A few weeks ago, someone important to me made a surprisingly shrewd observation: Which friends are worth keeping around? And who among them are worth investing more time in? In the economy of time, every action comes at a cost and each decision an expensive choice. Time spent with one person is less time spent with someone possibly more significant, and even less to be had for our own goals and desires.
The answer will first depend on our expectations of friendships. Some of us have very little, if any, expectation of friendships – a point I am reminded of by a colleague who once remarked cynically that there’s no one you can truly trust and you should expect every person to be nice or unpleasant according to whatever is most convenient for them. Furthermore, it’s sometimes hard to trust ourselves. Our desires are frequently capricious and our ability to accurately recall events is laughably bad. It’s kind of difficult to broach the topic of trusting friends when it’s doubtful if we can even trust ourselves.
And even if we do have loftier expectations of friendships, exactly what is it that separates an old friend from a good friend, or even a best friend? These at first glance, appear to be arbitrary labels that seem to connote something better than a mere friend, but do they really mean anything? It’s hard to say. Old friends may just be a term you throw around as casually as guys are quick to call each other buddies or bros. In fact, there’s something irredeemably offensive about someone you’ve only known for a while and who’s quick to put arms around you and declare you a brother. Even if you have known someone for a long time and worked together, it’s not necessarily representative of a great friendship.
So the first course of action is determining exactly what you want to get out of friendships. Should they be a matter of convenient alliance? To fulfill a temporary social need and easily expended in times of need and dropped whenever you wish? Or a permanent fixture you can always turn to no matter which stage of your life you are at? Some consider the occasional shopping trip to be a more than adequate way of maintaining a friendship while others may necessitate long hours of deep talk and confiding in to count as any meaningful interaction. Knowing what we clearly expect makes it easier to keep and cut friends in our lives.
Yet, if Psychology has anything to say about friendships, it would be that as much as we wish for a degree of permanence to them, they generally do not last. Because our expectations and definition of friendship waxes and wanes according to where we are in life. For example, friendships often take a backseat to romantic relationships – an unfortunate corollary often exploited to comedic effect as ‘bros before hoes’. In a 2010 Oxford university study, it was observed that falling in love comes at the cost of two or more close friends. Because there’s only so many social connections we can have at a given point and only so much socialising we can handle before we become overwhelmed, close friends have to be set aside for someone we love. It’s less of economics and more of human limits.
Similarly, married couples generally have fewer friends than singles, and are far less dependent on friendships. It’s not to say marriage cancels out friendships, but often, if we fall in love and marry the right person, we are in effect, marrying our soul mate and our best friend. And those who are in a deeply fulfilling marriage where their partner attentively attends to almost all their needs will find little desire to expect anything more from friendships. And even if such a friendship can be maintained, it would now be of a lower priority than it used to be. This doesn’t mean that a married life is better than being single. All it means is that friendships represents something very different to someone single (and maybe doesn’t intend to marry) as opposed to someone who is already deeply bonded to a life partner.
Furthermore, friendships often have great difficulty surviving changes in personalities and beliefs. A great friend we have now that’s terrific to have for school projects and training matches may quickly become an unscrupulous businessperson on entering the workforce; when we enter or exit religion, we may find many of our friends keeping a wary distance, especially if we choose to forego a common faith; or if we decide to champion certain political positions or controversial causes, it may cause a deep rift with friends who stand in opposition to our choices. A friendship that can survive these difficult obstacles may not survive future ones. And a friendship that survives it all may still not necessarily be a meaningful one.
In the end, maybe friendships are nothing more than a strategic alliance. They are just personal connections to get you a job, who will write you a recommendation or be an additional numeral to swell your social ego. It’s not important whether they are good, best or great as long as each have a distinct role to play and a benefit for yourself. Friends meet a present need, but should not be expected to fulfill a future want. So which friend(s) should we invest in? If we are cynical and practical, then all of them. If we are merely practical, then some of them. If we are just cynical, we should invest in ourselves first, and pick the person who repeatedly gives us a meaningful return for every little thing we do for him or her.
So, have you thought about (HYTA) which friendships are worth investing in?