emotional well being. Research indicates that it is actually the subjective perception of social support that is more critical than actual support, not only for alleviating feeling of loneliness but also for reducing the effects of stress and the risk for health problems. Your perception of your friends as being supportive and reliable as a group was not correct, and this is always a disappointment. However, your solution could be to focus on one or two friends, not a whole group.

When people don't return phone calls or show up late, or cancel dates, what is that telling you? It is hurtful and a disappointment, but if this has been a consistent part of your friend's character or something tolerated by the group members it is unlikely that it will suddenly change. You may have over looked this flaw due to other positives in the your friends’ make-up and now for whatever reasons the trade-off or pay-off in your friendships are no longer present. No one is perfect. I'm not telling you to put up or shut up about habits that are abusive in friendships, I'm just stating that more than likely these personality flaws in your friends may have always been there.

Viewing your friendships as 'friends for life' or as a 'family' may sound ideal, but it may be somewhat unrealistic. Throughout our life as we continue to change and grow, so do our relationships. Nothing stays the same forever. That goes for just about everything including our friendships, our interests and our viewpoints. Although you are saddened by this situation try to consider your friends viewpoints and how they may feel, it may help you to develop a stronger level of tolerance. Your HIV status coupled with your viewpoints toward friendship may have placed extra demands and emotional burdens on your friendships that they may have chosen to reject or felt they could not meet. You want a higher level in friendship but remember your friendships were created on a past situational foundation of going out to bars. You maybe demanding something more, which may or may not be possible for these people.

Possibly due to your HIV status, your tolerance has changed and you view time and quality relationships in a different light now, which is fine. Looking back it may help to ask yourself what you found enjoyable about these friendships? In addition ask yourself these questions: why did you want to create a 'family' with these friends? What are your expectations about friendships? What do you need to feel supported by your friendships? What can you bring to a friendship? What are you willing to give of yourself toward your friendships? With all these questions, ask yourself one more: can I accept people for who they are? This is a tough one!

Relationships work well when people have realistic expectations. Clearly your friends have let you know with their actions and words that they are not able to meet your expectations. If you can remain friends with these people, knowing their limitations, do so and accept them for who they are. Keep your eyes wide open, learn from this experience, and continue to seek out new friendships in your future.

J. Buzz von Ornsteiner, Ph.D., is a psychologist and behavioral consultant in New York City and will periodically write the "Psychologically Speaking" column.

Back to the March 2001 Issue of Body Positive Magazine.

This article was provided by Body Positive. It is a part of the publication Body Positive.
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