My friend Michael and I have agreed to edit each other’s writing, which means his book reviews and my essays. This might seem like a simple matter but it raised some flags for me. We might be depending on one another. There is the potential for criticism. There’s a threat, however slight, that this might complicate or weigh down our friendship. It may shift our stable, respectful, laughter-filled relationship by making it more like a partnership at work or, more portentously, like a marriage—more contingent on each other’s approval and effort; wondering whether to stand our ground or sway to the other’s needs and desires.
I’m not very worried, and our initial exchanges have gone well, but the change got me thinking about the virtues of being friends and only friends.
For many years, people have asked me about the secret sauce for successful, sustained marriage. The answer is simple: friendship. By now, I’ve known many couples who, after years of working things out, are more like friends than romantic partners. Romance is wonderful but combustible. We wouldn’t skip it. We never cease to yearn for it. But deep and abiding friendship is more lasting and dependable. It is calmer, gentler, easier to take. And don’t be fooled: it has plenty of depth. People who have achieved that kind of marriage almost universally feel successful.
What, then, is distinctive about friendship? It is often built on shared activities and generally activities that are not vital to the lives of the friends. It grows from the pleasure we take in one another’s company. It speaks of trust and trustworthiness, of ease and comfort. When it endures, friendship brings the experience of being known and liked over time. With friends, there is rarely the need to explain ourselves. Even when we do something odd, there is more likely a knowing smile than a troubled frown. Eccentricity is cherished, not scorned.
Friendship is a chosen relationship. We enter and exit pretty freely. The relative simplicity of friendship, is especially noteworthy when compared to family, marriage and romance.
Friends understand us and generally they understand us as we want to be understood. They play to our best and bring out the best in us. Except during the earliest days of romance, we are almost never so witty or deep or accepting as we are with friends. Who doesn’t need regular fixes of our best selves?
Friendship is also illuminated by what it’s not. It is not contingent and tested all the time. There is little to no byplay like this: “I’ll do this if you do that”; “I’ll love you, be kind to you, take care of you, spend time with the children… if you do this or that for me.” These contingent statements may seem like caricatures but they do form the undercarriage of many relationships.
Here’s the core difference, though: friends generally don’t try to change one another; couples do. This is the Achilles heal of marriage: the relentless effort of one or both members to transform the other into the person who would best fit their own needs and who would best conform to the image they have for a mate. Married or not, couples insist that the other be more open, stronger, gentler, kinder, tougher, that they earn more money, spend more time with the children, stand up straighter, be more of a ‘man,’ more of a ‘woman.’ In the name of improvement, the attempts to make over one’s mate generally produce the unkindest cuts of all.
There is a depth and complexity to marriage that is generally missing in friendship and any comparison that failed to acknowledge that difference would be superficial, but it’s still worth dwelling for a moment on the virtues of friendship, which is my purpose here.
Compared to married couples, good friends tend to accept one another more or less as they are, and to give to one another without a direct promise of something in return. They can offer this kind of acceptance partly because their demands are far fewer and far less intense than those of lovers, who yearn to be affirmed and completed by the other. I want Michael to offer some thoughts on how to improve my essays. If ever he or I leaned towards some deeper need for approval and completion, one or both of us would run for the hills.
Why? Because the implicit promise of (at least mature) friendship would be violated by such a demand. The implicit promise of friendship is that we each stand on our own two feet. It’s not that we can’t be kind or supportive with one another. It’s not that we don’t support our friends efforts to change themselves. Friends should and friends do. But when we encourage our friends to change it’s usually with at their request or with their permission. If that request wanes, we can and do pull back because our well being doesn’t require our friends to change.
Like other, more charged relationships, friendship isn’t entirely a free and easy improvisation. It is also built, in part, on contracts. Without explicitly saying so, we promise to be considerate, friendly, supportive, even protective. When these promises are broken or insufficiently fulfilled, we walk away or, more often, we tend to pull back to signal our disapproval or distress. If our friend is alert to our signal, we move back in and the relationship is repaired. If the signal goes unheeded, it is likely that the greater distance is sustained. The relationship loses some of its intensity and importance. But it may be maintained, only to thrive later on. In other words, there tends to be an elasticity in friendship.
In friendship we generally promise not to demand too much. What is too much obviously varies from friendship to friendship. And these lines are crossed in all relationships. The key is how, when the lines are crossed, friends find ways to rebalance the relationship to include a little greater closeness or distance or to move back to its original equilibrium. That kind of flexibility is often the key to sustaining friendships over time.
I don’t mean to suggest that there is only one kind of friendship and there is no way to capture the whole range in a few pages. For example, friendship tends to differ across the lifespan, with adolescent friendship tending to be torrid while friendship among older people tending towards a cooler temperature. On one extreme, friendship may come close to a love affair, with all the depth and yearning and fulfillments of romance, and on the other side, it looks more like a business relationship, coming together for events and other activities.
Instead, I’ve tried to portray the broad, satisfying middle ground. This is where people of all ages meet. Friends have been one of the great pillars of my life. I depend on friends and I delight in them. As I’ve gotten older, I think they have become even more important to me and to my pals—and that includes my best friend, Franny.