What Makes a Good Friend?

My friend’s grandmother used to say: “To make a friend, close one eye; to keep a friend, close both eyes.” I like that advice. It keeps me sensible and centered when I am tempted to get critical. Plus, I like the idea that someone might do me a similar kindness when I am at my worst.

When we have been petty or low-down, we cringe looking back on our behavior. We hope against hope that no one noticed. You didn’t see that, did you? You know a true friend will say: Not a thing, my eyes were closed. The good friend does this because he or she knows that a bad moment does not a character make.

But what about friends who don’t cringe when they act badly, who hardly notice that their behavior has hurt us? What if they do that frequently? How many times should we close our eyes then?

Note that my friend’s grandmother never said anything about blinding yourself. She advocated refraining from needless criticism, but that is not the same thing as refusing to see what is going on. Grandmother would say the person has to be worth closing your eyes for.

There are two reasons why we might put up with bad friend behavior. They both involve making excuses when the friend lets us down or uses us. The first excuse comes up when the friend seems to have a corner on the hardship market. There is always something more urgent going on in her life that eclipses your own puny problems. The excuse is that she would be a better friend if only she could, but she is so overwhelmed with The Biggest Problem Ever that she needs you to support her first.

The second reason why we put up with being let down is that we tell ourselves the friend is not intending to be hurtful. She just forgot, or something else came up. The friend is not a mean person. She just got waylaid by circumstances.

Believe it or not, there are plenty of people who have huge problems, and yet they still manage to show that you are important to them. They may not be able to give you all the attention you desire, but you can tell they would like to. They will even apologize that they sound like a broken record or that they know it is hard to keep hearing about their problems. In other words, they retain a sense of you, even as their own problems are going on. You get the feeling they wish they could give you more or simply repay you for what you have done for them. They are grateful for your attention. Their appreciation gives you a genuine sense of reciprocity.

Problems and illness make all of us more self-focused and decrease our sensitivity toward others. But that is a different kettle of fish from being chronically oblivious to how others are feeling.

The other excuse—that the person is not intending to be mean—simply does not hold water. What difference does it make if she is intending to hurt you or not? Is it a valid excuse to say, “I didn’t mean to upset you”? I don’t think so. It is only a valid excuse if the friend goes on to show empathy by saying that she understands why you were upset and then apologizes sincerely. Once you are past the egocentric teen years, you can’t claim faux innocence about your motives and leave it at that. “I didn’t mean it” is legit for kids only.

Cutting someone a break because her intentions were not malicious sidesteps the real issue. If you are being repeatedly let down by someone, it means that person is not thinking about you while considering the next move. She is thinking about herself. Anybody can make a mistake or forget, but when there is a pattern of overlooking your needs, it means, to that person, you are a convenience, not a commitment.

It takes psychological work to be empathic and to remember that others have needs, too. To be a good friend means you exert energy toward thinking about your friend and how she might be feeling. This effort toward understanding the inner experience of the other person is the unavoidable work of a good relationship. It is not enough to deny negative intentions.

So why do we put up with the friend who lets us down repeatedly? Perhaps we feel embarrassed to ask for anything back. We may feel that it is not okay for us to be the squeaky wheel.

Our hurt stays a secret when we do not tell the friend about the effects of her behavior. We silently hope for something better from her in the future. But if she is already overlooking our inner experience, she probably will not suddenly realize how we feel unless we tell her.

According to Paul Ekman, the recognized expert in reading facial expressions, an empathic person is capable of three things: 1) noticing our feelings, 2) resonating with our feelings, and 3) feeling the urge to make us feel better. If a friend forgets one of these three steps, we can remind her how we need to be treated in the friendship. If the person is good friend material—one of those for whom we should close an eye at times—she will appreciate our feedback and make a point to be more aware. But the friend who is not interested in relationship reciprocity may find that you are not so much fun anymore. She may drift away. And you, with your eyes wide open, may let her go. 

Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist in practice in Va. Beach. For information, call 757-490-7811.

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