Tuesday, January 31, 2012


The old song says it well: breaking up is hard to do.

It’s hard when you’re breaking up with a lover; much harder when you are breaking up with a spouse.

But, what about breaking up with a friend? On Facebook it’s called defriending, but it happens all the time, usually without fanfare or drama.

Marriage is a contract. Romance is a prelude to a contract. Siblings are connected by blood. They do not need a contract.

Friends are not bound by contracts. We make friends freely. We are not bound to our friends. Our ties to our friends are defined by ethical principles. We are obliged to be loyal to our friends. We are not bound by blood. 

Being friends with someone does not imply gaining a new title or a new status. Being John’s friend is not analogous to being John’s wife or child.

If you lose touch with a friend he ceases to be your friend, in the active sense of the term. If you do not often speak to members of your family, they are still your relatives.

Friendship is the purest of voluntary social ties. Friendship requires better behavior than do family ties.

It is very rare that a psychologist will privilege friendship. Psychologists see human relationships as a function of early childhood family ties.

They even see human social organizations as a function of the earliest relationships, the ones that concern mother and father and child.

Thereby, they see human beings as family-bound, with sociability an afterthought or a function of whatever is happening in the family.

One important work of philosophy gives pride of place to friendship. In Nichomachean Ethics Aristotle privileged the relationship that exists between friends. Since his ethics was about how to build character by doing the right thing he saw friendship as the kind of relationship where good character was most important. 

If family life so often descends into drama, then perhaps the reason is that family members remain related no matter how they behave.

What are the implications of Aristotle's idea. It suggests that if you have a choice between treating your siblings with the respect you would accord a friend or else treating your friends with the disregard you would accord a family member, then it would be better, Aristotle seems to be saying, to make friendship the paradigm that determines how you conduct all relationships.

Instead of trying to make all of your relationships into family dramas, try making your family life into a harmonious exercise in good behavior.

Now, there’s a radical idea.

People have to work harder to make their friendships work. They should put the same amount of work into making their family relations work.

Of course, most family ties are forever. Few friendships are.

Our circle of friends expands and contracts. Some people are always our friends; others come and go. We make new friends and grow distant from old friends. We grow closer to some people and grow apart from others.

Since we choose our friends we have a free choice between remaining friends or, as the new expression goes, defriending them. There is no such thing as a family relation that vanishes by the click of a link on Facebook.

Strangely, more free will is exercised in friendships than in family ties.

But, being free to choose your friends does not tell you how best to exercise that freedom. 

Surely, you should exercise care and caution in choosing your friends. Cassie Murdoch brings us the news on Jezebel. She might be exaggerating slightly, but certain kinds of friends can become toxic. Certain kinds of friendships stress you out and make you sick.

In her words: “We all have those friends who are competitive or are constantly causing drama for one reason or another. It's tempting to just put up with them, but a new study has found that conflicts with those kinds of people could actually be irritating you physically—as in causing your immune system to fire up. This leads to your body to become inflamed, a state which has been associated with things like cancer and diabetes.”

Yesterday I wrote a post about living a long healthy life. Today I will add another item to the list: choose your friends well.

People who are constantly causing drama in their or your life are a drain on your emotional resources. They are all take and no give. You would do best to maintain a safe distance from them. If they have little to offer in terms of comity and harmony, then it is probably a good idea to defriend them.

Friendship is based on reciprocity. Friends return the favor. Friends stick with you when things are not going well. And, as Aristotle said, friends see the best in you, assuming that you see the best in them.

Anyone who is constantly carping on your faults and inadequacies is not your friend.

Of course, there are early warning signs. Bad character is high on the list. Do not get too close to people who fail to return messages, fail to show up on time for appointments, or who embarrass you in public.

Do not get too close to people who are not good friends to others. A man who brags about how he betrayed or undermined a friend is not someone you should want to be friends with.

Anyone who is trying to build himself up at your expense is not a friend. If he constantly insults or demeans you, if he fails to respect your achievements he is using you, as a foil, perhaps. He is not treating you like a friend.

Most friendships end by inertia. A mutual recognition that the friendship is counterproductive often causes it to fade away.

Much has been written about how to end a romance. Less has been said about how to end a friendship.

Thus, we should welcome Alex Williams’ long article in the New York Times about this topic. Williams explained it clearly and well.

Preferably, Williams says, you allow a friendship to fade away.  You stop returning messages, become too busy to get together, cease to share important information… and generally become more distant.

Friendships require active management. Where family relations can continue on auto-pilot friendships cannot.

The fade-away approach avoids conflict and confrontation. This is always a good idea, though, it is often easier said than done.

When you confront a friend with a list of grievances you will do damage to both of you. Moreover, you are leaving open the possibility that the friendship can be saved.

If you have really come to the point where you want to end a friendship it is best to end it, not to create a scene.

As it happens, Williams acknowledges that some therapists believe that ending a friendship requires the kind of direct conversation that would normally be needed when ending a romantic relationship.

Even then, non-confrontation should always be the by-word. It is better to end a relationship by agreeing not to blame each other.

When it comes to a friendship, however, it is best not to see it as a romance. It does not involve a breach of contract and does not require negotiation about future contacts.

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