Lifetime Connections

Exploring women's relationships in families and friendscapes

Do You Ask for More Than Your Friends Can Give?

Why friendships hinge on dependability.

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Next in our series on friendship rules, we address the importance of assisting friends when they're in need.

Being able to rely on friends to be there with emotional and instrumental support when things get rough is an essential for the maintenance of healthy friendships. The value of concrete support is evident in the youngest and oldest of friends. As one twentysomething said, “If someone is never there for you despite you being there for them in times of need, that's worth ending a friendship.”

Most of us tend to take pride in being able to meet our own needs. A lot of us might even feel hesitant, or even a little guilty, asking others for help. Many might hope (or assume) that friends can sense and respond to their needs without their having to make a direct request. Take a moment, though, and reflect on exactly which friends you would be willing to call on if a need arose. Who would you have an easier time asking, new friends or old friends? Friends or family? Situations and circumstances, of course, call for different SOS signals and different friends are more able to rally or assist in some cases than others. But for the friends you count among your closest, there is probably nothing you wouldn’t do if they sent out a call for support.

Who Asks You for Help?

Many women we’ve interviewed agree that the true test of a friendship is the measure of comfort they feel asking someone for assistance. This importance was highlighted from the opposite side by one woman whose own willingness to help “a friend in need” was met with an unexpected and deflating response. She discovered just how unbalanced she and the friend’s relationship actually was: Sue Ellen, a woman in her early 30s, had offered to do a favor for a friend that required running an errand just a little bit out of her way. She was taken aback when her offer was turned down and even more surprised by the abrupt explanation offered—the other woman didn’t feel “comfortable” or “close enough” to ask Sue Ellen for a personal favor. This incident revealed the expectations surrounding reciprocity between the two and showed Sue Ellen that if a friend doesn’t "feel comfortable" asking for her help, it’s a sure thing she shouldn’t feel comfortable asking that friend for help, either.

Expectations about support are usually implicit or unspoken which may explain the significant pain we feel when assistance is not provided when needed. Asking for help can take courage. Refusing to provide it when needed can derail a friendship, wherever we are in life.

Enforcing the Rule or Bending It?

This rule of friendship addresses a foundational aspect of rewarding relationships: Friends offer support when needed. Period. There can be times, though, when we don’t get what we most want or need from our friends. How do you know if it’s time to dissolve (or downgrade) the relationship? Start by asking yourself a couple of questions:

Was your need clearly expressed? If we haven't specified that we need support, we have to recognize that few of us are expert mind readers. Actively communicating your need is the surest way to increase the chances that it will be met. This is important to remember should you find yourself blaming a friend for not “knowing” you needed her help.

Is this a friend to whom you would give what you want to receive? It would be wonderful if you had a friend who could drop everything to rescue you from a bad date, a visit from your in-laws, or lunch at the worst cafeteria table. But your friends have lives of their own and circumstances don’t always allow immediate gratification. Would you leave work in the middle of an important meeting to come to a friend's aid? Or would you wait until the meeting ended and you could more gracefully head out the door? Would you kick your kids out of their beds in the middle of the night to give this friend a place to sleep if they had just walked out on their partner, or would you offer the couch? Situations and circumstances dictate “reasonable expectations." Consider how far you would go for your friend before making a hasty decision on the future of the friendship.

 

(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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