Friendship is one of those areas full of hidden assumptions and unspoken rules. We only discover that our friendship does not mean what we think it does when those assumptions clash. There is no agreement about what friendship involves, or what to do if it goes sour. When things go wrong, we very rarely challenge our friends. That`s because friendship is often a delicate affair and we do not want to tax it with too many demands. It is more common to absorb the hurt and the retreat, since friendship is a relationship without any contract where the terms are unwritten, and nobody ever makes them explicit.
Whenever we ask people about friendship we can realize that they hold a wide range of views, often accompanied by an absolute conviction that they are expressing an obvious truth. Some think it demands total loyalty, while the others say it carries no obligations at all. Some say long friendships have transformed their life and been more important than their marriage, whereas some think that the great thing about friends is that you can always drop the old ones, because there are new ones around every corner. What is intriguing about those attitudes is that they are not obvious from the way people lead their lives.
Recent research concluded that at any time we have around 30 friends, six of whom we think of as close. Over a lifetime we will make almost 400 friends, but we will keep in touch with fewer than 10% of them. Almost 60% of us claim that our friendships are more important to us than career, money or family. Other studies show that men have, on average, one fewer close friends than women do, that middle-class men have more friends than working-class men, and that both men and women find their friendships with women more emotionally satisfying than those with men. Those findings are fascinating, but they mask huge variations. When I asked people how many close friends they had, the answers ranged from none to almost 100.
Often, we don`t know where we fit into friends` lives. We may like them enormously, but not know whether they`d like us to get any closer. Are we in the first dozen, or the remotest 90 in their circle? If they ask us to dinner once a year, is that an honour because they only entertain twice, or a sign of our unimportance, because they hold dinners every week?
This degree of uncertainty exists partly because many of us now lead lives in which we are the only connecting threads. It is perfectly possible for much of our lives to be opaque to anyone who knows us. They may only ever encounter one particular facet of our existence, because we can, if we choose, keep parents, past acquaintances, old partners, colleagues, friends, and neighbours in totally separate boxes. Many people value the anonymity and freedom that gives them. The flip side is that just as we are not known, so we cannot really know others.
Many of us are childish in our expectations of friendship. Even though we may only present our most sparkling, desirable selves to our friends, and even though there may be nothing more to the relationship we still nurture the illusion that our friends are very attached to us, the vulnerable or dull or anxious one they may never have seen. Which is why we are so astonished when friends melt away at a time of trouble. However friendships may have been different in the past. People are so busy they don`t really have time for it now.
It is noticeable that the people who are least disappointed with their friendships are either those who have never tested them or those with the clearest understanding of what they are about. Sometimes that`s because the friendships are rooted in the realities of their lives. Others who are contented with their friendship are those who expect nothing more of friends than that they share pleasurable activities.
Perhaps we need to think a little harder, and be rather more perceptive, about what sustains our relationships. We could start by being more honest with ourselves about what we like about our friends, what needs they fulfil, and what we would be prepared to do for them. We may feel truly generous to some of our friends, and resentful of others. Some we love, some flatter us, we tolerate some and we also despise some.
This would help us to be more realistic about which friends we might expect to see by our hospital beds, and which ones we think we would visit. It doesn`t mean we can`t value the ones who won`t be there. Often we can be drawn to others for exactly the characteristics that would make them unlikely to be helpful in a crisis.
It is sometimes seen that people with consuming jobs are sad that they have not had the time to build stronger bonds, and wonder whether it is too late to develop them. Many people would like to have more friends, or deeper, warmer, more reliable relationships than the ones they have now, but don`t know how to go about it. Men have been thought of as less in need of intimate friendship. But that thought is changing now, since more men are becoming closely involved with their children, so there is a similar desire for the ease of close friendship.
There are powerful reasons why we should create these bonds, even if we only start when we are older. The phenomenon of later births means families take up a smaller percentage of our lives. We wait years to have children, and we could be 70 before we become grandparents for the first time. We have more time available, and fewer familial responsibilities, than the generations before us. We all want to feel needed and valued by others. It is possible for friends to fill that need, but only if we work at it.
Evidence shows that people with close friends live longer and are happier than those without. And friendship defines what it means to be human.