At last: Friendship, Part 4

We’ve been enjoying a lovely July so far in our new town, including a little fishing adventure with our cousins.

Meanwhile, I have been working on an article about the Graduate Institute at St. John’s, urging the creation of more programs like it for adults. It’s done and I will share it as soon as it is published. Now, I am finally finishing this series on friendship, which I started months ago after reading Aristotle’s Ethics.

In my first post on friendship, I summarized Aristotle’s descriptions of the types or levels of friendship and focused on his idea of a complete friendship, which is the greatest and most difficult of all. In my second post, I listed 6 reasons, based on my own experience and from talking with friends, that make the pursuit of deep friendship so hard in this day and age. These were:

  1. lack of time
  2. the number of actual friends and potential friends
  3. moving and managing the distance between friends
  4. changes in ourselves and in our friends that bring tension to the friendship
  5. different expectations of what friendship is and what it requires or how important a particular friendship is
  6. lack of order and discipline

In parts 2 and 3, I managed to get through #1-4. Today I will discuss #5 and #6 and also brainstorm some (hopefully) helpful ways to overcome these difficulties.

#5 Different Expectations 

It is very easy to misunderstand or overestimate another person’s disposition toward friendship in general or with you in particular. I have been quick to form expectations of deep friendship based on a few pleasant interactions, and after much disappointment, I am slowly learning my lesson. The rich and lovely conversations, mutual interests, and/or shared sense of humor and personality that often lead to real enthusiasm for another person often characterize a friendship of pleasure, but do not guarantee the development of a lasting and intimate bond.

The confusion around expectations is compounded by a lost sense of etiquette and boundaries in our culture. People are willing to share with literally anyone who will listen (or read their Facebook feed) what others in the past would have only shared with their family and dearest friends. So what I may read as a sign of intimacy or trust, another person might think of as merely friendly behavior or conversation.

We also have different ideas of what it means to be a good friend. Some equate good friendship with frequent mutual favors. For example, I have met some mothers of young children who thought that the test of friendship was how often we babysat for one another…but meanwhile, they barely made time for real adult time together. A good friend can be relied on during difficult times or for a favor here and there, but that isn’t what primarily characterizes friendship–friendship involves communion.

Others think that a good friend should make you feel good about yourself at all times. This expectation cuts off the healthy and important role of our friends to make us better people and help us find happiness. We ought to expect those who really love us to tell us when we are doing wrong. We have no obligation to assume that they are right, but we ought to take that very seriously and appreciate it.

#6 Lack of Order and Discipline 

Whether it’s you or your friend, if one or both in the friendship lack order and discipline, it’s very difficult to maintain or build a good friendship. Aristotle cites an old saying, “Lack of conversation has dissolved many a friendship.” Indeed! Even if you still have good feelings toward the person, if you don’t actually talk regularly, you aren’t intimate friends.

In our technological age, the means of communication ought to make conversations more possible but they are also real sources of distraction from our friendships. Lack of order can be manifest in spending too much time with friends or talking on the phone or text messaging or on social media. Or, it could be in not responding to phone calls, text messages, emails, or frankly, never sending any of the above because you are too distracted by other things. People get discouraged after a few unfruitful attempts to get in touch and then give up trying to catch up with you on the phone or get together with you. Even if you respond to their invitations or phone calls, friends also get discouraged and hurt if you never initiate any conversations or get-togethers yourself.

If the person is not someone you want to be close friends with, this may not be much of a problem–you may in fact choose not to be very responsive. But, if you desire to be a person’s good friend and can’t actually order your time well enough to get together regularly or be in touch often, then it’s your loss! What a shame!

Another manifestation is a disorder of desires and pleasures. Sometimes we desire the company of friends who are not actually good people, or, perhaps if basically good, still do not challenge us to be better people ourselves. We might choose to hang out with people who are less virtuous or ambitious than ourselves, in order that we might feel good around our friends. If this isn’t motivated by self-satisfaction, it lulls people into it.

Or, out of a sense of laziness, people just accept whoever pursues their friendship and enjoy feeling wanted, rather than making the effort that it takes to seek out worthy friends. These people think of friendship as merely the suppression of loneliness, rather than an active choice to love and be loved by another person.

