On the Couch: The Rise of Friendship Therapy

There’s no roadmap for dealing with struggling friendships; no tried-and-tested path to healing after a painful friend breakup.

Article by Alexandra English

Photography by Lisa Fotios.

As a therapist, Rachel Voysey has spent her entire career dealing in the expected — though not insignificant — dramas of infidelity and divorce within couples. The past few years, though, have seen a new type of couple appear on her couch: best-friend clients. It’s a logical transition, she says, as many couples’ therapy techniques directly translate for friendships; lessons in empathy, listening, responding without judgement, making time for healing.

While over the past few years, couples’ therapists in the US and the UK are increasingly seeing best friends sitting on their couches, the idea is only now starting to take off in Australia. “Friendship therapy is probably not as well-known here because Australians have more stigma around therapy than the Americans do,” says Voysey, who is also the founder of The Relationship Room Sydney. “Everyone seems to be fine with life coaches, self-development, and even corporate psychologists, but people don’t [seem to] want to know what their friendship style is.”

And therein lies the problem, she says. There’s a general understanding among her clients that romantic relationships take work, yet when it comes to friendship, if there’s conflict or tension, a lot of the time the relationship is either dismissed or left abandoned through lack of communication skills.

It’s not surprising then that on the ladder list of life’s priorities, friendship has been falling rung by rung over the centuries. Aristotle, considered the first major authority on the subject, saw friendship essential to a well-lived life. Saint Augustine, who held many deep friendships, considered love for a friend to be equivalent to love for God. During the Renaissance, though, philosophers started arguing. Later, Kant thought friendship was selfish, that we only wanted our friends to be happy so that we could be happy; Nietzsche argued that by fighting and challenging us, our friends made us better people. Montaigne put one up on Aristotle, believing that friendship should be a complete merging of two selves into one, so that there is no longer even a friendship, but a single identity. Of course, we know now that many ancient friendships turned out to be same-sex relationships shrouded in the innocence of “he’s just a friend”, but A.C. Grayling, in his book about the nature and significance of friendship through the ages, says for the ancient philosophers, platonic love was equivalent to divine love, and even transcended physical love.

Photography by Lisa Fotios.

Not only have friendships changed over the course of history, but they also change over the course of one’s life. At some point, life begins to conspire against friendship as families are formed, careers ladders are climbed, responsibilities mount, and the attempt to exercise, stay hydrated, sleep for eight hours, and keep up with the news, all just becomes overwhelming.

Voysey explains some of her clients insist friends are highly important to them, yet when a friendship begins to feel as though it’s teetering on the edge, they often let it slip — or give it a swift push — and continue on their way, complaining occasionally about how hard it is it make new friends as an adult. Paradoxically, she says, there are the old friendships kept on life support through social media. (Think of the annual “Happy Birthday, hope you’re well!” to someone who, in pre-internet years, would by now be a stranger.)

Friendships may be ideologically important, but they’re also physiologically important. A 2005 Australian study found that older people who had maintained a large social network were 22 percent less likely to die in the 10-year study period than those who had kept fewer friends, and in 2008, Harvard researchers reported that maintaining strong social connections could also promote brain health. It’s crucial, though to ensure you’re maintaining the right friendships in the right way — especially this past year, when extended lockdowns and periods of isolation changed the way, and with whom, we communicate. Research shows that texting, messaging and sending links online can help to maintain an already strong friendship. However, if that’s the only form of communication, the friendship may seem to be motoring along, but is actually stalled.

Photography by Lisa Fotios.

This is where therapy can assist to help a dwindling friendship to flourish again. In their recent book Big Friendship (Hachette), co-authors Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow have written about their journey through couples’ therapy to save their long-term, long-distance platonic love. They were inspired by the unlikeliest of sources: Silicon Valley. After hearing that Big Tech business partners had been seeing couples’ therapists during crisis points in their partnerships, Sow and Friedman decided to see if the same approach could work for their friendship, and it did. “We didn’t know what it looked like to fight for a friendship. We would have to make our own way through it,” they explain.

Voysey says the outcome of friendship therapy is usually positive. “It’s easier for friends to unpick their issues than it is for couples, partly because there aren’t as many layers of blame and assumptions involved,” she explains, adding the very fact that two friends have cleared their schedules and made time for one another puts them halfway there. “When any two people are in a therapy room together, there’s already a level of investment — they’re showing they matter to each other.”

However, there are instances when friendship therapy might make it clear that the best thing to do is end the friendship and Voysey believes it can avoid a lot of pain and heartbreak. “If the therapy outcome is not good — if it means the end of the friendship — you get the value of having some closure and understanding what and why it went wrong,” she explains. “When humans don’t understand why, we get stuck on it, and we go around and round, sometimes for years. Closure is an excellent thing; you don’t feel bitter or rejected or scarred. Sometimes it really is better to walk away, and with closure, you’ll be able to.”

Turia Pitt on Mastering Procrastination

After a decade of recovery and resilience – as well as 200 medical procedures – motivation is something the mother-of-two is an expert on.

Article by Lucy E Cousins

“My dad taught me how to be resilient and my mum taught me how to back myself,” says Turia Pitt. Photography courtesy of RUN with Turia Pitt.

