Are you a good friend?

Jason Brien.

The easiest and simplest way to assess and monitor all of your friendships is by understanding social exchange theory. In the simplest of terms, social exchange theory examines the dynamics of interpersonal relationships from beginning to end. There are two key concepts within social exchange theory which ultimately determine the health and prosperity of a friendship (and other relationships). The first is reciprocity… “you scratch my back and I will scratch your back” and the second is cost/benefits analysis… “What am I getting vs what am I not getting”? These two concepts are interrelated as they impact upon one another. Let’s look at reciprocity first before looking at the cost/benefits analysis.

Humans have a natural tendency to want to reciprocate. As children we learn that if we want something from someone then we must do something for them in return (if we want to watch tv then we have to behave or complete our chores first). The notion of give and take (reciprocity) is a fundamental part of the social contract and in a lot of ways it is what allows us to live peacefully and harmoniously with each other (for the most part). The cost/benefits analysis is basically quantifying the reciprocity. Is the degree of reciprocity in my friendship costing me or benefiting me? The perception of what constitutes a cost and what constitutes a reward/benefit though is highly personal and highly subjective.

For example, if you were raised in an abusive and dysfunctional family, you may have learnt that your needs are secondary to others and so you are naturally inclined to give more and so receive less (without complaint). In this example your tolerance level for not receiving would be much higher compared to someone who was raised by a family that respected reciprocity. Likewise, if you have a self-sacrificing schema, you may perceive giving as a reward and not a cost (a reward as you are ‘helping’ others). Similarly, a person with low self-esteem and low self-worth may see giving as a reward because “I am so pathetic and worthless that I have to give because that’s the only way anyone would want to spend time with me”.

If you are aware that you have a self-sacrificing schema or you are aware that you have low self-esteem and low self-worth, this does not mean that you are wholly responsible for friends taking advantage of you. You are responsible however for being mindful of who you choose to interact with. A toxic person who has a strong sense of entitlement will be highly attracted to someone who constantly gives and asks for little in return. Toxic and entitled people have no self-control and little to no empathy and so you are viewed as an easy target who gets what they deserve for “being so stupid”. Healthy people on the other hand will most likely be uncomfortable with a person who is always giving as it upset the reciprocity of the friendship/relationship. A healthy person can easily see that another person is naturally giving however they will not experience an overwhelming desire to take advantage of that knowledge or that person.

The nature of reciprocity and the cost/benefit analysis also varies widely depending on the nature of the friendship/relationship with the other person. The give & take/cost & benefit tolerance level can differ quite significantly when compared between an intimate relationship or a family relationship. Constantly loaning money to a friend without receiving the same courtesy may be seen as quite costly whereas constantly loaning money to a lover or family member may be viewed as normal and may be seen as rewarding (I have an obligation to support them). A parent for example may derive immense internal pleasure from financially supporting their children even when, from an outside perspective, the financial support is of great detriment to them.

Talking about parents, we must also recognise and be mindful of relationships which may never achieve a level of reciprocity. Parents with new born babies for example recognise that a power imbalance exists and that the baby is unable to reciprocate in many ways. Likewise, parents who look after children with severe mental or physical challenges may be always giving and so never receiving. It can be extremely hard for these parents and other care givers to find the ‘rewards’ which will outweigh the perceived costs (time, energy, financial and relationship strains). This is why burnout amongst care givers is often so high. They struggle to see the ‘rewards’ of their hard work and so they may require respite and significant support to help them regain their ‘motivation’ and sense of ‘purpose’.

As a friend, lover of family member you have an obligation to ask yourself “Am I being a good friend, lover or family member”? You have just as much an obligation to assess how you interact with others as you have the obligation to asses how others interact with you. This is not always easy though as we humans have an amazing ability to distort reality and engage in all other types of self-serving biases. We must remain honest with ourselves though. Are we adequately giving back what we receive? Are we unintentionally taking advantage of others because “it feels good”, “it’s just easier this way” or because “I give a lot to other people so I deserve to receive a lot from this one person”? As the old saying goes, it takes two to tango.

Knowing if you are a good friend or not will allow you to appraise your friendships honestly. If someone dislikes spending time with you, is it because they don’t see you as being a good friend? What I mean by this is, when you need them and they are there for you, are you there for them when they need you? Can they rely on you for reciprocal help and support or do you find that you are suddenly busy whenever they call? By reciprocal help and support I mean they have been there for you in the past so there is an unpaid debt for you to repay so to speak. It can be easy for all of us to think that other people are always to blame because we are great at engaging in self-serving bias to the point that we always perceive ourselves as saints with no imperfections at all.

I’m not saying that if a friendship is bad, it must be your fault. What I am saying is that all people involved in the friendship must assess themselves honestly just as much as they assess others honestly. It is also important to recognise that as we get older and our responsibilities as adults change and become ever more complex (marriage, children, etc), we may have to redefine our friendships to reflect what we are and are not capable of doing. It is unreasonable for you to demand a friend to bow down to your every whim when they have busy work/family life schedules and vice versa. This may require honest conversations between you and your friends to make sure that everyone understands where they stand.