In an earlier column addressing toxic friendships, I briefly described the “social exchange” theory of friendship development: Friendships and other relationships involve their own versions of economic systems, in that we make investments in them using “relationship acumen” akin to “financial acumen.”
This may sound callous, but the truth is that few of us are willing to invest time and energy into activities or relationships that do not promise some measure of return. In business, we hear about the metric called Return on Investment, or ROI. When the expected return outweighs projected costs – in terms of cash, publicity, good will, exposure, leverage, or a host of different currencies – it is much more likely that the investment will be made.
Friendships also involve an ROI analysis, even if we don’t consciously crunch any numbers or measure our expectations for outcome. Friendships are often established on the basis of shared interests, proximity, or similarity between acquaintances. We slowly open ourselves up to a growing relationship with another person with whom we feel some affinity.
The Japanese have a term, kenzoku, which translated literally means “family.” The connotation suggests a bond between people who’ve made a similar commitment and who possibly therefore share a similar destiny. It implies the presence of the deepest connection of friendship, of lives lived as comrades from the distant past.
Many of us have people in our lives with whom we feel the bond described by the word kenzoku. They may be family members, a mother, a brother, a daughter, a cousin. Or a friend from grammar school with whom we haven’t talked in decades. Time and distance do nothing to diminish the bond we have with these kinds of friends.
The question then arises: why do we have the kind of chemistry encapsulated by the word kenzoku with only a few people we know and not scores of others? The closer we look for the answer the more elusive it becomes. It may not in fact be possible to know, but the characteristics that define a kenzoku relationship most certainly are.
WHAT DRAWS PEOPLE TOGETHER AS FRIENDS?
- Common interests. This probably ties us closer to our friends than many would like to admit. When our interests diverge and we can find nothing to enjoy jointly, time spent together tends to rapidly diminish. Not that we can’t still care deeply about friends with whom we no longer share common interests, but it’s probably uncommon for such friends to interact on a regular basis.
- History. Nothing ties people together, even people with little in common, than having gone through the same difficult experience. As the sole glue to keep friendships whole in the long run, however, it often dries, cracks, and ultimately fails.
- Common values. Though not necessarily enough to create a friendship, if values are too divergent, it’s difficult for a friendship to thrive.
- Equality. If one friend needs the support of the other on a consistent basis such that the person depended upon receives no benefit other than the opportunity to support and encourage, while the relationship may be significant and valuable, it can’t be said to define a true friendship.
WHAT MAKES A FRIEND WORTHY OF THE NAME?
- A commitment to your happiness. A true friend is consistently willing to put your happiness before your friendship. It’s said that “good advice grates on the ear,” but a true friend won’t refrain from telling you something you don’t want to hear, something that may even risk fracturing the friendship, if hearing it lies in your best interest. A true friend will not lack the mercy to correct you when you’re wrong. A true friend will confront you with your drinking problem as quickly as inform you about a malignant-looking skin lesion on your back that you can’t see yourself.
- Not asking you to place the friendship before your principles. A true friend won’t ask you to compromise your principles in the name of your friendship or anything else. Ever.
- A good influence. A true friend inspires you to live up to your best potential, not to indulge your basest drives.
Of course, we may have friends who fit all these criteria and still don’t quite feel kenzoku. There still seems to be an extra factor, an attraction similar to that which draws people together romantically, that cements friends together irrevocably, often immediately, for no reason either person can identify. But when you find these people, these kenzoku, they’re like priceless gems. They’re like finding home.
HOW TO ATTRACT TRUE FRIENDS
This one is easy, at least on paper: become a true friend yourself. One of my favorite quotations comes from Gandhi: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Be the friend you want to have. We all tend to attract people into our lives whose character mirrors our own. You don’t have to make yourself into what you think others would find attractive. No matter what your areas of interest, others share them somewhere. Simply make yourself a big target. Join social clubs organized around activities you enjoy. Leverage the Internet to find people of like mind. Take action.
As I thought about it, there are four people in my life I consider kenzoku. How many do you?
The Cost of Befriending Manipulators
Relationships deepen as we provide increasingly deeper levels of self-disclosure. We gauge how much to reveal based on how deeply we perceive our acquaintance to be sharing.
Yet there are “friends” who may encourage us to “tell all the gory details.” Or ask for “blow-by-blow descriptions” of fights with our lover, parenting mistakes we may have made, or details about interactions with other friends. Or: Friends who ask us to go above and beyond the level of instrumental or emotional assistance that they themselves would provide to us.
For many of us, giving to others is satisfying and brings us pleasure; but being taken advantage of by such relational manipulators only brings frustration and resentment.
Manipulators are expert at convincing us to give them more than they give us. It might feel good, at first, to have a “friend” who encourages you to open up, share your thoughts, and reveal your weaknesses. Someone who listens to us when we are down is valued; someone who uses what she learns about us during those weak moments. . . not so much.
These manipulative friends know their needs and how to get them met at little expense to themselves, but at significant cost to others. Master manipulators know many ways to coerce your assistance that can leave you confused, bewildered, or angry.
They may make dire predictions of what will happen if you don’t step up and give them a ride, a meal, or the shirt off your back, or they may make you feel special by playing on your soft heart.
Successful manipulators are keen evaluators of human nature and can create a dynamic in which meeting their needs makes you feel good. . . even as you are stuck eating Ramen noodles for dinner because you just gave a friendly manipulator your last $20 bill.
How Do You Know When There’s a Problem?
We all know that you must admit there’s a problem before you can begin to find a solution. Here are some signs that you’re being manipulated:
When you feel an imbalance in the level of self-disclosure between you and a friend.
When you feel like you are always “on call” to assist your friend, but she’s a no-show when you are in need.
When you realize that her needs take precedence over your own.
When other friends begin to make pointed observations about the equity in your relationship with this particular friend.
Unfortunately, ending or exiting a manipulative relationship – whether friendship or romance – is probably easier than trying to realign it. Manipulators spend a great deal of time creating a world in which their needs are met by others over whom they maintain control. Trying to shake up that foundational operating system is biting off a lot.
Break the Cycle: Say “No” and Mean It
As counselors say to clients, the only person you can change is yourself. The best way to handle manipulative people is to become less susceptible to them. We are only as easily manipulated as we choose to be – manipulators make us feel good when we bend to their needs, but we can learn to realize that there are many better ways of building our self-esteem than giving in to them.
Remember:It’s okay to say no and sometimes it’s essential to your well-being. Practice saying, “No, I am not available to help you with that,” even in the mirror if it helps.Create boundaries you can enforce. Think about what this friend would do for you if asked. Use the answer as a guideline for how far you should go for her.Recognize that healthy friendships include give and take, and that there is a limit to what even the best of friends should ever ask of one another.Friendships are seldom fully equal in what is being given and received at any specific moment. Over time, however, a healthy relationship provides both members with a sense of commitment and support from the other.
Friends don’t let friends do all the work!
Written by Suzanne Degges-White, Ph.D. and dr Alex Lickerman M.D.