We are talking about friendships! For the purposes of this series, we are looking at healthy friendships as a necessary component of any relationship such as a best friend, a family member, a co-worker, or a life-partner. In week one, we examined the first important quality to consider in developing and maintaining healthy friendships – easy. In order to get the most out of our series, go back and read how three essential characteristics are necessary in order for friendships to be easy. They must be authentic, honest, and trustworthy.
Today, we are moving onto the second quality to consider in cultivating healthy friendships – equal.
Are my friendships equal?
Equal? That seems really strange, doesn’t it? Yes. When we think of the word equal, definitions such as identical, alike, uniform, and the same come to mind. However, in our discussion of friendships, the quality of being equal is defined quite differently. Equality in a friendship is comprised of three important characteristics: being in balance, being reciprocal, and being respectful.
First, equal comes with being in balance.
The word balance has many applications. Within the context of friendships, being in balance means there is no power differential; the persona of one person does not dominate, control, or stifle the persona of the other. In other words, in healthy friendships, we can be a different as day and night, but we work together towards creating an even playing field so that each person’s unique qualities and characteristics are free to surface and shine. However, this requires each of us to be aware and take care of our needs within the friendships while being mindful of the same for others.
For example, I met one of my very best friends my freshman year in college. We are completely opposite. She is a night owl. I start to fall asleep when the sun goes down. She’s an extrovert, thriving on steady conversation and connection. I’m an introvert, carving out quality time for connection but needing lots of quiet down time as well. Over the years, we have roomed with one another, traveled together, experienced countless adventures, and shared in the highs and lows of our lives. Through all of it, we have kept a pulse on our own internal compass as well as remained respectful of other person’s needs, made adjustments when necessary, and moved forward with mutual appreciation.
Although it is not always the case, many times we are attracted to individuals who are very different from us. Outgoing folks are attracted to more shy personalities . Emotionally driven individuals are drawn to the security of rationally focused friends. An extremely budget conscious person is mesmerized by a “let’s live it up” free spirit. Folks who are blessed with a hilarious sense of humour find compatibility with more subdued individuals. Whether we are more similar or unalike in our personas, when we navigate from a position of balance where we consider the equilibrium or steadiness of the friendship in concert with honouring our authentic selves, we will enjoy greater harmony in the friendship.
At the same time, many of us maintain friendships in which the quality of being in balance may be tested, or in fact, absent.
These relationships bring with them elements of unpredictability such as the following:
- An individual who enjoys being the life of the party but at times may overwhelm other guests
- A friend who loves to drink and party but who can become a loose cannon when consuming too much of a substance
- Or a myriad of other personality quirks or conditions which contribute to the uniqueness of individuals but at the same time these traits cause them to be triggered easily and to respond unpredictably
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If we find ourselves feeling uncomfortable in friendships with a lack of appropriate boundaries, with varying degrees of unhealthiness, or with controlling features weighing us down, it is our responsibility to readjust our expectations around the friendship and shore up our boundaries as needed. At times, it requires us to reexamine whether staying in these friendships is healthy or not.
Being in balance means navigating waters of mutual consideration. Healthy friendships travel long on currents of evenness and steadiness.
Secondly, equal comes with being reciprocal
Most of us enjoy friendships which are reciprocal. For the purposes of our discussion of friendships, being reciprocal means there is a give and take to them. Depending on our personalities and all that makes each of us who we are, some individuals tend to give more naturally than others. It’s just in their DNA! Some individuals, for a plethora of reasons, tend to lean towards the receiving end of the relationship. This is not a judgement of them; it too is who they are. What is important is that we invest into friendships where the levels of give and take do not erode our wellbeing but enhance it .
At the same time, one of the reasons close friends are so important to us is because there are times when we need them. As we discussed in Easy relationships, when we know we can count on individuals to be there for us, we deepen our trust and connection with them. As we grow and mature, addressing challenging ages and stages of our lives, it is important to be sensitive to the needs of our friends and respond to them accordingly. There may periods of time where we find ourselves doing most of the giving. This is natural, and for many individuals, knowing they are available to help their friends through difficult times gives back to them in many ways. However, if we find ourselves in friendships which are largely one-sided or meant to serve only one person in the relationship, we may also find ourselves feeling dissatisfied with them.
If we are feeling used, resentful, or unappreciated, it is helpful to take a deep breath and then take a step back to assess whether we want to continue investing into the friendship or not. We might also want to consider if it would be beneficial to communicate our concerns to our friend, and/or if we are willing to amend our expectations of the friendship. Either way, it is our responsibility to act upon our feelings around the reciprocal nature of the friendship by being honest with ourselves and with our friends.
