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Friendship Dynamics


Something that I always find fascinating is the process of exploring the motivations, thoughts, and feelings of people in my life. I’m not interested in this for any nefarious purpose–I really just want to understand them better, so I can be a good friend, partner, or otherwise. But what’s the point of having friends, really?

Different people no doubt create and maintain friendships for different reasons. The common factor is that our motives are always ultimately selfish. This isn’t a bad thing–nor am I about to launch into an endorsement of Ayn Rand’s position that selfishness is a virtue. Instead, I am stating that all friendships, when they are functioning well, represent mutually-beneficial transactional relationships.

The “transactional” part is usually what tends to make people uncomfortable talking about openly. Does it mean gifts? Attention? Are we really just friends with other people because they’ll do things for us? It’s more complex than that. Friendships work because friends fulfill particular wants and needs in one another. A friend who likes giving gifts may not like receiving them, and prefer simply to enjoy the company of another person. To use examples from my own life, I enjoy collecting and trading stories about people. I like hearing particular episodes from the lives of my friends, and relating similar stories from my own life. For one thing, it helps us relate to one another. This makes us more likely to understand and anticipate each other’s wants and needs. Knowing the mindset of a friend means you will better know what to do when they need help. For one friend, this might mean simply listening to them when they’re upset. Another friend may want physical comfort–hugs. Another may actually like you to intervene and help solve the problem at hand. Or they simply want to enjoy an activity with you that distracts them from their troubles.

This all might seem terribly obvious, but is it? I’ve noticed that many people have a tendency to think that others are just like themselves–that what you, personally, want when you’re upset is the same as what everyone else wants, and this is not necessarily the case.

Thinking about the friends I have in my life, I can say that each of them does something useful for me. Maybe we trade stories a lot, or they make me laugh, or they like playing video games with me, or talking about movies or books or something else. Presumably, they get something out of it, too: they enjoy the company, the jokes, the shared activities.

It’s unlikely that any of this is revelatory. Trouble begins where one starts questioning the motives of a friend. When trust breaks down, it can be very hard to rebuild, if it’s possible at all. Much like with any romantic relationship, communication–honest communication–is essential. Without trust, there can be no friendship. I’ve written about that particular problem before. This is why I firmly believe it’s so important to understand the motives, dreams, and desires of the people in your life. If nothing else, it will demonstrate to you that you’re not compatible as friends (or anything else). But if you happen to find a lot of common ground and mutual understanding, this can help build a long-lasting friendship upon a foundation of trust.

Going back to selfishness: there’s nothing wrong with getting what you want out of your friendships. What’s important is that you make sure your friend is getting what they want, too. If it’s all take and no give, that’s not friendship–that’s using people. A friend may not explicitly say, “Thank you for doing the specific things you do for me,” but you should be able to figure out for yourself just what it is they’re getting out of your association. If you can’t think of anything, are you sure you’re treating them fairly at all? And on the flip side, are you getting what you need out of your friendships, or do you find yourself merely satisfying the needs of others? You deserve to have good friends, and people you’re friends with deserve to have you treat them fairly, too.