When I first held my eldest daughter, Esther, I knew my priorities were shifting. Our little household naturally became the overriding focus, even more so than when it was just Therese and I. This was good, natural and necessary – and I know that my friends understood when I could hardly make it out. Since then my time available for friends and community has fluctuated – with times of enthusiasm followed by times of retreat back into the family, as both Therese and I learned to find the right balance between the demands of family and the wider community. In the seasons where the needs of family were high, maintaining friendships seemed something distant and unobtainable. While good friendships necessarily come after the closest friendship of our spouse and love for our kids – the difficulty of keeping up friendships in family life often sees them relegated much lower – and competing with our career, exercise, rest and hobbies for bandwidth. I know friends are more important than these – but I’m as guilty as anyone of not putting time into my friendships. In writing this, I am most of all trying to remind myself that putting time into friendships enhances rather than competes with our vocation.

Why are friendships so important?
They are a key component to our flourishing as human beings. Good friendships even make us healthier. In the Harvard Study of Adult development, 268 sophomores were followed throughout their lives. The study later included their offspring, as well as other groups from Boston, and is still ongoing. The researchers asked what factors predicted physical health into old age – and surprisingly found that one of the key predictors was satisfaction in friendships and relationships. Friendships were a better predictor of health than cholesterol levels.

This wouldn’t be surprising to Aristotle, who saw friendship as one of the great goods of human life. For Aristotle, friendships were useful in that they helped us grow in virtue and provided us mutual assistance on the road to a thriving life. More importantly he saw friendships as good in themselves, pointing out that ‘…without friends no-one would choose to live, though he had all other goods.’ 

Friendships also ready us for relationship with God. Aelred of Rievaulx wrote that Christ is the inspiration and goal of true friendship between Christians. The way we develop natural friendships mirrors the way our spiritual life develops: we grow friendships through meals (the Eucharist/Lord’s Supper), conversation (Scripture) and spending time (prayer) with our friend.

As Therese and I have grown in our marriage, we have seen a lot of fruit helping each other foster our friendships. We are by no means perfect, but by making it possible for each other to see our friends – in as equal a measure as possible – we have seen the benefits in our own relationship. Friends don’t only give a listening ear and good advice for our domestic challenges – often practising the virtues of friendship in a different setting helps us to act virtuously in the home. Sometimes it is easier to give our friends the benefit of the doubt than our spouse – friends help us build and maintain the social ‘muscles’ required for a good marriage.

Keeping up your friendships helps your kids too. This isn’t limited to friends who have children the same age as yours – although your kids having excellent peers certainly helps. Children learn a lot from the example of your friendship – and they base their own social relationships on what they see you do and value. As children get older, the presence of faithful non-parental adults in their lives is a huge factor in whether they keep their faith. Our friendships help to set up this network of trusted adults  – the community which provides the backbone for our children’s flourishing.

True friendships are not easy to grow or maintain. Good friendships require that both friends are involved in each other’s lives, and are actively helping each other towards goodness – ultimately Beatitude. You need to have the same ultimate goals in life, whatever your surface differences, or the friendship may lead you away from who you are called to be. This is tough, especially if they don’t live five minutes down the road from someone who has these virtues. But true friendships are worth it, even, maybe especially, for busy parents. May we all be blessed with the opportunity to have good friends and be true friends.

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