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Ethical Wisdom For Friends

Navigating life's most complicated, curious, and common relationship dilemmas

Friendships are the great unexplored love relationships in most of our lives. We pay attention to romance, we attend closely to family, but we often forget the complexity -- and urgency -- of caring for our friendship bonds. We forget that friendships, like all affairs of the heart, bring along with them a host of emotional issues similar to those found in romantic love: jealousy, possessiveness, envy, competition, exploitation, betrayal, insecurity and, of course, sexual attraction. Since many of us don't admit the complexities of friendship in their lives, we're confused -- and often flummoxed -- over how to deal with platonic demons when they rear their ugly heads.

That's why friendship is so fascinating as a mirror of our inner lives, and why I wrote "Ethical Wisdom For Friends." The following is a self-interview I conducted to clarify why it's so important to pay attention to friendship, what to do when friends get in hot water, and when it's better to walk away than stay bound to frenemies, energy suckers, mooches, and other destructive confreres who really don't belong in our lives.

Why did you write this book?

I’d spent the previous three years writing a book called "Ethical Wisdom: The Search For a Moral Life." It was a serious research project that looked into how and why people are wired to get along, make moral choices, and so on. A reader wrote to me, saying “Great book, but where’s the practical advice? How can we use this information?” I decided to start with the issue of friendship, which has always fascinated me. Friends are people in relationship who don’t THINK they’re in a relationship (and pay too little attention to how they connect … or fall apart). I wanted to explore that.

What will we learn in the book about friendship that we didn’t know before?

Lots of things. You’ll learn why human beings are hard-wired for gossip. I explain how we confuse colleagues with friends and get our feelings hurt. You’ll learn when it’s right, and when it’s wrong, to mind your friend’s business. What to do when your friend’s spouse comes on to you, and when you can’t stand your friend’s kids. There are so many unspoken taboos in friendship, ground rules that are hard to discern. When we think of friendships as affairs of the heart, which we rarely do, we start giving them the sensitive attention and care they deserve.

Why do you say that friendship is an affair of the heart? That sounds romantic.

Anyone who’s been in a really tight friendship knows that intimacy is intimacy, whether or not it involves sex. Our emotions (our primary moral guides) are engaged when we care about people, and work to remain connected with them, over a long period of time. Emotions are the bedrock of passion; most of us know what it’s like to be passionate about a friend but we don’t have the language to describe it; we don’t know how to prioritize friendship in a culture addicted to romance. We often take our friends for granted and this causes heartache that doesn’t seem justified. “It’s not like you’re sleeping together,” people will tell you. “You’re JUST friends.” This cliché reveals how little we understand about the intensity of friendship and the slippery slope of opening your heart to anyone at all.

What should friends do when they’re sexually attracted to each other?

Don't act on it if possible. It's almost never a good idea. It’s best to acknowledge the attraction in a lighthearted way to avoid its festering and exploding. It’s hard for friends to sleep together and remain unsullied friends. This goes for men and women, women and women, and men as men. It confuses the focus of friendship and the unique role of friends in our lives. Mostly, sex will muddy the water, though a woman I write about in the book actually manages to pull it off, on a regular basis, with one of her long distance buddies. She is, most definitely, the exception.

Then there’s the high school friend who refuses to grow up.

Yes, the keeper of the high school flame. The permanent delinquent still partying hearty while the rest of his friends have jobs and kids. This can be a sad scenario. It’s like these people never got the memo that life changes after graduation. They’re clinging to an image from their past that has only grown more embarrassing. There’s a story in the book about someone like this who does something close to disastrous and has to turn his life around. Eventually, he has to surrender his bong and his skateboard.

What about lying? Is it ever OK to lie to friends?

It depends on what country you live in. Americans are obsessed with transparency. We’re moralistic about being untruthful. Talk to a European about 100% honesty and he'll look at you like you’re naive!i Why tell the truth when it hurts people’s feelings, he'll ask? Americans believe that honesty is always the best policy, but this is a questionable position. There are degrees of honesty and dishonesty. It is not always loving or wise to blurt out your opinion du jour. Friends need to know this. It is never advisable to bestow pearls of hurtful wisdom on people who haven't asked for them. What we call honesty can easily be used as a mask for unkindness.

What about interfering with friends' lives when we disagree with their behavior?

My general rule of thumb is MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS. This is part of having grown up relationships with flawed human beings on their own emotional, psychological, and spiritual trajectories. We cannot know what other people should be doing. We barely know what we should be doing ourselves! Unless a friend is in physical danger, it's best to keep your mouth shut and love them for who they are, where they are, how they are, and let the rest go. Of course, if you're asked for your opinion, you must be honest. Otherwise, I follow Byron Katie's dictum when it comes to being a busybody. Katie says that there are three kinds of business in the world. My business. Your business. And God's business. It's good to be clear on whose business you're minding. And NOT to throw stones from your glass house.

How do we know when to break up with friends?

This is so important. A frenemy is not a friend. Individuals in your life who do not want the best for you -- who can't be happy for you when good things happen -- do not belong in your intimate circle. Often, we don't know who these people are until some wonderful thing comes to us and these friends get angry, or sulky, or attacking -- or worse. It's important to remember, as Dan Goleman says, that the people in our lives are our "biological allies." Emotions are contagious. We catch each others' feelings like a cold. When you're in toxic, competitive, duplicitous, or hostile relationships with people, this has a deleterious physical effect on your life. Most people know how drained they feel after spending time with emotional vampires, or supposed friends who bring them down. Sometimes, it's possible to work things out with such people -- when the negativity can be shifted with insight -- but when friends are chronically destructive or hurtful, it's best to walk away from the relationship as quickly and consciously as possible. "Release with love," as a therapist used to tell me. It's better for both parties in the long run.

This isn't as easy as you make it sound!

I know that. That's why I wrote the book. There are also wonderful, inspiring, supportive, stunningly beautiful aspects of friendship that are just as common as these problems, however. It's not all bad news. I wanted this book to explore the shadows as well as to inspirational but also fun and juicy. We’re all such complicated creatures. We’re great at connecting but also fallible. “The heart has its reasons that reason does not know,” as Hopkins wrote. When we begin to understand how reason and the emotions work together in us, we tune in much more deeply to the people we care about. Improving our friendships – all our love relationships – can truly change your life.