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What Makes a Friend a Friend?

Madeleine (right) and I in my garden

August 7 is Friendship Day – to be distinguished from Best Friends Day that was celebrated on June 8 – so it’s not a surprise to find an op-ed in The New York Times titled “Do Your Friends Actually Like You?” A catchy headline, I admit, that I immediately clicked on.

After reading in the first paragraph that “Recent research indicates that only about half of perceived friendships are mutual,” I found myself shaking my head in dismay. What kind of friendships were these researchers studying? The article agrees that this was a startling finding and might be prompted by a misunderstanding of what friendship means in the age of social media.

I found myself feeling sorry for anyone that thinks someone is her friend only to discover that this is not a mutual feeling. True friendship is as recognizable as a baby emperor penguin is to its caring mother as she returns from feeding in the sea to her babe. How do you know friendship is reciprocal? Well you just do — especially for women. When a friendship is being formed you spend endless hours talking, discovering your views on any number of subjects and finding out how in sync you both are. Over time you know that this is the person you absolutely need to talk to when you are happy, sad or just plain old confused. She helps you figure out your feelings. She is a mirror to your soul. This only works, of course, if it’s reciprocal. You know that by the nature of what you both share, and without question, all disclosures are confidential.

That’s very different from a casual relationship – a Facebook “friend” for example, who you may barely know. That type of link doesn’t take a commitment. That type of “friend” doesn’t offer undying support or unconditional love. It’s a friendship as committed as the wind blowing this way and that.

That can be true of work friends too. The friendship may be cordial and even go beyond that for teammates, but until you bare your soul to each other, the word “friendship” just doesn’t quite apply. If you want to read real stories of friendship, read the friendship stories we’ve posted at Friendship Dialogues. They will touch you deeply. These are all tales of love and loss – best friends who have died and are dearly missed.

I don’t believe we are at risk of losing friendships that are deep and true, but I do think we have to recognize the difference between bonds that are at most one layer deep and cherish instead those that are buried deep in our pores. When you are lucky enough to find someone who is your soul sister cherish her. And if you have to wonder if your “friend” really likes you then you can be sure this person is not a candidate for true friendship.


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