Please do not take it personally. First, and foremost, I LOVE people and my relationships with them. Through years of practice, I have also learned that friendship is not an exact science. Thankfully, I have awesome friends; friends who are cool with who I am (or are super awesome at pretending). And because I am a huge sucker for connection, especially the connection that the word “friendship” or “best friend” implies, I take my role as friend very seriously (like in a for-real blood oath kind of way). I sincerely believe (again, in like in a freakish, overachiever sort of way) that love, loyalty, honesty, transparency, responsibility, integrity and follow-through are friendship’s core values. And like some sort of super-earnest, albeit a little sarcastic, Joan-of-Arc (or just like a very devoted pet) I completely commit to my friends. And in the interest of full disclosure, I also commit to those who insist I am their friend, even those who literally have no clue how to be a friend, like those “friends” who are only “friendly” when they need a favor. And of course I have also found myself sucked into the blackhole of friendship with the occasional narcissist, stridently co-dependent, gaslight-er, sociopath and life-bloodsucker.
Hey and most relationship are cool and balanced, right? It does not take much for me to heed the charge or enable an imbalanced connection. Whereas, when the plane is going down and I should be putting my oxygen mask on first, all you have to do is show me your tangled cord and in the name of “friendship,” I will suffocate. If it means you can breathe, I will lose consciousness. All the while ignoring the fact that had I actually put my mask on first we both would be breathing. My dysfunction is on me. And believe me, the dysfunction goes deep and is probably baked right into my DNA. I love the rush of helping others — sometimes even conflating help (being used) with true and connection friendship. I get it. Feeling needed feels good. Feeling needed, or better, helping is a great avoidance technique.
The other day I needed to put my oxygen mask on. I was trying to sleep. I should have been sleeping. I was very tired. My back hurt. I was exhausted and catching a cold. The night before I was up past 1AM and then up again at 6AM. I wanted to say goodbye to Kyle. He was leaving for his Varsity Cross Country team run. As luck would have it, Kyle left his cellphone on the kitchen counter. And so it began… Every nine minutes I heard the beep, beep, beep of his cell phone alarm. Because I could not figure out his password, the only thing I could do is hit snooze, which meant I was also up every nine minutes. It never occurred to me to bring his phone into my room, hide it outside, or guess the password (which I actually knew). I was supposed to go walking with my friend Rita shortly. Because I trusted she would kind and empathetic, I knew she would be cool if I canceled. She was. In her text filled with a bunch of heart emojis she said,
“No problem. Let’s go Friday.”
Feeling relieved, I went back to sleep. Within minutes I heard my phone beep. I was mad at myself for not putting my phone on “do not disturb.” I felt the obligation to look. Someone did need me. I felt compelled to “be a friend.” It was only going to be a few minutes, but those few minutes also meant I needed to get up, brush my teeth, brush my hair and locate what this person needed. It also meant that I was up. So, Instead of sleeping I said,
“Sure. Come on over.”
I do not think I am the only one who feels compelled to be a “good friend.” I do not think it is bad to help someone in need either. What I am truly suggesting is balance.
Culturally, I think women are taught to put everyone’s needs before their own, especially in the culture I was raised in. I think this baked-in, I-must-serve behavior complicates true, bonded friendship even further. Many people feel such an urge to please others, even their own friends, that they forget to take care of themselves, or to have boundaries, like I did that morning. Sure, our commitments and obligations are distracting. Time is short. Oh yes, and then there is the whole part about having our “me” time versus our guilt about being a good friend, or at least being seen as a good friend. What complicates the concept of friendship even more is that from my experience, we are all different. And because we are different, there is a no roadmap to perfect friendship.
Because I have made many wrong turns, I hope I can help you avoid the detour by offering you a few directions. I will start with the idea that friendship is not a one-sided service project. Meaning, friends are not a box to check or a badge to earn, someone to possess or a crazy, co-dependent feedback loop. Friendship should definitely not be a status or hierarchical-based relationship. (You can save that relationship for your boss, as a super-fan, or when you move to North Korea.)
In contrast, I would suggest that friendship really is mutual affection. Meaning, we both get to equally dictate the terms of our relationship (high fives to that). Friendship is boundaries and support (even when either is uncomfortable). We do not have to text everyday, talk every week, or even see each other every year. And because we stand by each other’s side, when we are together, our friendship has integrity. We mean what we say. We apologize when we are wrong. We are honest, (even when truth adjusting would be way more comfortable). We are loyal (even when it is not cool). Mostly, we forgive.
It took me a long time to fully digest the concept that for me to be a good and committed friend I cannot possibly be friends with everyone. Ok. Wait. I will push back here to say that Facebook and Facebook friendship is not what I am referring too. So in the Facebook realm, yes, I believe you and Mark Zuckerberg can friend the entire world. In support of my friend-the-world claim, Dave often observes:
“You have a super liberal Facebook friend policy.”
