Bea LarsenThis is part three of an 11-part series of blog excerpts written by Bea V. Larsen, JD, Center for Resolution of Disputes. These eleven blogs also appeared in Care Management Journals, Volume 15, Number 1, 2014. Full sample downloads of this journal are available here.

Is it heresy to suggest that there are times when friends might offer greater comfort than family? And be equally entitled to our attention and care?

On a recent evening, I watched an old film version of the Edward Albee Pulitzer Prize drama, A Delicate Balance, which was introduced on Broadway in 1966 and which I happened to see in Summer Stock the following year. I was once again drawn in by the statements Albee assigned to the actors about the conflicting demands and entitlements of friendship and family. I know I may now be responding to my own story and not simply retelling Albee’s, but is that not the beauty of the connection made by listening to or reading the words of an insightful author?

Back to the play: Picture the beautifully appointed home of an upper middle-class family in which live Tobias and Agnes, husband and wife in their 60s. Also present as a more or less permanent houseguest is Claire, Agnes’s alcoholic sister. As the drama begins, ofttimes married daughter, Julia, arrives, having run away from her most recent marriage. Fueled by alcohol, the repartee is alternately loving and biting, the strain between family members intense. Then, late in the evening, the doorbell rings. Harry and Edna, another married couple, have come to the home of their dearest old friends, unexpected. Although surprised by their arrival, they are welcomed warmly, until they calmly announce that they have come to spend the night. Explaining only that while at their home they had become frightened, they retire to the guest room.

The next morning, to the initial relief of their bewildered hosts, they announce their plan to leave but then make clear they are departing only to collect more of their belongings to move in for an indefinite stay. Their fear is undefined, referred to as “the terrors.”

The 36-year-old daughter, Julia, reverts to an adolescent rant at being deprived of her old room (now the guest room). The family is in disarray and bitter arguments ensue. Tobias and Agnes are in turmoil, ambivalent about this imposition by their friends, while their family members have simply moved in, assuming their entitlement to do so.

The question posed: Does the 40-year close friendship of the two couples warrant the acceptance of such an invasion of their already crowded home? Although it hardly seems so, when Harry and Edna finally announce they are ready to depart, Tobias, after a sleepless night, urges them to stay. Their friendship, he fervently insists, entitles them to succor and protection, in spite of the terror they have brought with them.

It is impossible to watch this story unfold without wondering what one’s own response would be if dear friends arrived at the door, frightened and with suitcases in hand. Or, how we might be treated if the terror was our own and we stood on the threshold?

As an older member of my profession, many of my closest colleagues, who have also become dear friends, are far younger than I, some as young as my grown children. As with my older friends, my contemporaries, we have shared many milestones, both joy and grief. We know each other so well and can count on an ever available listening ear, comfort when needed, and unconditional acceptance. There is ease and pleasure in these friendships that is free of judgment and, for me, is devoid of parental obligation or angst. The guardedness with which I studiously monitor appropriate boundaries with my children is not present. I can push or pull at will, even nag with impunity. My friends can accept or dismiss my admonitions, secure in the knowledge that our friendship will be unharmed. Only loving respect is called for, and that is well established. Advice is sought or given without having been sought. No ancient history. No sibling rivalry. No family secrets.

As a young woman, I ran off to stay with a dear aunt when parental concern and criticism, spoken or only implied, became onerous. Many people I know have come to value these pseudo-parental or pseudo-child friends or relatives who can offer the rewards of closeness with an older or younger generation without the familial overlay of either expectation or obligation.

Family is sometimes defined as those who have to take you in when you have nowhere else to go. Maybe so. But should the terrors descend and comfort be sought, perhaps with dear friends one might be more at ease.