Friends – Will they Really be There for you?

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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.

Making friends

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.

Keeping friends

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)

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  1. Phil
    February 23, 2010 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    What are your thoughts on friendship? How do your friends help you live life to the full? Please share with the LOL community.



  2. February 23, 2010 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    For me, the last paragraphs of your post are crucial. In my experience, it is much harder to keep friends than to gain friends. With this I mean that investing in a friendship is so important, not just to keep it alive, but to give it meaning and intimacy. Spending quality time together is not the same as being together, it really is dedicating a considerable chunck of your time to that friendship. What you’re doing during that time is actually of lesser importance. Friendships can be so wonderful and they can be the building block of a happy life if you take the time to nourish them.

    Great post, Phil. Keep ‘em coming!
    .-= Bart´s last blog ..Failure Is The Path To Success =-.

  3. Phil
    February 23, 2010 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    Bart -

    Great observation. Friendships are like a garden and need tending to really flourish and grown. Within the garden we may have different plants that serve different roles.


  4. February 24, 2010 at 2:46 am | Permalink

    Phil – this is an interesting read. In this day and age I am curious as to what you and your readers think of “digital friendships” as it relates to this post.

  5. February 24, 2010 at 5:59 am | Permalink

    This is a huge topic for me, Phil, and I’m so glad you wrote about it. From a professional standpoint, I hear many stories from people who feel isolated, who either have trouble making friends or can’t get enough time with friends because everyone is so busy. And the irony is, much of the time they could spend with friends is actually taken up with social networking, which is easy but ends up leaving them feeling somewhat empty. Personally, I resonate with this line in your post: “many friends come from our time at school, college, or work.” When I finished my grad degree and started my business 10 years ago, I did indeed experience a shift in friendships. Not going to an office with other people each day does change things. I absolutely believe friends are vital to health and happiness, and moreover, give us the sense of belonging we humans so dearly need right now. I’m still figuring it all out for myself, but I often think of this line (although can’t remember who said it): “make new friends but keep the old; one is silver, the other gold.”
    .-= Patty – Why Not Start Now?´s last blog ..Meaning Mondays: The Experiment Edition =-.

  6. Phil
    February 24, 2010 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    Marc – good point. Is a Facebook friend a real friend? I think that the research about having 10 friends would suggest that these are “real” friends who you speak with and meet in person. I know i have 200+ friends on Facebook and many of them are people I’ve known over the course of my life. I can count on them if needed. Digital channels give me another mode of maintaining and building the foundation of a friendship and as such I think it supplements what is already there. Thanks for the thought provoking comment.

  7. Phil
    February 24, 2010 at 8:09 am | Permalink

    Patty – it is a huge topic and I can’t even scratch the surface in one post. I agree that the 21st century has created an increasing sense of isolation for many – which is ironic given the huge range of ways to communicate. There is no substitute for face to face interaction and shared experience in my opinion. I have built friendships with people I’ve met online – yet typically I try to meet them in person or on a video link as it makes the relationship feel real to me. As a solopreneur too, I know the value of friendship to avoid going stir crazy. I try to remember that you have to give as well as take in friendship and that helps to keep the gold shining.

  8. February 24, 2010 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    Since becoming paralyzed from the neck down almost 12 years ago, friendships have taken on a complete new meaning. The boundaries have been pushed way beyond what would normally be acceptable. But most importantly I learned that friendship is not about the physical acts that we can do for one another — it goes far deeper than that.

    Thank you for an inspiring blog.

    .-= Tracy Todd´s last blog ..A Letter from a Soldier =-.

  9. Phil
    February 24, 2010 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    Tracy – thank you so much for sharing a powerful perspective on friendship. I am sure that as well as having amazing friends, you have learned a huge amount about being a great friend through your experience. I love the concept of the boundaries of friendship – where do we draw the line with our time, treasure and generosity? You’ve got me thinking and that is great gift – thank you!


  10. February 24, 2010 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    Hey Phil,

    To have friends you need to be a friend, to reach out to folks, often taking the first friendship step. I recently read that 1 out of 4 people have no one to confide in.

    I’ve met lots of people through civics groups in my town, people who want to make a difference in their own backyards! We have a documentary series with discussions afterwards.

    Key is to jump into life! I meet good folks on line too and have met some in person at live events.

    Friends make the world go round. Without friends, who would I laugh with (one of my all time fav pursuits)?

    Much thx Phil! You’ve always got something important to say on your blog.

    Giulietta, always musing

  11. Phil
    February 24, 2010 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

    Giulietta – thanks for the kudos. Wise words – to have friends you need to be a friend. That is so true. You must have read my mind – the next post is on laughter and taking life less seriously. Take care and chat soon.


  12. Claire
    March 16, 2011 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

    I tend to think that I have many friends I ‘chat’ to and few I ‘converse’ with. There is a big difference in terms of the depth of the relationship and whether it has developed due to mutual convenience (you work together) or whether you actually have much more in common. Not to say that both aren’t valuable or necessary, but we shouldn’t confuse the former for the latter.

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