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Friends--How to Tell When You Have One

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Last updated July 10, 2018, originally published September 1, 2009
By Sarah Ott

Here's my story.  I have had a friend for over 30 years.
That's 30, as in 3 decades. We have been friends since we
met so long ago on a train. She was on her way to a job
interview. I was on my way to see my boyfriend.

We didn't hit it off at first. She called and wrote me a few
times before I responded. That was my way. It takes me a
long time to trust some one.

She has been a good friend. But recently, I have had
second thoughts about her and about our friendship.  What
prompted this? I had called her 3 times (once per week for
3 weeks running) from overseas as she recovered from a
hysterectomy. I bought a phone card, loaded it up so we
could talk at . We stayed on the phone about an hour each
time.  No problem. I was glad to be of help, a comfort, a
friend. She was always overjoyed to hear me.

On the fourth call, I found her at work.  She obviously had
recovered. She then gushed that she needed to talk to me
at length about a problem she was having with her son. At
length, I thought? So I suggested she call me this time to
talk about it. I gave her my number and suggested she get
a $3 phone card so we could talk.

Two months later, no call. No response to an e-mail.

Money's not the issue. She has plenty.  Then what is? I
often get e-mail  from people asking me questions about
difficulties with friends. A common theme is this: I had to
do something (get married, go to grad school, in general
get on with life) and when I circled back to friends they
gave me the cold shoulder. What gives?

That started me to thinking more generally about friends.
What are they? And when do you know you have one?  
When do you know that a friend has stopped being one?

Here then are my
5 Tests of Friendship.

Reciprocity.  Friendships are built on exchanges.
Reciprocal exchanges. Two-way exchanges.   Once you find
your self in a relationship where you are doing all the
giving, and another person is doing all the taking, you no
longer have a friend. You have a dependent.

Balance.  Not all exchanges will be equal all the time.
Sometimes a friend is going through a crisis. While this is
going on, you may find that, temporarily, you are giving
100% and your friend is receiving 100%. That's ok. For a
while.  But if it goes on like this indefinitely, then you are
BEING a friend. But you do not have a friendship because
you are not receiving friendship.

Again, that may be ok. You may have a dear friend who
develops cancer, for example. She may linger f
or many
months, unable to really give you anything in the way of
mutual support. Her inability to give you support may not
matter. She has been able to give you support in the past,
and it is on the bank of past friendship that you now draw.

But this is about the only kind of situation where an
imbalance in giving and receiving is fine. Otherwise,
imbalance means that one of you is BEING a friend and the
other one is being a dependent, a taker of friendship.

[Update: Then, there are those
people who deliberately
scheme to get things from you -- a free meal, a stay at your
home -- who really are moochers and not true friends

Listening. A friend is someone who listens to you. They
pay attention. Ever wonder about that phrase "pay
attention". Curious, isn't it, that we say someone "pays"
attention when they listen to us.

We "pay" attention because we receive something in return
for our "payment" of our attention. What do we receive?
Information, wisdom, loyalty, alliances, friendship, and
most important of all --- attention back.

So, a friend is someone who pays you attention. In
exchange for their payment, you pay them back with
attention.  So, if a friend is not paying you attention, then
they are not a friend.  They are instead someone who
ignores you. They are robbing you by taking the attention
you are paying them and paying you back in return.

Loyalty. Friends are people who are loyal to you. They
will enlist to help you fight your battles. They will not sell
your secrets to the enemy.  If they betray your secrets,
they have broken a basic rule of friendship.

Of course, there are exceptions. Some secrets should be
betrayed. If your friend has sworn you to secrecy about
her plans to commit suicide, that's a secret that should be
betrayed. But that is the extremely rare case. In 99% of
cases, betrayal of secrets ends the friendship.

Alignment of Interests. Friends want the best for you.
Their interest is in seeing you do well, seeing you happy,
seeing you fulfilled. Here is an example. I have a friend who
has made a disastrous decision to marry an extremely
controlling man. He snoops around her e-mails, interferes
with her friendships, invites himself whenever she wants to
meet her friends --you know the type.  

Yet, I welcome him. I always make him feel included and
respected. Why? I want her happiness more than my
power.  I know she has made her choice. My job is to help
support her happiness within her choice. Of course, if I feel
she is in danger, as her friend, I will speak up. But until
then, until she asks for my advice, I will respect her choice.

When friends stop wishing you well, stop wishing the best
for you, they stop being a friend.

As a final word, here is my observation on true friends.
Friends come in different sizes and maturities. They can
only give you what they have. So if they are immature and
stunted, you will get immature and stunted behavior out of

If they are prone to losing their identities and forgetting
who they are when they hook up with boyfriends,
girlfriends, wives, husbands,
then they will be prone to
forgetting who you are when they don't need you
.  The
raw ingredients of who they are will define what kind of
friend they are capable of being.  Bottom line, if you want
grown up friends, start by looking for and hanging out
with grown-ups.

Related Links
Love Triangles
Foods That Boost Your Mood
Ten Signs He's Going to Leave You

Ten Reasons You Should Be Glad He's Gone

Coming Next Week "How to Tell a Friend Goodbye"

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