I don’t know what I’d do without my friends, that inner circle of people, mostly not related by blood, who I love and feel loved by. I was going to write “who I love and who, in return, love me.” But that’s not it. There’s no quid pro quo in friendship, no deals that are struck. That’s the beauty of friendship. It feels spontaneous and freely given.
Because friendship is not as charged and complex as marriage—positively and negatively—we often get to be our best selves: loving, generous, funny, strong, (a vulnerable, silly, candid—you name it. Maybe because friendship lives within a narrower emotional range and with fewer obligations, we feel easier within it. We don’t challenge our friends. We don’t try to improve friendship as much as we tend to do with family relations. It feels easy: easy to relax within its flexible cocoon. And our worst qualities, those that we regret and try to hide elsewhere, almost never come out. We are at home in this kind of relationship.
And the gift keeps giving. The predictability, the dependability is immensely comforting. All we have to do is enter that cocoon and we are, with few exceptions, the person we want to be.
When we think of friendship, we often think about what we receive but I think that misses the point. Instead, it’s what we give. It’s how much easier it is to be generous, for instance, than elsewhere. With friends, we share material things and feelings with relative ease. When in the mood, we share our woes and amusements, pleasures and pains, and feel better for the sharing. Partly, I suppose, because the sharing doesn’t assume many obligations.
There’s another quality of friendship that needs highlighting: the experience of being well known. Good friends finish sentences for us. They know how we think about things. Often they have known us for a long time—they knew us when. Which means they know us in many contexts, in many of our best and worst places. They know the story of your life, the whole person, surely the one we chose to have seen, and sometimes the one we’ve tried to hide. And they still choose us. That’s a comfort beyond almost all others.
Close friend and especially ‘best friends’ are like family, except they are chosen. That makes the relationships a little more tenuous, but most of the time the fragility that lurks beneath all chosen relationships stays hidden. For many of us—older people whose families have drifted away, or middle–aged people whose children have flown the coop—circles of friends are, for most of every day and week, simply what we’ve got.
Best friends often seem like second marriages—and easier, simpler ones, at that. Except for those mad adolescence friendships which resemble romantic engagements more than anything else, these relationships are mostly contained within a much narrower range of emotions and expectations. They often balance and buffer more tumultuous marriage and family life. They serve as a tension release, a place of rest and—or so it can seem—a place of sanity when marriages are in their most irrational or explosive phases. In this way, close friendships contribute to the success of marriage and family
The apparent simplicity of friendships, however, is deceptive. It actually requires great discipline to sustain them over a long period of time. There are two arenas in which that discipline is particularly necessary: maintaining jointly established “rules of the road” and sustaining a shared narrative—the story we both tell that reflects the essence of our friendships.
The rules are largely implicit and rarely articulated. What do I mean by rules? Here is one – it pertains to how much candor is permitted. If one friend’s candor becomes hurtful or frightening, the other will indicate that a rule has been broken by saying something or moving away—until the friends creep back to the established norm. This kind of movement speaks to another rule that concerns how close or far we are allowed to go. For instance, a kiss or a certain embrace might exceed what at least one person thinks is the limits of this intimacy. Not calling on the telephone for a longer-than-usual period of time might also break a rule about emotional distance.
A third genre of rule reflects what’s legitimate to talk about: other friends? our partners? politics? Here I am thinking, for example, of the wide, political divide that separated me from one of my closest friends. It took us a number of irritable conversations, spaced out over years, to figure out what we could comfortably discuss, what was off the table, and how we should approach the topics we deemed “discussable.” In recent years, we have found a stable, unthreatening way to have these conversations.
Each transgression of these rules has to be corrected. Each one tests the friends’ commitment and skills. Each success can increase their confidence and even, perhaps, broaden the arenas of interaction. In all, there is an intricate web of agreements, some just between friends, others prescribed by culture.
Think about the ‘rules’ that govern your key friendships? How have they been broken? How have they been fixed or changed to preserve or enhance the relationship?
Now onto our friendship narratives. Friendship narratives describe the qualities, activities, and meanings of relationships. My friend, David, and I, for instance, first got together to play tennis. We noticed immediately that we liked each other’s game. That was a good beginning for being tennis buddies, but not enough for friendship. Then one day it began to snow pretty seriously, and without a word between us, we continued to play through it. That began the narrative that focused on our similarities—easy empathy, determination, fierce and joyful competitiveness. We were crazy, of a type, “a couple of nuts.” As our friendship developed, we could trust each other to understand and not judge the way we exceeded or transgressed all kinds of cultural norms. And while others teased us, we basked in the companionship that allowed, even encouraged, us to be ourselves.
Finally, I’d like to say that, over time, many of the best marriages either begin as friendships and add romance or begin with passion and add friendship. In the more common case of couples who begin with romance, two people eventually learn to establish rules of engagement and stick to them—in much more skillful and determined ways. Individually and together, they grow more disciplined. They also build and adhere to a shared narrative even when it doesn’t entirely fit. Together and individually, they learn to correct missteps, and over time, to do so more quickly and with less fuss.
There is so much more I could and will say about friendship. But this is a start, and I will depend on you to be a friend: to agree and to criticize and to add to what I’ve begun.