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Why do we have friends? This question was posed by the philosopher Mark Vernon at a breakfast I attended last week. Humans are certainly social animals. We have always lived in family units, which affiliated into small tribes in order to increase our chances of survival. Our biology pushes us to put our faith in others to stay alive. Yet in modern civilization, human interaction has become increasingly complicated. Now we play a variety of roles – friend, colleague, lover, service provider. What is special about friendship?
The Easy Relationship?
Friendship could be seen as “The Easy Relationship”. On the face of it, there are very few rules or obligations relating to friendship. It is a purely optional arrangement. I have old pals that I haven’t spoken to in years, yet if I were to see them tomorrow, I know that we’d slip straight back into the old routine. Friends can be seen as a low maintenance relationship, taking away some of the strong emotion that goes with a romantic entanglement. Friends are there when you need them, yet there is no obligation to be there all the time.
A friendship tends to develop built on shared experiences. Many friends come from our time at school, college or work. We share the great times and support each other in the tough times. The time spent together becomes the foundation and glue that holds a friendship together. We learn to appreciate our friends’ personality and quirks and to anticipate how they might respond to a situation. This familiarity helps us to drop our guard and let another person take one step into our inner world.
Lovers kiss, friends talk
Yet despite this increased level of trust, a friendship is not monogamous. In a romantic relationship we tend to collapse the boundaries of our ego with one other person. We trust them completely and share almost all our thoughts and emotions. There is an expectation in most societies that this arrangement is mutual and exclusive. With this added weight comes added responsibility. There is typically very little separation between two lovers. This can lead to thinking as a “we” rather than an individual. When we seek advice from a lover there is almost always a lack of objectivity. The response is within the context of the relationship and considers the potential impact on the couple.
By contrast, friendships rely on a degree of separation. We look for friends who are can bring us something fresh and interesting. Friends need shared experience, and also time apart. We typically have different friends who fill different roles in our life; partner in crime, adviser, truth teller, insigator. Friends are certainly not fully objective, yet they provide a broader perspective than a lover typically can. We have a range of friends who fill in the gaps in our life, even if we have a romantic partner.
Several research papers on friendship have suggested we should have at least 10 friends to get the support we need. This allows us to keep friendships from becoming all-encompassing. This way, we get a wider variety of inputs and perspectives. Perhaps in the complexity of the 21st Century, this group is a proxy for our ancient tribe. Our friends help us to make the most of life, as our ancient tribe helped us to stay alive.
Friendships are a vital part of our support system for navigating life. Although we can rely on old friends, these relationships do need continued shared experience to evolve and grow. I am determined to rekindle some of my closest friendships which have gone a little quiet recently. I want to keep my tribal links strong. There are a few good ways to do this –
- Spending quality time together
- Providing support to a friend in need
- Asking for help when it is needed.
I’ll be looking for opportunities to appreciate the great friends that I have, and even for chances to develop new friendships.
What is your take on friendship? How important are your friends in living your life? What would life be like without friends? Please leave a comment and share your thoughts.
Photo credit: Gwennypics (from Flickr Creative Commons)