Who are your real friends? Who’s a good partner? Who has your back? Turns out that even scientists have a suprisingly hard time answering these questions. In a study by Alex (Sandy) Pentland and colleagues of the MIT Media Lab, 94% of people who nominated someone as a friend expected to be nominated in return. Hey, I may not know the capital of Mongolia, but I know who my friends are, right? Wrong. Only 53% of the people nominated them back. This means that about half the time, the friendship was one-sided.
So how can you tell? Is someone who offers to pick you up at the airport your friend? How about the person who invites you to his wedding? Or goes through the trouble of attending yours? What if he doesn’t really care about you but just likes a really good party? Is the person who comes to your wedding but doesn’t take you to the airport still your friend? How can you tell?
Although you can’t do a lot about reciprocity, you can tell if someone’s good for you or not. That’s why I’ve come up with these 5 criteria by which you can quickly assess any relationship. The answer to each question is binary — yes/no, A or B — so pay attention to the answer that spontaneously arises, before thinking has a chance to interfere with it. Chances are that your gut reaction to these questions is accurate — and very telling about the nature of your relationship with Aubrey. Um, who the hell is Aubrey? He or she is our stand-in for awkward constructs like “he or she”, “this person”, and the singular “they.” Besides, it’s a nice name. Let’s take this Friendship Test and see how you and Aubrey get along.
1. Do they have your back?
The first criterion to consider is simple: Does Aubrey fundamentally support you, or cut you down? I almost feel silly explaining this, since it seems self-evident. But friendship and love bias our judgment, and sometimes we find ourselves the recipient of mixed behaviors — sometimes warm but other times cold. How to tell who’s really on our side? Perhaps some examples would be illustrative:
• When you make a mistake, supportive people empathize with you : “Oh wow, yeah, I missed a deadline last month, too. Totally understand.” Non-supportive people blame and shame you: “Why would you do something stupid like that again?”
• Supportive folks give space to your aspirations instead of suffocating them instantly, regardless of how hare-brained they seem: “Oh, so you want to move to Berlin and be a penniless conceptual artist? Tell me more.”
• Supportive people actively look for ways to make your life better. They’ll offer you a ride to the airport, a loan when you’re in dire straits, a bowl of chicken soup when you’re sick. They help to the best of their ability, vs non-supportive people who will only help if it’s convenient or beneficial to them, if at all.
• Supportive people have your well-being and safety in mind. They will warn you off toxic partners in business and romance, discourage you from pointlessly risky behavior, and look out for you when you’re in a compromised state.
2. Are you an option or a priority?
The text comes in at 6pm on Friday: “Hey dude! Sooo sorry not gonna make it tonight. Something came up. Rain check?”
Whaddya mean not gonna make it? Aubrey was the one who requested your company — on Monday. And now, a cancellation two hours before you’re supposed to meet? What kind of friend is this?
Nowadays this is an all-too-common occurrence. So common that Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has even given it a name: liquid modernity. This is a society in which no commitment is solid, and everything is provisional: jobs, dwellings, spouses, ideologies. And with the ubiquity of instant electronic communication, all appointments are subject to change until the last minute, lest a better deal pops up.
You also just know when someone is looking for some company or for your company specifically. So prioritize those who prioritize you. You can still be friends with those who mostly treat you like an option, but you probably shouldn’t bend over backwards to accommodate them in your life.
3. Do they treat you as a means to an end, or an end in yourself?
My friend Sasha is smart, interesting, sweet and very pretty. But she has the darndest time making friends. Why? Because she has a famous father, and she never knows whether people want to be friends because of her, or to gain access to her dad.
Even without a famous relative, we’ve all got some special sauce that someone could be after. Maybe you have cute friends that Aubrey wants to meet. Maybe you work in a theater and have free tickets to shows. Maybe you’re rich or famous yourself, or have friends who throw good parties.
Although part of friendship is to ask for the occasional favor and share in our abundance, real friends will generally value you for the whole of who you are, and not just the perks. They will treat you as if spending time with you is intrinsically worthwhile, as opposed to a means to some extrinsic goal.
The frequency and nature of contact is one way of telling whether a friend treats you like an end or a means. Do they only call you when they need something, or do they regularly check up on you and include you in their plans?
If you don’t like feeling used, there are two things you can do. First is to excise the Users from your life. Second is to stop dancing for your dinner. If you feel someone’s so cool that you need to have Cirque du Soleil tickets every time you request their company, you’re really just setting yourself up to be used. Either they’re grateful for your company just as you are, or the friendship’s just not sustainable in the first place.
