Lifetime Connections

Exploring women's relationships in families and friendscapes

The Friendship Rule You Should Never Break

What you can think, but can't say.
Suzanne Degges-White, Ph.D.
This post is a response to How to Handle Manipulators by Suzanne Degges-White, Ph.D.

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Psychologists, counselors, sociologists, and even economists have identified around 40 unspoken but fully understood rules of friendship. Women, for example, need friends who provide a pretty even give-and-take over the lifetime of the relationship—basically, we give to friendships based on the expected reciprocity of our friends.

While friendships are necessary for the vast majority of men and women, females are virtually pre-programmed to seek out alliances and connections during their lives. Some anthropologists suggest this is due to the historically comparative physical weakness of women in relation to men. We cannot fell a wooly mammoth, the theory goes, or fend off enemy tribes by ourselves as easily as men can, but give women an opportunity to build an alliance and organize a counterattack, and there is meat on the fire and a respected border.

Thus, for women, friendships serve a vital purpose; we need friends in a way men might never understand. But men might tolerate some behavior from their friends that women would never allow, due to the different emotional and economic systems in place. In the next few articles, I'm going to explore the top 10 most crucial rules which, if broken, can lead to the end of a friendship. In this blog, we are going to focus on Rule #1:

Don’t let jealousy or resentment threaten a good friendship.

Do not be jealous your friend's possessions or other relationships. In this climate of financial disparity and economic storms, we have to accept that there will always be material gulfs between us and some of our friends. There have even been movies about this phenomenon, like Friends with Money, starring Jennifer Aniston. Genuine relationships, however, should not hinge on economic homogeneity.

Wanting what our friends have is not unusual, and enjoying the opportunity to share what they have can be a pleasure booster—but resentment of their good fortune is simply not okay. If you enjoy your friend's company and value the relationship, keep your negative, less hospitable feelings under wraps. It’s what friends do.

When it comes to jealousy or criticism of her other friends or significant relationships, the temptation to share your negative perspectives can sometimes be even stronger. But don’t belittle or insult the “other friends” in your friend’s life. Even when she is dissing a friend in front of you, be discreet in your responses. Don’t jump on the bandwagon and say things that could be potentially humiliating if circumstances next week bring the three of you to be sitting at the same table again or at an event together.

So what can you do when your friend needs to vent about a different friend you know is not worth her time? Just take a cue from professional counselors and empathize, empathize, empathize: “It must have felt awful when Deb did that!” “I can tell you were hurt when that happened.” “Yes, it probably did change the way you looked at everyone!” You can provide a shoulder to cry on and an ear to listen, but you don’t have to agree or intensify the hate fest on the other friend.

Words That Can Come Back to Haunt You

There may also be a moment when a friend has absolutely had it with her significant other, or child or mother or some other bound-by-blood-or-law individual. While you may have already spent years wondering how your friend has tolerated this particular individual, this is still not the time to agree with anything she says, or to add your own horror stories—even if she says she has finally reached a breaking point.

The ties that bind us to family connections are strong, often much stronger than many of us would like. While it is difficult to fully dissolve the relationships formed by these ties, it is easy to do damage that can remain painfully present years into the future. Don't risk sacrificing a friendship by trying to build a wall between a friend and her relations. Better to keep your sentiments in check because you never know when your words may come back to haunt you, especially if and when fences get mended and relationships are repaired. (Of course, there is always the caveat that if any aspect of a friend’s wellbeing—physical, emotional, or mental—is potentially at risk, then helping that friend take action may be necessary.)

Resentment of a Friend’s Good Fortune is Never Acceptable

On the other hand, your friend’s mother may be the greatest mom you know; her husband may be an amazing handyman or chef; or her daughter may know more about decorating than a stack of home-design books. Remember, though: These people are her people. Being jealous of her access to them—or being manipulative by trying to get them to do for you what they do for her is never okay. You can enjoy their presence in her life—and delight when their gifts are shared with you—but don’t sacrifice a friendship by trying to insert yourself into relationships in which you do not rightfully belong. Sure, it would be awesome if her mom includes you in a lunch date with her daughter the next time she's in town, or if her husband and daughter offered to pitch in on your renovation plans. But it has to be their choice to share their gifts with you. It's never cool to express jealousy or resentment and risk ruining a friendship just because your friend hit the family jackpot.

So, rule # 1 is about good manners -- and good manners are pretty much the foundation for good relationships. Remember, whether a friend is extolling the virtues of people she holds dear or kvetching about their shortcomings or transgressions, lend an ear, offer some empathy, but keep your opinions to yourself. Stay tuned for an exploration of the next friendship rule, #2 Never break your friend's confidences.

 

(You are invited to participate in a research study exploring adult friendship experiences. We are hoping to learn about the ways in which adults manage friendship conflict and the behaviors they value most in enduring relationships. If you would like to share your experiences, please click on the following link: Friendship Experiences Survey)

 

Suzanne Degges-White, PhD, is a licensed counselor and professor at Northern Illinois University.
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