Turia Pitt is many things: a businesswoman, a mother, a survivor, an athlete. She’s a motivational speaker, a mining engineer, a runner… but there’s one thing this multifaceted Australian isn’t, and that’s a procrastinator. “I know, that’s annoying,” she laughs. “Of course, I have procrastinated before, but, over the years, I’ve come up with some seriously solid strategies that help me nip it in the bud before it can derail a whole project.”

Derailing is something the 34-year-old knows all about. A decade ago, she was living her “dream life” working as an engineer in the Australian outback when she was caught in a fire while running a 100km ultra-marathon (an impressive feat in itself). Airlifted to safely she sustained burns to 65% of her body. Over 200 medical procedures later, she’s become the living embodiment of strength, a trait she attributes to her parents. “My dad taught me how to be resilient,” she says, “and my mum taught me how to back myself.”

But being resilient doesn’t mean she’s motivated all the time, she says, especially having two small children. Her mornings, for example, often start at 5am with her three-year-old “sitting up and barking like a dog”, quickly followed by a strong coffee. “Being a mum, has made me way more motivated for self-care, but not in the traditional sense.” For Pitt, a 20-minute run is all it takes (and all she can fit in).

However, it’s her experiences as a sleep-deprived mother that prompted her to start her own running programme, RUN with Turia Pitt. Her self-proclaimed “no BS running program for mums” aims to help tired mothers add in some self-care to their day. “I’ve found that mums need help learning how to carve out time for themselves. They need a flexible programme to follow, one they can fit around their own hectic schedule,” she explains.

Here, Turia Pitt talks to T Australia about being motivated, her “five-minute” self-care rule and why a little procrastination can be a good thing.

Pitt believes that procrastination can allow you to see things more clearly. Photography courtesy of RUN with Turia Pitt.

Do you feel the last two years have impacted your motivation?

“I think they have in some ways, but I’ve been really lucky. My work hasn’t been too badly affected by the pandemic and it hit right as I gave birth to my second son, Rahiti. So, that first six months, I was deep in the newborn bubble and figuring out how to work my life with two young kids. And I’ve also been busy building and launching my running programme for Mums. Seeing women learn how to back themselves and learn to run after years (sometimes decades) thinking they never could, that’s been incredibly inspiring and motivating. I’m really grateful to have had this focus over the past two years. It’s helped me a lot.”

When do you procrastinate?

“Let me come clean about something right from the get-go… I am not a procrastinator. I usually procrastinate for one of two reasons; if I’m nervous about doing something, and if I don’t have the full context behind the task.”

What do you do to overcome it?

“I get really clear on what it is I’m trying to achieve, and if it’s a big task, I’ll break it down into lots of manageable baby steps. If it’s something I’m avoiding, like a tough call or sending a scary email, I do it first thing in the morning. That way my day gets easier and easier as it goes on.”

Can procrastination ever be beneficial?

“Yes, definitely! Sometimes when you procrastinate on one task, you end up doing a whole stack of other important things. And secondly, sometimes procrastination can force you to ask some good questions. Questions like, why am I avoiding this project? What do I need to get this done? What is stopping me from achieving this? What fears or concerns come up for me when I think about taking on this project? Do I need to ask for help? Is this the right project for me to take on, right now?

Procrastination can allow you to see things more clearly. Because here’s the thing – we don’t procrastinate with the stuff that we really love to do. We don’t delay the opportunity to work on something that really drives us unless there’s something we need to consider, a fear or concern we need to address, or specific help that we need to receive.”

What do most people get wrong about trying to motivate themselves?

“Believing that they need motivation to start. I think motivation is a myth. The reality is you’re not going to feel motivated all the time! If you’re waiting to wake up full of energy at 5am, leaping out of bed to go for a run, well… you might be waiting a long time. I like the five-minute rule: on mornings when I really don’t want to run, I just tell myself I only have to go for five minutes. I pull on my joggers, step outside and just start jogging. At the five-minute mark, if I’m still not feeling it, I can go home! But nine times out of 10 by the time I’m five minutes in and I’m out in the fresh air, I usually decide to just keep going.”

Why do you think mum’s need a special fitness programme?

“I think all women, but definitely mums, often look out for everyone else before they look out for themselves. They need [an exercise programme] to be equipment light. That’s what’s so great about running, yeah? You don’t need to wait for a class to start or drive anywhere. You don’t need any special gear. All you need is a pair of sneakers (and maybe a sports bra) and a 20-minute window, and you can be on your way. But mums also need the support of women’s health physios, and a programme that supports their body properly. And I think they also need a community of women around them that truly get what they’re going through.”

How does your new running programme relate to you as a mother?

“This is the running programme I needed after I had my son, Hakavai. I was desperate to start exercising again and struggling to work out how to fit it in.  My time was no longer my own, I’d just pushed something the size of a rockmelon out of my body, so I was worried about my pelvic floor, and just overall lacked confidence in my body and its ability to do things it used to. Add another kid to the mix and BAM… I was struggling all over again with wanting to be a good and present Mum but also wanting to find time for myself and still be able to go out for a run.”

What do you want your children to learn from you and your partner, Michael Hoskin?

“I hope my kids learn how to be resilient from me – how to keep going when times get tough. And I hope they get Michael’s calm and grounded outlook on life, his gratitude and his beautiful warmth.”