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32

Choose Friends Over Family

It’s healthier

By Morgan Baker

Sherry Bronson first went to Bali 8 years ago, when she was 60 and looking for a break from Minnesota winters. She found the warm weather she was expecting, but she also discovered “amazing hospitality, generosity, and kindness of the Balinese people, the spectacular scenery, and a culture, rich in Hindu customs and ceremonies,” she says. She fell in love, made new friends and moved there.

Life was grand until her oldest daughter announced she was pregnant and she and her old friends assumed Bronson would move back to the states. Sixteen months later, her youngest daughter had twin boys, and the conflict intensified, she says in an email.

Even if not the reason she’s staying put, by choosing to remain in Bali, Bronson is making a decision that could prolong her life.

Living closer to your friends is more beneficial to your health and your life expectancy than living near your family, even if it’s your kids, says William Chopik, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Michigan State University, who has published two studies on the subject. This may come as a shock to those of us who had planned on jumping on that plane to start babysitting our grandchildren, but that’s exactly why we should reevaluate that decision.

“Here’s the thing,” says Bronson, who blogs at www.writingforselfdiscovery.com. “I have created an amazing life for myself…I have all the time I could ever want or need to write. I have a community of dear friends, both Balinese and ex-pats.”

“There was pressure to be that grandma who lives close and does at least part-time childcare while mom and dad work. But the conflict was more about the expectations of others than being undecided myself,” she says. “The thought of leaving my home, my friends, my life, brought a grief response.”

Chopik says relationships with friends are mostly born out of leisure activities and out of choice. We have fun when we’re with our friends. We share the same interests, and we share the same issues. They understand the dilemmas that we are facing in our lives now – whether they be health or family issues. Plus as we age, we weed out those friends who may not be the best for us, keeping those who are the strongest allies.

Relationships with our kids, if we go rushing off to do that babysitting can be born out of obligation on the one hand, and, on the kids’ side, they may start to feel we are a burden because they become our complete social network.

Besides babysitting, which can be fun, we might not have built a network of friends and activities and depend too much on our kids, thus becoming more of a worry to them when they need time and energy to build their own families.

Geoffrey Greig, Professor in the School of Social Work at University of Maryland, and author of Two Plus Two, Couples and Their Couples Friendships, among other books on friendships, has studied various friendship constructs for a long time. He says parents and kids can become friends, but he agrees that moving just to be close to your kids’ family may not always work for the best, as their lives don’t always include you as they rush from soccer game to birthday party on the weekends, leaving you without a community to depend on.

You may be more engaged in your life where you live currently and may become more “needy” if you move, plus, he says “How interesting am I going to be if I’m sitting around watching football?”

“there are many compelling reasons to be near family and especially to be close to grandchildren, but there are also down sides.”

Carol Blatter, 75, says in an email from Tucson where she lives, “there are many compelling reasons to be near family and especially to be close to grandchildren, but there are also downsides. One is that proximity can also create sources of tension. Our adult children have busy professional lives. They may feel we are interfering in their lives if we see them too often or appear to be in control of their lives.”

Assuming you and your spouse move together, you would have each other, but spouses also need different things from each other. In a heterosexual marriage, men rely on their wives more but women need women more.

Friends become even more important as you age because you cut away the superficial ones, says Chopik, spending time with the ones who are the most key to your life.

Those who are close to you in age, understand what you’re dealing with. “They’re there to listen to your crazy family stories and call you out on your crap,” says Chopik.

Blatter, a practicing psychotherapist, says, “All our married lives, our friendships have been our family, but without some of the emotional entanglements we have with our own parents and siblings…To bridge the gap from living faraway from family, we have relied on our synagogue friendships.”

“It’s healthy to examine your relationships and see how you’re benefitting from them,”

Because we are enjoying ourselves, there is less stress in our lives, and our physiological systems are in better shape, keeping us healthier and more active, thus increasing our life expectancy, says Chopik.“It’s healthy to examine your relationships and see how you’re benefitting from them,” says Chopik.

The importance of friends goes in waves, says Greig. They’re super important in your teens and early twenties as you define who you are. Then there is a period in your life when you spend more time focusing on your career, your spouse and your family. But eventually, things ebb again, as you become more secure in your job and your kids mature, you turn back to your friends.

If you do move away, be open to new friends, he says.

“I’ve always been a person who likes to create friendships, sustain them, nurture them and the relationships have typically been long term,” says Blatter.

“Be a role model to your kids,” he says. ‘How you handle new situations is important.”

While spending time with her granddaughter in Maryland is high on her list of priorities, it’s not always practical, so to nurture it coast to coast, Blatter, relies on technology, such as Skype, phone and email. She does the same with the friends she has in Indianapolis where she raised her daughter before moving to Tucson to get away from the cold.

“I have beautiful relationships with my girls and my sons-in-law,” says Bronson, who skypes several times a week with her 2-year-old granddaughter. She visits every six to nine months for an extended time and hopes in time, her grandchildren will visit her.

“There is research that shows those with a strong social network live longer and are happier and are more engaged socially and intellectually.”

“There is research that shows those with a strong social network live longer,” Greig says, “and are happier and are more engaged socially and intellectually,” Blatter says she plans on living into her late 80s or 90s with her work, family, travel, recreational activities, writing, hobbies, and her friendships.

“It’s easy to get stuck in the rut of thinking that because this is the way it is right now, this is the way it will always be,” says Bronson. “The thing that is actually true, is that everything changes. The only constant is change.”


About the Writer

Morgan Baker is the Managing Editor for the Bucket and teaches at Emerson College. What’s next? A move to Hawaii. Her work can be found in Cognoscenti, Motherwell, The Boston Globe and The Martha’s Vineyard Times, among other publications. She can be reached at mbaker@thebucket.com


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