Because our online friendships play a large role for many of us, it is important to note that they can be quite confusing as to whether they are equal or not. It is really up to each individual to decide if his online connections meet the level of give and take which is meaningful to him or if it does not. In speaking with many online users, some have shared that when following an important person who has thousands of followers, it’s no big deal that the relationship is not reciprocal. On the other hand, many individuals have shared how they have monitored and minimized their “likes, comments, emoji, shares, etc.” when an online friend rarely if ever reciprocates. The lack of mutual recognition, for some, impacts their sense of worth and value within the friendship and the health of the relationship.
Whether online or off, we know ourselves and how the degree of give and take impacts us. It is our responsibility acknowledge our expectations around the reciprocal nature of our friendships and to communicate them with clarity and kindness.
Being reciprocal means being able to give and take. Healthy friendships are in harmony when there is a mutual regard for equality.
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Thirdly, equal comes with being respectful
It is easy to be in friendships where there is shared common ground, beliefs, and values. It is much more challenging when there are areas of great difference and disagreement in your relationship. And in today’s world of digital communications, we have become accustomed to a climate where anyone can say almost anything without pausing for reflection or without filtering one’s thoughts. There is a growing disregard and an intolerance for differing opinions. In order to cultivate and maintain healthy friendships, it is important to view our friends – whether we are like-thinking or not – from a lens of respect.
Being respectful means navigating from a posture of restraint rather from a position of being right.
There is absolutely nothing wrong in holding strong beliefs, values, and opinions. Change comes about because of courageous individuals fighting for causes, injustices, and for the rights of humankind. However, within our circle of friends – whether it be in our families, places of work, or partnerships – when we take on a position of being right around an issue, we message others who are not in agreement that that they are wrong. In doing so, we automatically devalue another’s point of view or perspective. Although we may not say the words aloud, we are also messaging to others that their beliefs or opinions are not equal to ours. Ours are better. Ours are valuable. Theirs are not.
In week one of our series on friendships, we discussed the importance of being authentic in our relationship. In easy friendships , we are free to express ourselves and our opinions. And, it is safe to do so when we share similar views. However, many of us value friendships where we have differing belief systems. This is important. These friendships require that we work hard at valuing the individuals over the issues. And it requires that our friends do the same for us.
A very good friend of mine (who I will call Angela) has very different views around religion than the rest of her family. Although Angela has never tried to dissuade them of their views or attempted to draw them into her beliefs, she finds that it is best to refrain from discussing religion. However, when she spends time with different members of her family, Angela makes it a point to be respectful of their practices and rituals. Over the years, Angela’s family has taken note of her posture of restraint and demonstrated their mutual respect when visiting her. Angela shared recently that her family has established a new level of regard for one another where each member’s beliefs are valued.
When we are willing to show restraint, it often provides the space needed for respect to surface. Over time and with mutual effort, a new level of shared equality will form and shape. However, when our friends demonstrate rigidity in their stances or positions of being right to the degree of devaluing others, it is up to each of us to decide if these friendships are healthy investments. We must also hold ourselves accountable to the same standard.
Being respectful means showing restraint over being right. Healthy friendship is nourished in a climate of an equal relationship.
In conclusion, we’ve touched upon some sensitive aspects of healthy friendships. You might find yourself doubting your investments into friends or you might be questioning your attitudes, thoughts, and behaviours in your friendships.
Take some time and reflect upon the following questions:
- Of the three characteristics of being equal – being in balance, being reciprocal, being respectful – which one/s are most important to me? Why?
- Are my friendships in balance in the sense that they provide an even playing field for each individual’s qualities and characteristics to shine in our relationship? Which do so? Which do not?
- Do I find myself being attracted to relationships with friends who are more alike than me or more different? Either way, do we work hard at being considerate of our differences and similarities? If so, how?
- Are my friendships equal in that there is a give and take to them? To what degree is this important to me?
- Am I more of a giver or a receiver? Which role do I need to work on?
- In achieving equality in my friendships, am I willing to navigate my relationship from a posture of restraint over a position of being right? How will I address this?
- Am I in a unhealthy relationship which I need to reassess? What steps am I ready to take in order to take care of myself and my wellbeing?
Write down your thoughts. Remember, there are no right answers. We are all unique in our expectations, wants, and needs. Discover what is healthy for you.
Publisher’s Note: Holli Kenley is an American Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and the author of “ Daughters Betrayed By Their Mothers: Moving from Brokenness to Wholeness” and “Power Down & Parent Up!: Cyber Bullying, Screen Dependence & Raising Tech-Healthy Children”