Couples go to therapy. Why can’t close platonic relationships be treated with the same care?
The pandemic shifted all our relationships and then the so-called “return to normal” shifted them again. Honestly, it kind of feels like I have emotional whiplash from trying so hard to figure out who my people are and how to have healthy relationships. I know it’s not just me, because everything on my social media feed and most of my social interactions seem to center around the topic of relationships and how to have them. But it’s not just romantic relationships that people need help understanding.
Yes, families and partners are obviously important, but recent research suggests that friendship may play a more important role in our health and happiness than we generally give it credit for. Renowned relationship psychologist Esther Perel recently counseled two friends who were having a rift in their bromance on her podcast, and as a person who loves therapy, I found this intriguing.
It seemed to me that these two men were able to heal more in the course of an hour with Perel than they ever might have in one-on-one conversations. It made me wonder: Should friends go to therapy together?
“Friendship therapy isn’t typically considered within the framework of relationship counseling, but the dynamic that exists between long-term friends is very similar to that of a couple,” explains Shontel Cargill, an Atlanta-based psychotherapist who specializes in friendship. “Many of the issues that commonly arise in our romantic relationships — communication breakdowns and feelings of betrayal or neglect — can also come up in our friendships and therefore can benefit from the interventions traditionally used in couples counseling,” she says. Yes. I know that sometimes my friends feel a lot like partners, and those relationships deserve the same kind of consideration I give to lovers.
And, let’s be honest, there’s bound to be friction in every intimate friendship at some point. A lot of us assume that we’ll be able to work out friendship issues easily, but if that’s not happening, it might be time to seek help. “I think it's a good idea when there's been some type of conflict — or maybe when one of you has been feeling upset lately about the relationship,” says Nicole Sbordone, a psychotherapist in Arizona. But, Sbordone admits that while individuals often talk about doing friend therapy, it doesn’t happen that often. “It's sometimes discussed as a possibility, but then never happens,” says Sbordone.
This strikes me as sad, but typical. It seems like only recently that some of the stigma of going to therapy has begun to abate, and societally, we tend to place more value on romantic relationships than friendships. So much so that recent research suggests that we lose two close platonic relationships when we start a romance. Basically, if people are going to hurdle the many barriers to therapy — like cost, stigma, and access — they are most likely to do so with a lover or family member.
“People think of [therapy] as a last resort because many times, they try to improve the relationship on their own,” Sbordone says. But she emphasizes that if you can’t find a successful resolution within a friendship, therapy may benefit your relationship in many ways. “It helps having a neutral party to learn better ways of communicating, as well as pointing out what the friends can't see,” says Sbordone. In other words, a therapist may help friends figure out what the blind spots are in their relationship and how to work through them.
Just like in any relationship, it can be difficult to deal with conflict in relationships, and sometimes mediation is really helpful. “For friends receiving treatment together, therapy can provide a safe space to articulate needs and work through grievances in a healthy and productive way,” Cargill says. And even if your friend doesn’t want to go to therapy with you, a therapist may still be able to help you process the feelings you have around that relationship. “For people addressing issues in their friendships on their own, a counselor can help guide you through various stages such as grief, resolution, and healing,” Cargill says.
But, Sbordone says, it’s crucial that both parties are invested, not just in the therapeutic process, but in the relationship. Both parties need to feel like it’s worth it to work on the friendship, she explains. “If you still care and want this person in your life and you're not ready to let the relationship go,” Sbordone says, therapy may help. But, unfortunately, therapy is not magic, and some relationships may end anyways.
“Friendship therapy isn’t typically considered within the framework of relationship counseling, but the dynamic that exists between long-term friends is very similar to that of a couple.”
“Friends may decide at the end of therapy that the friendship isn't worth saving — if the issues are not easily resolved, for example,” Sbordone says. But Sbordone has faith. She says that she thinks that very few people who bothered to take their friends to therapy would decide to end the relationship. This makes good common sense to me because, in my experience, most friendships end because one person or another stops putting in effort — or is seen as doing so.
That’s not just my opinion. In a recent study on friendship, people said that the number one reason why they would be likely to end a friendship was selfishness. Basically, people end relationships when they think the other person isn’t concerned about their feelings or well-being. But if there’s anything we’ve learned in the past two years, it’s that everyone goes through emotional ups and downs that it can be hard to communicate, and that what we perceive as selfishness or lack of care might be grief or depression or any number of other things.
Going to “friend therapy” may sound great in theory, but in reality it can be really awkward to introduce the idea, especially if you’re already having a hard time communicating. It may go down easier if you frame the idea of friend therapy as an invitation that demonstrates your commitment to the relationship. You can simply say, “I want to understand you better and I feel like having someone else in the room might help. How would you feel about going to therapy with me?”
The important thing, Sbordone says, is to communicate with the people you care about, whether you choose to go to therapy with them or not. “Check in with your friends,” she says. “Just doing so can mean a lot and show your friends that you care. We're so busy and with the pandemic, it's been tough to see our friends. Checking in, trying to schedule get togethers and having quality time together can really help.”