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Fredric Neuman M.D.

What to Expect From a Friend

It may depend on how good a friend it is.

Most people have friends. The importance of friendship is usually taken for granted, as would be the importance of having a good job or of having a supportive family. Because it is so natural for most people to want friends, it is hard to explain exactly why that is so to someone who does not feel that way.

But there are some who tell me that they have been disappointed with all their friends and have no desire to make new ones. Here are some of the complaints I have heard:

  • “I was in the hospital with gallbladder surgery. I was there for a week, and Charlene never visited me. I thought she was my friend.”
  • “Edna always asks me to give her kids a lift to baseball practice along with my kids. But when I ask her to drive me someplace, she says she’s too busy that day.”
  • “My best friend gave a party and invited all of our other friends, but not me.”
  • “It turns out my best friend has been gossiping about me to all of her other friends.”
  • “I helped Harry to get his job, and now he avoids me.”
  • “I had this friend who visited me all the time, but when I wanted her to leave; she would keep talking. I’d look at my watch, and she would keep on talking. I’d get up and yawn and stretch; she’d go right on talking. Having friends is too much of a pain in the neck.”

It is easy to understand why someone would be disappointed with their friends in these circumstances. Most of us have experienced something similar at one time or another without, however, becoming so bitter that we want to give up on everyone and retreat into loneliness.

Just how disenchanted someone becomes when a friend disappoints depends on a number of factors. If someone has low self-esteem to begin with, a friend becoming neglectful likely only worsens those feelings. From their perspective, it is one more indication that he or she is not worthwhile and cannot expect to be treated properly. A busy person with a lot of friends may shrug if one of them withdraws for some reason, but someone who has only a few friends is more vulnerable to being rejected by any one of them. Also, someone who is especially needy because of other circumstances such as a broken romantic relationship or the loss of a valued job will overreact to being treated carelessly by a friend.

But I think if someone is routinely disappointed by friends, it means he or she is probably expecting too much from them. For example, some friends can be counted on to be good-natured and entertaining but cannot be relied on to be supportive in other, more threatening, circumstances, such as in conflict with others. Some embody the saying, “a friend in need is a friend indeed;” but some do not. Some do not have the emotional resources to comfort anyone who is in trouble. Some friends will extend themselves to do favors, but cannot be trusted with borrowed money. Some can be trusted with things of value, but cannot be counted on to be discrete. Consider the examples given above:

The reason Charlene did not visit her friend in the hospital was because she was afraid of hospitals, in fact, afraid of sick people in general. In other contexts, she could be counted on to be present and supportive; but she could not enter a hospital. She was a good friend, but not so good she could or would overcome her fears in order to comfort a friend.

Edna was willing to drive her friend places when her friend made clear that the ride was important. She did not think anyone giving her children a lift, or she herself giving someone else a lift, was important enough to reciprocate. It is easy for a friend not to live up to someone’s expectations when those desires are not made explicit.

The friend who was left out of a party needed to recognize that not every friend is included every time friends gather. Even a best friend may not be invited to a party for all sorts of unguessable reasons having to do with the other people who come, what is planned for the party, or some special purpose. In this case, the people at the party were planning a surprise party for the neglected friend!

Friends often gossip about each other. Such talk is reprehensible only when the gossip reflects badly on the friend. Talking about a friend is not a sign of disloyalty.

Someone who does a huge favor for a friend should do it because it is the right thing to do. If he or she expects the other person to be appreciative—indefinitely—that person is likely to be disappointed. In fact, really big favors tend to interrupt friendships. (“Neither a borrower nor a lender be.”) Harry did not like to remember that he was indebted to his friend.

In order for friends to stay friends, it is important to set limits. Someone who does not take a hint to leave at the end of an evening should be told explicitly to leave. Friends should be open with friends without having to worry about giving offense. A friend may not supply everything someone may want, but a friend should not be a burden.

A few friends can be expected to rise to any occasion and be “true friends;” but others can be considered good friends and still fall short of this ideal. How do you measure a friend? Someone can be caring and yet give more attention to his or her family. Someone can be fun to shop with but not to sit next to at a formal dinner. Someone can be relied on to pick up a friend’s children at school, but cannot be counted on to come to other places punctually.

There are different friendships—some limited solely to work, some that have lasted over the course of a lifetime. Friends of all sorts are important. Friendships should not be abandoned just because they are not everything someone would want in a friend.

Maybe you want more. Maybe you think, as some do, that if someone cannot be relied on in every situation, then that person is simply not a good friend. Then, it becomes true that there are no truly good friends, because there are circumstances where every friendship may fail.

I cannot describe the advantages of friendship because it is so much a part of who we are. Look at a different primate species—the monkey. It is almost impossible to imagine a monkey off by itself. They are jabbering at each other all the time, grooming each other and even tending to each other. They are as much dependent on each other as bees in a hive. And so it is with human beings, too.

(c) Fredric Neuman

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About the Author

Fredric Neuman, M.D., is the Director of the Anxiety and Phobia Center at White Plains Hospital.