Positive resolutions

I did not intend to write these reflections on the difficulty of friendship merely to draw attention to the problems, but to offer positive resolutions that could help us overcome them–at least those that are in our power to change.

The first is patience, with ourselves and other people. Patience not only for our weaknesses, but in trusting that building good friendships takes a long time. Our friendships will go through phases, depending on the state and stage of our lives. Patience also shows itself in a slowness to build expectations of, or to trust completely in, a friend, which can avoid much hurt.

Yet, at the same time, we need a sense of ambition and striving. Deep friendship requires a decision to love the other person and an active pursuit of time with them.

We have to be willing to make choices about our friendships: who will we prioritize?  This requires a certain amount of exclusivity. If a friend consistently does not respond to or reciprocate efforts at deepening friendship, then you don’t have to ditch the friend, but perhaps spend less of your energy on them. It’s possible that you have misunderstood her desire for friendship, and rather than make drama or lose peace, just move on. Also, sometimes we must disappoint someone who wants to spend time with us more than we’d like because we are prioritizing another friend.

How do we decide whom to prioritize as our closest friends? My husband Tom has a good measure: whom do you want to be more like at the end of the year? Whom do you admire most? I would add to that: who among those people seem most desirous of or open to being friends with you?  Try deepening your friendship with them.

In terms of very concrete suggestions here are a few more:

  • my sister-in-law arranges regular “coffee phone dates” with her long distance friends. They both plan in advance to have some quiet time (maybe they put on a show for the kids) and sit down in their respective houses with a cup of coffee and chat for a half hour. Planning in advance makes a big difference.
  • Decide how often you’d like to keep in touch with a friend and put re-curring reminders in your calendar. Also, you can be direct with friends and tell them that you’d like to keep in touch more often and then brainstorm how you could both do that better.
  • I have discovered the brilliance of “accountability groups” for keeping in daily touch with friends. Basically, find something that you would like help keeping on task with–like daily workouts or prayer or wake up time or even drinking enough water–and then ask a friend if she would be willing to work on that with you. Text each other when you have done your goal for the day. You will appreciate having the mutual project and you will be more likely to share other thoughts and daily news since you are already texting.
  • my husband Tom has realized that some friends are hesitant to talk on the phone regularly because they think that every conversation is going to be a major catch-up session, lasting an hour at least! But if you can get good at quick 5-10 minute calls–during which you just check in and ask a fun question, not just “what’s going on” but “what do you think about…”–you will end up talking to your friends more often.
  • Similarly, my mom and one of her friends send each other short little video updates every few days, sharing something special that they saw or listened to, etc.
  • Try to spend a few INTENTIONAL minutes each day on a friend.
  • Plan for quality, undistracted time with your closest friends. Don’t always have an activity that you are doing together (like watching a movie…or watching kids).
  • Intimate friendship requires that you reveal yourself to your friends, and they to you. You have to be willing to talk about what is closest to your heart.
  • If you find it hard to initiate deep conversations with your friends, invite them out for a walk. Often, it is easier to spark those when you are walking along side one another than when sitting face to face.
  • Write letters.
  • If you have a hard time keeping up with text messages or phone calls, give yourself clear times of the day when you use your phone and when you don’t. Keep a list of the people you need to call or respond to when it’s time to take your phone out.
  • If you are bad at responding to email, try the email game every week to clean out your inbox and make sure you respond to your friends.

It can feel awkward to establish new habits of friendship with people. Again, you just have to be patient: it takes a while to reap the fruit of those habits.

Also, do not stress about trying to deepen all of your friendships. Just focus on one or two people! It’s a treasure to have even one deep, adult friendship in a lifetime. Embrace your other friendships as they are, recognizing that there might be many people whom you sincerely love, but for whatever reason, you can’t keep up with them as regularly.

be peaceful like this little guy, on the bluffs at sunset.



1 Comment

  1. Dear E,
    Thank you for this! I’m only sorry this sequence of Friendship posts are over but as the subject is very dear to you, I know I’ll be able to read your thoughts on it again, hopefully! You are a very good friend.

    You included “who among those people seem most desirous of or open to being friends with you” and for me that specially links to what Tom says but on the other person’s perspective, as most of the time those who want to be friends with you are those “who want to be more like (you) at the end of the year” and “who admire (you) the most”.

    The blog is (even more) beautiful with this design!
    Big hug

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