As a psychiatrist, I spend a lot of time talking to people about relationships. Family relations. Friendships. Workplace friends. We might have a few or many different friends. But who among them would you trust during your greatest challenges? Who to trust is important for everyone. It’s no different for me. Here’s my story:
It was a dark and stormy night. Literally. Midnight. Driving home, alone, from a late movie, almost 40 years ago. The rain stopped. The interstate was black and wet. Twenty miles to home.
I was traveling at 60, and out of nowhere there was a broken guard rail almost completely blocking both lanes. Nearly invisible, heavy black timber was strewn across the slick black highway. A swerve to the left avoided hitting the timber full-on, but my right front and rear tires blew. I came to a stop on the right shoulder and looked ahead: six cars on the shoulder, hazard lights blinking. Other casualties.
The broken guardrail had been protecting the median. In the gully sat the culprit. A sedan had rolled down, ending right side up. A state trooper arrived. We climbed down, checked the driver, a middle-aged man in a business suit, asleep. “Why are you waking me up?” We got him out of the car. Unsteady on his feet. Unhurt. Drunk.
Back to my problem. Two flat tires. The trooper offered to call a tow truck. I knew that I would be towed to an authorized garage and charged top price for new tires and repairs. But it wasn’t just money that made me not want to get towed. I wanted to work this out myself. I was in good physical shape, liked working on cars, my house, fixing things, solving problems. Could I take this problem on and make it into an adventure?
I had a spare in my car, and my wife, 20 miles away, had a spare in hers that would fit. We owned two VW Golfs. But she could not drive to me, she had to stay home with our 3-year-old son. Could I send a friend to my house to pick up her spare and bring it to me?
I thought of three people I could ask: my brother, Pep; my friend, Stan, and another friend, Clint. Each lived a few miles from my home. I was close to my brother, and Stan and Clint were my best friends. We would do anything for each other.
The problem with my brother: after generously getting out of bed, driving to my house, waking my wife, etc. he would join me on the Parkway, we would change the tires … and he would tell the story at family gatherings, elaborating each time until, in a final version, he saved my life. No thanks.
Stan? Sure. We worked on each other’s houses, dug our cars out of snowdrifts. And Stan would never mention it to anybody. It’s what good friends do for each other.
Clint? No contest, he was it! As a newspaper reporter/photographer, he slept with the police radio at his bedside, and got up at night to chase fires. Getting up at 1 a.m. would be less disrupting for him than for Stan or Pep.
It worked. I called Clint, he grunted (his usual expression of agreement or disagreement), got the tire, and met me on the parkway. We changed the two tires, skipped sleeping that night, went to an all-night diner at 5 a.m., and had a long, leisurely breakfast. Then we went home, cleaned up, and went to work. Enough said. We are still best friends, and he says he doesn’t remember the incident.
Stan and Clint were friends I could trust with my life. I did more than trust them; I let them into the deep parts of my personal life and created a term to describe who they were to me: they were my trusted intimates.
I have a lot of other friends. How many of them are also trusted intimates? Just two. Alan lives in Florida and David lives in Illinois. Alan flew up to be with me when my dad died. Where did these four—Alan, David, Stan, Clint—fit into a diagram of my personal social network?
I drew the sociogram of concentric circles to categorizes the range of friendships, from trusted intimates to casual acquaintances. It began with a question I asked myself that night on the parkway: who would get up in the middle of the night to help me?
As I thought about the closeness and dependability of relationships, I separated family from friends. For example, I was close to my brother, we went to Woodstock together, we depended on each other, but the primary reason was biological. We did not share many interests. Had we not been brothers we might not have become trusted intimates.
Over the years since that night, I have used the diagram as a psychotherapist with many men and women. Here is how it works:
6. Strangers. The seven billion people I don’t know.
5. Acquaintances. My barber and the counterman in the diner know my name, and I know theirs. We make small talk. That’s about it.
4. Casual friends. These might be the people you enjoyed lunch with when you worked for the same company, but when you changed jobs you didn’t keep in touch.
3. Good friends. These are people you kept touch with after you changed jobs. But they have not trusted intimates, perhaps because you haven’t known them long enough or spent enough time with them to feel a deep sense of security in the relationship.
2. Trusted intimates. They will go out of their way to help you when you are in trouble. Also, they would never intentionally hurt you.
1. The private self. There are two parts to the private self. The shaded part is stuff you’ve repressed; it is no longer available to your consciousness. For example, childhood experiences of being abused may be repressed. The white part of Circle 1 is the stuff you never forgot but is suppressed and not shared with anyone, perhaps because it is so uncomfortable.
In exploring this sociogram over the years with many people a gender difference often emerges. Most women remember at least a few women friends they have gone out of their way to help, and several who they are sure would do the same for them. Men, not so much.
Most of the women keep in touch with their trusted intimates. They have lunch, take a walk, or have long phone conversations. Many men have one or two such friends, but only keep in touch if it is easy, convenient, and they do stuff together, like work on their cars, go fishing, or share golf. One man referred to his best friend, his college roommate, who lives 200 miles away. They haven’t talked in three or four years and haven’t seen each other in 10. “But I could pick up the phone today and it would be as though we talked just yesterday. And I know we would do anything to help each other.”
My rule of thumb is this: if you have three trusted intimates with whom you are in close contact, you are rich.
If you have two, you are okay.
Only one? You are at risk. Who would support you if something happened to that person? You need backup.
None? It could be time to explore why.
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Photo courtesy iStock.
Diagram courtesy Bert Pepper, M.D.