Sunny Side Up: Friendship isn't about what you get out of a relationship

Aristotle, the Ancient Greek philosopher, viewed friendship as two souls interconnected – what we might describe today as “the family you get to choose”.

Conversely, the 16th century French philosopher Michel de Montaigne believed that friendship is a voluntary bond between two people. He also made a distinction between ordinary and true friendship.

What is it that makes for true friendship, a reader asked last week. On the surface, it seems like an easy question until you try to provide an answer.

Ordinary friendships, said Montaigne, are “nothing but acquaintance, and familiarities, either occasionally contracted ...”, whereas true friendship sees two people “worked into one piece” to the point where it’s impossible to recall the beginnings of that friendship.

I remember a piece of advice from an uncle of mine some years ago, who told me that “it only takes six people to carry your coffin”. He believed that true friendship was so rare that it was difficult to find anyone in our lives “whose self-interests aren’t served by us”.

An idealistic teenager at the time, I thought my uncle’s views were quite cynical, but it’s an intriguing question to ponder: Which of our friends would be there for us if we had nothing at all to give them?

Personally, I’ve been fortunate when it comes to the people I have in my life. As someone who tends to keep to myself and doesn’t socialise much, I’m immensely grateful for the friends I have who accept my peculiarities and preference for solitude.

Friendship, then, surely begins with acceptance. I’m not sure it should ever include any criteria, because it’s then reduced to a transactional acquaintance: “I’ll do this for you only if you do this for me.”

The friends that I treasure are the ones who I know will be there for me if ever I need their presence, advice, or some help. Some of these friends are people I might not speak to for years, and yet that friendship is never questioned, nor does it change with time. If I talk to someone after three years, the conversation feels as though we spoke only yesterday.

Should my friends need me in any way, I’m always happy to offer whatever help or support I can give. On top of that foundation, a friendship – which is always unique – is whatever people choose to make of it.

Often-times (and I’ve been guilty of this myself), we can fixate on what our friends should be according to our expectations and become affected if we perceive that they’re not there for us in the way we expect them to be.

This kind of thinking reveals a transactional acquaintance mentioned earlier. Friendships don’t come with a ledger book – no lasting friendship ever kept count of who gave what and when, and for what purpose.

To be a true friend means to be there, however we can, whenever we’re needed. We should also make the same allowances for our friends as we make for ourselves. They, like us, lead busy lives and time can fly by without keeping in touch. That doesn’t make anyone a bad friend, it just means we’re human.

That said, we might ask what’s to be done with friends who seem to rarely respond to our efforts to be present for them or be a part of their lives. From the view of a transactional acquaintance, the answer might be to “cut your losses – find new friends who’ll appreciate you”.

On the other hand, if we want to be thought of as a true friend, maybe we can reflect on why frustration arises within us when people don’t respond or engage with us as we feel they should.

Montaigne pointed to friendship as being something we give for another person’s sake rather than our own. In one essay he wrote, “I give myself to my friend more than I draw him to me. I not only like doing him good better than having him do me good, but also would rather have him do good to himself than to me; he does me most good when he does himself good.”

The French philosopher expresses a sentiment that’s probably applied more to romantic relationships than friendships, although it’s equally relevant. If it’s about how you feel and what you get, then it’s transactional; if your focus is on what you give to the other and how you support them, that’s friendship.

I try to have few expectations of my friends except that they be honest and loyal. Should they gift me cookies on occasion, that’s an added bonus. Otherwise, I aim to spend more time thinking about how I am for others rather than how they should be for me.

As for what makes a true friend, I think that’s something personal for each of us to decide, although I’m sure we’d all agree that the best people are those who make our lives worth living.

Sunny Side Up columnist Sandy Clarke has long held an interest in emotions, mental health, mindfulness and meditation. He believes the more we understand ourselves and each other, the better societies we can create. If you have any questions or comments, email The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.

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