The way we build friendships (though we may not realize it)

In talking through my ideas in my previous post about criteria for Good Friends, a friend and I were talking about what it looks like when two people are mismatched in terms of either capacity, interest, and availability. Friendships are different from the donor-fundraiser relationship in a fundamental way: in friendships, both parties have something significant to give and both are looking to understand and help the other person give the best they have, to get the kind of relationship and support that they need, and both have a sense of what they themselves want or have to offer. Between two friends, the friendship is the Major Gift and it is a Gift that both parties give together, under some kind of (usually implicit) agreement. Because the two people are each deciding what they want to give and receive, and because the “contract” is usually unspoken (certainly not made in writing, though who knows?!), this makes the process for developing a Major Friendship more complicated than the process of setting up a Major Gift.

It seems to me that friendships are often kind of hemmed in by the lowest “amount” or substance one of the two is willing to give; in donor terms, by the lowest capacity of the two. In other words, the person who has the lower capacity/interest/availability tends to set the terms of what kind of friendship this will be. Since each party is both giver (donor) and taker (recipient), at the beginning, each kind of “tests the waters” with what they give — is the gift/friendship matched by the other person? When we start to offer the kind of friendship we want (vulnerability, frequency of connection, etc.), does the other person respond in kind, or do they start to put up some walls that indicate we’ve overstepped?

Of course, nothing in life is perfectly equal. Friendships are usually unbalanced in some way. It seems that as long as each friend is able to give and receive what they want, the friendship can thrive. I have had many lopsided relationships, ones where I was an overgiver and ones where I was an overtaker, that were lovely in their own way. Much of the joy of these lopsided relationships is found when each is able to come to peace with what is clear the other is willing and able to give.

Our friendship criteria wax and wane with shifts in life. Our current situation often determines a lot of what we have to give, and a lot of what we need to receive. After a move to a new city, we have more availability and interest for new friendships, as well as an increased need for connection. When we take up a new interest (like when I took up swimming last year), we often want to make new friends who share that interest. Someone going through a depressive episode may have no interest in investing in friendships at the moment (though may perhaps have a greater need). After going through therapy, we may realize that we have an increased or different capacity for what we can offer to our friends (perhaps we are able to listen better, to empathize better, or to better draw and respect boundaries).

Availability is, of course, very dependent on our evolving life situation. We can find ourselves in a stage of life where we have very little time for friends, old or new (like with the arrival of a new baby, or like, say, oh, you know, every time I decide to start a new degree program. #endlessscholarproblems). At other times, when we change cities, we may find that we have a high availability for friendships.

I don’t think it’s necessary to monitor and track what we have to offer and what we want to receive from our friendship in terms of interest, capacity, and availability; frankly, that sounds exhausting. (Even for an overthinker like me!) I do think that looking at how these three elements shift with time and situation can help us better understand our friendships, our friends, and ourselves if and when we find ourselves in a time of friendship unrest.

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