4. Do they add life energy to you or drain you?
The other day my friend Johnny was visiting from far away. I’ve known Johnny for 15 years and shared lots of experiences with him. I’ve even been to his wedding. And yet, after every one of our meetings, I feel energetically spent. The doctor in me has tried to diagnose this, but you know what? It doesn’t matter why I feel drained. What matters is that it happens every time. And it’s not something I enjoy or anticipate fondly.
Negativity, complaints, gratuitous attacks on your person (especially attacks disguised as helpful suggestions), being pointlessly demanding, constant requests for attention: these are behaviors that can drain your energy in a hurry. If the purpose of friendship is a flourishing of the soul, this ain’t the formula for it.
You can still be friends with these energy vampires, especially if they’re essentially well-meaning people who just happen to annoy the crap out of you. But just know that, for your own sanity, you want to minimize their dosage. Instead, choose to spend more time with those who add energy to your life. You know who they are — the ones who point out the butterflies on the roadside, call you with a new joke to tell, and can’t wait to take you to try this new dish. You just feel a little more alive around them, and want to spend more time with them, as well you should. Which brings us to the fifth and final criterion:
5. Does this person bring out the best or the worst in you?
If I were to walk by you and say, “Hey, I really like your dress,” chances are you’d smile and return the compliment: “Thanks, you look great, too!” On the other hand, if I were to say, “Hey, watch where you’re going, jerk!”, you’d probably return that favor and say, “Screw you, too!”
Same person, two very different reactions. Psychologists even have a name for this: the Pygmalion effect. Our interactions have the capability to draw out dramatically different versions of people.
Similarly, whenever I hang out with my friend Sonia, for some unfathomable reason I find myself complaining about the world, mocking passersby, and being a generally snarky version of me. Whereas when I’m with Gail, I feel my vision expand, my thoughts ennoble and my heart open.
Again, I’m not quite sure why this happens, but I do notice the consistency of the effect. Sonia brings out the snark; Gail brings out sweet.
As far as I can tell, the purpose of friendship is the flourishing of the spirit, meaningful fellowship, and interactions that lead to our personal growth. So it makes sense to spend less time with those who make us feel like meaner versions of ourselves, and more time with those who bring out our kindness, generosity, and expansiveness of heart. To that end, we would do well to select for friends who have our back, make us priorities in their lives, treat us like worthy ends in ourselves, and stoke us with more of the energy that allows us to be a force for good in the world.
All the best, Dr Ali
PS: Therapy Thursday continues by popular request. If you have an issue that you think could benefit from a one-on-one consult via Skype, send a message to drali at taoofdating.com with “TT” in the subject line and I’ll see what I can do to accommodate you. There are 3 appointment slots per week, and they happen on Thursdays and Fridays.
PPS: If you don’t have it already, you can get The Tao of Dating audibook for free when you sign up for a 30-day trial with Audible.
PPPS: I will soon be holding a contest in which I give away my personal Kindle reader, along with my digital library of 300 or so books. Stay tuned :)
Really excellent list. Your friend Stever shared this and the title grabbed my attention. People need a way to check in with themselves about their friends so they’re not clinging to a friendship that is one-sided while thinking it’s valued by the friend as well. These questions should help…a lot!
I’d love to see a variation of this for married couples or more specifically, people considering a mate for marriage or a long-term relationship with a marriage option.
Divorce is rampant and that’s not an accident. Our modern culture is being raised with the wrong ideas about selecting a mate and about the “dating game”. When people are a few years into a marriage and the feces hits the wind turbine, it’s then that they realize they may have picked the wrong person. Too late now….better get a divorce. And if there’s kids involved, you’re just creating more dysfunction so they can grow up and follow the same bad rules the parents demonstrated in their bad relationship. Life is grand. :-)
My wife and I have been married for 16 years and have never had a fight. Yes, we’ve had disagreements and have been frustrated and angry, we’ve even had periods where we didn’t talk to each other much. But we have rules and we follow them. However, even before you can have rules, you need to select that special person wisely. And more people need to understand how to do this.
So I would love to see a companion article to this one about how to know if your girlfriend/boyfriend is a good match.
Thanks for the great guidance on this subject.
Thanks for the great thoughts, Scott! I intended the article as a rubric for relationships in general. I do see how an expanded version could be useful for partnerships, with a few more items. In the meantime, I did write two books on the topic — The Tao of Dating for men and women. At 280 pages each, probably more tips than you were looking for. The work of John Gottman is definitive. I strongly encourage everyone to read his books.
Thanks, Ali. After I move and begin blogging regularly again, I’ll be sure to explore your book and share with my readers. I enjoy Gottman as well. Keep doing what you’re doing. The world needs it. :-)