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 Award-winning business author and broadcaster

Leadership trainer and coach

Keynote speaker

  • Writer's pictureAudrey Tang

Amigos para siempre? Friends for life or just for now?

Updated: Jul 25, 2022

When my mum passed away in 2018 I had to sort through her things. In the back of one of her address books, she had the phone numbers of "Audrey's Friends" - the very same people who were there to support me at her funeral. Some friends are for life - others, although they may be very close for a time, are not, and that's ok. The difficult part is allowing relationships to change as life does, while actively working to maintain the ones you hope to keep.

While a number of magazines discuss the different groups of friends you may have eg. "Old friends", "Work friends", "Family friends" and so on, I still believe that friendships are better distinguished by their purpose as defined by Aristotle because where you meet the friend does not necessarily determine the "type" of friends they are or become

Aristotle's 3 types of friendships:

- Friendships of UTILITY

- Friendships of PLEASURE

- Friendships of the GOOD

Utility (Friends for a reason)

These friendships are those that are formed because of a reason. In other words, you may be friends because you benefit each other in some way. This may be work friendship, a neighbour whose plants you water, or in my case the friends I make during shows. These are not unusual, after all people are generally nice, and have a tendency to seek company. If you are going to spend some time some where, then you (both) may as well make it as enjoyable as possible. These tend to end when the thing you have in common ends unless extra effort is made on both sides to maintain it. While I have close friendships that start at work that have crossed into wonderful long term friendships, this is often because of connections or traits unrelated to the work/utility environment.

Pleasure (Friends for a season)

These friendships exist because you like the qualities of the friend and you may enjoy doing more activities with them outside the ones you are committed to attend. They may be the person you like to have a coffee with, or share a hobby or interest with. Perhaps they may include "friends with benefits" - but I'd argue that they are more likely a friendship of utility!

Friends for pleasure may be the friends you’d go to the pub with on occasion, but are less likely to invite to your home or to personal events. They may even be formed as a “mid-stage” in the crossover between utility and good.

Good (Friends for life)

These are friendships which are formed – and maintained – because of shared values. Aristotle also adds that you are likely to have a mutual admiration for each other, support each other, know each other's vulnerabilities, and stand by each other anyway.

While it is more common that friendships of utility or pleasure can be easily made and as easily ended, and friendships of the good tend to be those formed in childhood as they have had the time to take root, that is not to say that friendships which begin in the first two categories cannot form into the third. AND it is possible to nurture friendships of the good at any point in your life.

The problem comes in when we mistake friendships of Utility or Pleasure for those of the Good.

One common frustration is when one party wishes to continue a pleasurable friendship to find the other party does not – or perhaps simply has traits where it is too much effort for them to do so. With open communication it is possible to establish behaviour which suits both, but you cannot force people to be anything other than who they are…and have no right to, no matter how much you may wish it otherwise.

The other is more complex, sometimes offering a layer of explanation to why one person may be making greater effort to maintain a relationship than the other. There may simply be values or traits in the other person that do not suit your approach to life. Again, open communication may be the key to saving what may otherwise be a very positive relationship, but it may also be that you (or they) decide it is not worth the effort and the friendship slips away...if this occurs, try to let it pass without carrying resentment.

Editing your life is OK!

The statement "The people you start the year with are not always the same ones you end it with" is often met with sadness and regret. Of course the pain of bereavement cannot be ignored within those words, but what is often meant is that friendships and relationships change.

There are a few people whom I have interacted less with this year, some by choice – the pandemic really has brought out the best and worst in us; some have by the same token chosen to interact less with me; others have - as per the above, simply slipped away. I notice actively interacting less on social media has been an unlikely boost to the quality of the relationships I have maintained. It takes two to put the effort into a relationship. We all have commitments and priorities that we need to attend to, and the intensity that might have been afforded to us when we were younger is no longer attainable. Social media is like shouting across a room to see who is listening – which is part of having a “professional page” with, I hope, useful content if you do happen to hear, whereas personally, I am enjoying taking an active decision in what I share and with whom.

Building and maintaining “good” friendships takes effort from both sides

Good friendships endure (hence “friends for life”) but they take effort. They require people staying in touch as lives diverge and change, which means making time and making the effort. They need to travel distance, they need to keep aligning - they need input from both parties. If you find your efforts are one sided, try not to get angry or resentful, simply appreciate that the friendship may have been either one of utility or pleasure and refocus on those which have endured.

There is one exception to this, however, and that is a friendship that is so deep that you can go without seeing each other for ages, yet “pick up where you left off”. However, even then, I would probably say that there will be some sort of intermittent contact – the odd “Thinking of you” text, or in my case funny “WhatsApp meme”, and without fail an update on major life events, as they happen and not on a public forum.

Good friendships are mutual. Both shoulder the work. This may be as simple as (working day excepting!!) responding in a timely way to messages; understanding that sometimes you will do a little more to help them through a tough period (and remembering and appreciating those times they did they very same for you); returning favours. Such friendships cannot be bought, they cannot be demanded.

Good friendships offer love with no condition nor demand, simply because the people making the offer do not need your approval or anything in return. They know their own value. The opinions of these good people are to be heard and held. If you do not, you will find they will soon see you as falling into category one or two and withdraw.

Good friendships require trust and vulnerability

In simple terms this may be asking someone for a coffee - or risking a greater rejection than that. Alternatively it can be sharing a secret...and ensuring it is kept. It is being honest and gracious. It is about saying no when you cannot manage something, yet appreciating the thought. (Good friendships respect each other enough to be truthful - they don't have time nor need to play games). It is about connection - and you cannot do that if you are too guarded. It is about saying what needs to be said - because you may be the only person who will say it out of love. It is about knowing if you do hold out your hand - someone will take it.

A true “for life”, or “good” connection (in a friendship or relationship) is hard to find, incredible if you have it, and difficult to maintain...especially if your energies are spread too thinly in unfulfilling environments.

So for greater fulfilment:

Look carefully at your relationships. Ask yourself:

- Which ones are reciprocal?

- Which ones bring me joy?

- Which ones encourage honesty?

- Which ones can I rely on?

and most importantly

- Which ones are with people I respect for their own values and actions? (Which ones does I actively want to choose?)

Then contact those people – do it now!!

And also:

- Ask yourself - how do you envision a relationship that will make you happy? (Unfortuantely, you will not be able to put a specific person there, because their choice is always their own - but you can have an idea of the type of person you seek.)

- Set out what values you want in that person, and what you are not willing to accept.

- Set out what values you want them to recognise in you.

THEN focus on living your values...and make your choices accordingly.

Finally, the other friendships are ok too!

This post is not to say only seek "good" friendships. All friendships are wonderful things – and as humans we need social connection as much as air and water (although each to our own differing amounts). I am blessed to know many wonderful people in each category. I just look for, respond to, and expect from, each differently.

Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience For quick tips and tools: click for SKILL PILL and Q&A videos and here for Media appearances. Twitter/IG @draudreyt

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