The Anatomy of Friendship



Is your friendship a lie?

At one point in our lives, we all ponder the questions: what is friendship? How can we tell our true friends from those who we simply hang around for convenience? Why are we attracted to certain people and not others? Why do friendships fall apart?

It’s something that people have all tried to answer many a time before. I’ve especially been wondering this as of late because of the emotional finale to the end of high school. For me, it ended on a very sour note, and I’m sure countless of other students had the same experience. Friendships tumble, and if they don’t tear apart right after school ends, they dissipate with the tides of time. We all just want to know why.

Aristotle’s Theory of Friendship

In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, he tries to explain this problem.

Aristotle’s definition of friendship is “justice in the fullest sense” in that people have a mutual feeling of goodwill. He states there are three types, or bases, of friendship:

  1. Friendship of Utility: Friendship that is relatively shallow based on the fact that two people benefit from one another. For example, trade. The fishmonger is friends with the dairy farmer because the fishmonger gives the dairy farmer fish and the dairy farmer gives the fishmonger milk.
  2. Friendship of Pleasure: Friendship based on superficialities, such as good looks, wit, or any passions. These friendships, unlike the long-term, goal-seeking friendships of utility, are built only to satisfy present whims.
  3. Friendship of Virtue or Goodness: Friendship based on mutual admiration for one another. Utility and whimsical pleasure are not of concern. This is the ideal friendship.

While this seems to cover it, I just don’t think that friendship is divided into three strict, rigid categories, nor do I agree with the proposed relationship time span. Friendships of pleasure can last an excessively long time, as we all know that one person who is so hung up on someone for months or even years, just because they’re good-looking or have superficial appeal (Of Human Bondage, off the top of my head). Moreover, friendships of virtue might not last for even a week before the two move on to someone else.

Additionally, this theory doesn’t necessarily explain why I can consider certain people in my friend group to be “friends” but yet still have no practical basis for our relationship, no passions or external qualities to particularly recommend, nor any deep-seated mutual admiration for their character. It also doesn’t take into account one-sided relationships.

I have come up with my own theory, or rather, stolen various bits and points of psychology to piece together what I think friendship really consists of.

Anatomy of Friendship: how to tell if it’s a lie

This is what I think comprises friendship. Rather than consisting of three types, I believe that friendship consists of two types.

  1. Mere Exposure Friendships

In psychology, the mere-exposure effect states that people develop a preference for things or other people whom they are more familiar with or with whom they encounter more often. If you have to hang around another person a lot, they become more familiar to you, and you are more inclined to try to like them in order to maintain a harmonious social environment (normative social influence). In colloquial terms, people “grow on” one another. Gradually, from repeated encounters, you can craft an illusion of friendship.

This first type of friendship, the mere exposure friendship, is often inauthentic and relatively shallow. It is based solely on situational factors rather than intrinsic similarities between the two of you. You are both placed in the same situation (for example, friends of friends, classmates, coworkers, cashier-customer, etc.) and must cope with the continuous and/or repeated exposure to one another.

Perhaps your friendship may incorporate aspects of utility or pleasure. However, I believe that in many cases, this  friendship doesn’t even need to grow out of utility or pleasure. This friendship can also have mutual admiration, but this alone does not drive the friendship. This friendship is maintained through group dynamics.

As you and the other party repeatedly see one another, in an attempt to harmonize you resort to sociological tendencies like deinviduation and group polarization. You forsake some of your own values and personality traits in order to harmonize with the opposite party’s. You moreover employ dynamics of group polarization as you agree with one another’s opinions for the sake of complaisance, emphasizing and strengthening a single, perhaps relatively minor aspect of your relationship.

Mere exposure friendships are superficial. However, this does not necessarily mean that they cannot last a long time.

2. Genuine Friendships

Genuine friendships are, as their name implies, much more deep-seated than mere exposure friendships. They are indeed a little similar to friendships of virtue from Aristotle, but they do not develop overnight as he seems to imply.

Genuine friendships can start off as mere exposure friendships. However, they are sustained by the fact that the two individuals are drawn together by more than just situational factors. They find that they are inherently similar in things they are both passionate about or in their personal beliefs and can maintain interactions independent of the situation. You also both admire one another’s personal qualities to some degree because your communication styles are most likely similar.

You might both love books, movies, TV shows, etc., and you might both be introverted, though one moreso than the other. You both like the same books, and you both appreciate the balance one another gives to their relationship. That’s just a general example.

I believe that this explains the phenomenon of cliques and why “birds of a feather flock together.” Cliques consist of a chain of friendships,  at the heart of which there is at least one genuine friendship followed by several mere exposure friendships. For example, person A has a genuine friendship with B who has a genuine friendship with C. C has a mere exposure relationship with A, D, and E. and so on and so forth.

However, what if in this ABC scenario person E values his or her relationship with A more than A values his or her relationship with E? This is where the concept of unconditional positive regard comes in, which determines how long and if a relationship is truly sustainable.

Unconditional Positive Regard

So, why can some mere exposure friendships last forever and some genuine friendships shut down in a week, or even not exist to begin with?

Carl Rogers introduced something called unconditional positive regard. This means you show that you accept and respect others as they are without expressing judgment.

In mere exposure and genuine relationships alike, unconditional positive regard is what sustains it. You’ll see this in almost all viable, enduring relationships. You and your friend may snipe at one another and tease, but you do not criticize or judge one another without equally affirming your positive esteem of them.

At its surface, unconditional positive regard might seem to imply a degree of inauthenticity. It does not. Unconditional positive regard means that you might not approve of your friend’s actions, but you offer them support and respect at all times. If you criticize them, you don’t tell them outright, “You’re wrong.” Rather, you angle your criticisms with tact and understanding. Instead, you might say, “I don’t agree with your actions, but I understand why you feel the way you do and I still support you as a friend.”

Obviously unconditional positive regard is hard to maintain and failing to express it once is not the end. However, the more you provide your friend with displays of unconditional positive regard, the more likely your friendship will last. It doesn’t matter whether the friendship is mere exposure or genuine. People don’t like to be told they are wrong or judged unless they themselves have already given into the notion of being erroneous. Also, if one person gives unconditional positive regard and the other doesn’t, then the relationship will feel imbalanced and is less likely to last or be as strong.

Moreover, people like to feel understood and respected. They like to be esteemed. It goes against our natural instincts to stick to relationships that are discouraging or unhealthy to our mental stability. Some people do so because of their own personal insecurities, but more on that in another post.

So, it may or may not be a lie…

But whether it is based in mere exposure or genuine  interest, in the end, if not supplied with enough unconditional positive regard, it will fade out anyway.

Ask yourself this: am I just friends with this person because I see him or her everyday? Or do we have some interest outside of work/school that we can talk about without feeling judged?

This may not be scientifically accurate. In fact, it’s probably not at all. But this is what I’ve observed and found to be true in my experience. I guess that these are the conclusions of an emo teenager, feeling detached from all of her relationships save for a few. Perhaps you have a genuine friendship but are too quick to judge and too reluctant to provide unconditional positive regard. Perhaps all of your friendships are mere exposure friendships and you were never attached enough to begin with. And perhaps this is the reason why your best friend from high school or college is now just a stranger in the crowd.


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