“Yes. Yes I do. I love people.” I respond.
Alas, Dave is correct and also proves the fact that the people you acquaint with are not all friends. See, a few years ago, a high-profile-on-the-internet guy friended me. Obviously liberal-Facebook-friend-policy-me accepted his request, even though (once again), we had not met. Of course, like I suspect many people do, I checked out his Facebook page before I actually accepted his request. When I saw his friend total, the smart-ass in me was like,
“Seriously, you 4,999 personal friends? You mean to tell me you know every single one of these people — by name?” And because I am bubbling with dry sarcasm, I continued my internal discussion and said, “How do you have time for all of those relationships [long pause] and your family [even longer pause] especially your wife?”
Well, you don’t. For example, I saw this same dude recently at a Cross Country meet. I literally ran into him. By his long, perplexed stare, I assumed he thought he knew me. His wife looked similarly bewildered. Dave was half way across the race course, so alone, I said “Hello.”
He paused and stared at me for a really long time. That is when I impatiently thought (because I needed to find Kyle & Eli),
“Wait for it. Wait for it.”
“Hi Barb.” He said.
Ok. I am kidding. In truth he said, “Hi Beth,” as I began to lift my hand to give him a high five. Realizing he was not going to make the connection, I quickly & nervously brushed my hand into my hair as if I meant to do that.
Alas, even though he remembered my name, the uncomfortable moment would not end. As I answered, his wife, in sort of a stunned and freaked out way quickly asked,
“well, how do you know him?”
And that is when I gave her the name of one our mutual real-life friends. I know they are real friends because tagged pictures of them spending time together always roll through my Facebook feed. His wife seemed to relax, which was good.
Here is the deal. This dude (bless his heart), despite having met me in person a dozen times since we became Facebook friends, never knows my name. When he stumbles with any sort of recognition, I wonder if he thinks I am a super-fan or a stalker. And because he is the one who friended me, his incongruous reaction always fascinates me. Obviously we are not friends. We are barely acquaintances.
His incongruous reaction, like many others, got me thinking. Has Facebook eviscerated the connection of real friendship? Do we know some people way more than we should? And is there any real-life correlation between Facebook friend totals, real world relationships and imbalanced obligation? I do not know. I think we all Facebook friend differently. Nevertheless, I do belive Facebook and social media are influencing how we friend. Just last week, because a woman who friended me seemed so cool and is a friend of a friend, I accepted her friend request. And guess what? She is cool. And yes, you read that correctly. I accepted the friend request of someone I have never met, or at least do not remember meeting. I know I am not the only one. And because she now owns the title of my friend, should I give her the same friend benefits? Am I obligated to wake up for her when I should be sleeping? I was friended by my friend Letti after knowing her for twenty minutes (and I really like her in real life). (Fun Fact: twenty minutes was the same amount of time I knew my friend Mike’s brother before making out with him.) Moving way beyond my fun fact, I also have friends who I have met once (in person), only to become really great friends via Facebook. Doug Vandiford, we are talking to you. On the other hand, Dave Facebook friends only those he really really knows. In contrast to my interaction, Dave actually knew Doug Vandiford way back when they were in the BYU dorms together (with Ryan Raddon (DJ Kaskade namedrop). And guess what? These three dudes are still real life friends. Ok. I would also argue that there are many sides to non-discriminatory Facebook friend requests (which have absolutely nothing to do with the concept of friendship I began with). That is why I would suggest is that bonded friendship goes well beyond today’s Facebook friendship friending rituals, and that the mutual affection of friendship actually takes effort. I would also suggest that having only a handful of friends is a very good thing. Considering the effort it takes to be a friend, I would like to offer that we may only have healthy space for a handful of friends. Meaning, that the other 4,988 relationships may fall into the category of acquaintance. (I think that is ok, by the way.)
Think of it this way. An acquaintance can be an ally without all the strings or obligations. I would also argue that if you put most people into the acquaintance category, your disappointment will decrease, your awkward moments at your boys’ cross country meet will not feel like rejection, and that your expectations of reciprocity may soften. And if you see relationships through the acquaintance lens I would argue that your relationships with these people may actually be healthier, more fun, and more fulfilling (or even an serendipitous networking opportunity). I would to think about it this way: An acquaintance is a friend without the loyalty and expectation. Do I care if an acquaintance blows off dinner plans? Do I care if an acquaintance makes up a lame ass excuse for not including me? Do I care if an acquaintance tells everyone I am high maintenance (dude, I have food allergies, get over it). Do I mind if an acquaintance tells everyone I have social anxiety, or that I am too religious, or that I am not religious enough? Nope. Do I care if an acquaintance needs a favor, even though I have not heard from them in years? No. I am happy to help — always (even when I would rather be sleeping).