If there’s one universal rule, it’s that nothing is perfect. Every person, place, or thing has some great qualities and some big drawbacks. So it’s no surprise when it comes to the importance of family vs. friends that, as clichéd as it sounds, there are good and bad elements in both groups. (Or, depending on your experience, some very good or very bad elements.)
With the holiday season approaching, it’s almost inevitable that images about happy multi-generational families sitting around a table come to mind. No family on earth is ever Norman Rockwell perfect, but as we get older the memories of those gatherings often become more poignant.
And that’s not just our mind playing tricks on us. The hard reality is that there may not be that many people around the table anymore. Older relatives die, our kids move away, or we do, and suddenly holidays can become an occasion to get through (or even ignore) rather than a day to enjoy. And if you’ve moved elsewhere to retire, even a non-holiday visit back to your old town can be a source of overwhelmingly bittersweet memories. But family can provide a comforting refuge for us. A long, shared history and even a house that has been a home for decades can give us a strong sense of stability.
Friends often give another kind of comfort. They’re usually your age, so they may have a better understanding of what issues you face – health and finances, say – than the younger members of your family. And because, unlike your relatives, you can choose them, you’re likely to end up with buddies with your same interests and attitudes.
Not that friends are perfect. Like family members, they can behave badly and be unkind and inconsiderate. The disadvantage with friends is that without ties of family, you or they probably feel freer to cut off the relationship immediately. With relatives, there’s more of an incentive to work things out (who wants to sit next to a grumpy daughter at the Thanksgiving feast?) Blood ties often mean a lot, too. With friends, you may simply walk away from conflicts—or suppress your anger until you blow up and end the relationship.
But having friends is important. Research published in the “British Medical Journal” shows that having friends increases lifespan, while a strong family connection appears to have no influence. The study, which monited 1,500 people over a 10-year period, factored in socioeconomic and lifestyle factors before reaching the conclusion that friendship is, literally, a survival tool for boomers.
There’s every reason, though, to keep up contact with family as well. Following a few simple steps can help improve or maintain your relationships with both groups:
1. Keep in touch. With family, you don’t have to wait to send a long holiday letter. Facebook and email are great tools for brief messages. (Don’t become a daily-joke forwarder, though!)
2. Forget about it. If a relative or friend has done something to hurt you, tell them. Sullenness or the silent treatment never solved anything. Once you’ve ironed out your differences, don’t dwell on what happened.
3. Plan to make friends. If you move to a new community, or are approaching retirement, figure out the best way to make new friends, whether it’s joining a sports group, a support group, a church or a club. You might consider taking part in a group that has younger members as well.
4. Don’t be a perfectionist. If a relative or potential friend wears the “wrong” clothes or has some other outward flaw, focus on what other qualities might be redeeming. People who are quirky or follow their own path often make for interesting buddies.
5. Don’t take offense easily. Although some relatives and friends can be consistently unkind (something you should stay away from), others can be only momentarily rude or inconsiderate. Just brush it off – no one is perfect.
There’s no doubt that relationships, whether with family or friends, can be very difficult – for the other person as well as for you. But it’s worth making the effort. Both family and friends can give you one of life’s most wonderful qualities: the feeling of loving, and being loved in return.