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We’re treating friendships like transactions, and it’s ruining relationships

Friendship bracelets.
EPA/Sanjeev Gupta
“Some people go to priests; others to poetry I to my friends.”
  • Ephrat Livni
By Ephrat Livni

Senior reporter, law & politics, DC.

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

How are your friendship metrics—got lots of pals? Would you rate them five stars or less? Are they helping you live your best life?

We can quantify everything now—from our steps on Fitbit to our literary consumption on Goodreads. As a result, we feel we must make everything and everyone count for something. That’s a phenomenon which is both distressing and depressing as it applies to friendship.

Scan the internet and you’ll see no end of posts advising you to toss toxic friends and surround yourself with people who make you feel good instead. The current cultural discourse suggests that friends are people who we use to improve ourselves, and get rid of when the going gets tough or if we’re not having enough fun. One BuzzFeed article goes so far as to suggest forgetting a birthday is a dump-worthy offense, while a Cosmopolitan article recommends tossing friends who binge-drink on a Saturday night. 

The way we talk about friendship paints an ugly picture of the new notion of relating—one that seeks maximum return on minimal investment, and outlines an exit strategy anytime a friend doesn’t fulfill our fantasies. These posts reveal more about the toxicity of our society than the negative people they’re describing. It’s friendship as a capitalistic exchange, instead of relationships involving people who care about each other, hanging out, and helping each other through life’s ups and downs.

It’s enough to make you want to cry into a beer with a confidante—you know, a close friend of the kind that’s going out of style.

Transacting relationships

Take, for example, a recent New York Times article about “the power of positive people” (paywall), which asks, “Are your friendships giving you a boost or bringing you down?” In it, Tara Parker-Pope, just back from a wellness cruise filled with upbeat personalities, advises readers to be mindful of their relationships for the sake of a long life. “Buoyed by the experience, I returned home with a renewed commitment not only to exercise and healthful living, but to simply step up my social life and spend more time hanging out with happy people,” she writes.

Pity her pals. Let’s hope none of them are struggling, sad, or in need of a friend, because it seems she’ll be preoccupied trying to find more positive people. “While many of us focus primarily on diet and exercise to achieve better health, science suggests that our well-being also is influenced by the company we keep,” she writes. The article advises choosing friends wisely for how they improve heath and directs readers to a quiz about “optimizing” friendships.

The Blue Zones quiz—a reference to blue zones of the world where people seem to live longer—measures your health and longevity and that of three close associates with questions about exercise, weight, diet, smoking, drinking, and mood, providing a numerical score (of course!) for you and your buddies. “Research shows that friends can have a long-term impact on our health. In fact, if your best friends are obese, you’re about twice as likely to be overweight,” the site explains. Under the logic of the quiz, if your friends have a streak of bad days, smoke cigarettes, loathe jogging, or have a weakness for pastries, they’re actually dragging you down.

You can find advice on toxic friendships pretty much everywhere else on the internet, too. HuffPo warns that bad pals are smart, stubborn, fussy, harsh, and pessimistic, to name just a few of their negative traits. Presumably the takeaway is that a healthy friend is a stupid pushover with no standards who sees the glass (with a non-alcoholic beverage) as half-full, always, and won’t acknowledge any feeling but optimism.

Business Insider says toxic people do inappropriate things, like show up at your house uninvited and unannounced. They’re needy, make you feel responsible for them, and copy you. Instead, seek friends who find you uninspiring, never inconvenience you, follow strict social rules even in an emergency, and have no sense of protectiveness.

What friends are for

Most notably, the focus of all these posts is on you, not your friends. This contradicts the basic premise of friendship, and is therefore problematic. These writers don’t ask what you might do for your friends, or to consider why they are suffering and struggling. Instead, they urge you to consider what people can do for you, explaining why you should abandon those who don’t provide.

But real friendship is a kind of love, writes philosopher Bennet Helm. As such, it must “involve a concern for your friend for his sake and not for your own,” Helm explains.

There is a solid argument for breaking up with friends who repeatedly betray your trust and hurt your feelings, as Quartz’s Olivia Goldhill notes. But it’s worth recalling that true friendship, unlike an accumulation of abstract quantifiable ties online, is full of ups and downs. As advice columnist Heather Havrilesky wrote to a reader asking whether to dump a toxic friend, “if you want to know interesting, intense people — and I know I do — you’re going to discover that a LOT of them are also careless and confused and ruled by shame.” Everyone, Havrilesky explains, is a difficult person once you get to know them.

Friendship isn’t easy and it was never meant to be, which is why people didn’t used to collect friends or quantify them as we do now. The essayist William Deresiewicz notes in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “The idea of friendship in ancient times could not have been more different. Achilles and Patroclus, David and Jonathan, Virgil’s Nisus and Euryalus: Far from being ordinary and universal, friendship, for the ancients, was rare, precious, and hard-won.”

A true friend didn’t just flatter and please. Quite the contrary, their value lay in the fact that they sometimes corrected or fought with their pals, to whom they’d give their all.

Deresiewicz notes that Shakespeare respected these ancient friendships. That’s why Hamlet’s most trusted friend Horatio, who was willing to drink poison intended for the prince, says he is “more an antique Roman than a Dane.” Their connection ran deep. A real companion, unlike the fickle buffoons Rosencrantz and Gildenstern, Horatio criticized Hamlet, kept his secrets, tolerated his madness, and didn’t begrudge his antics or neediness. Horatio didn’t abandon Hamlet when he was down.

When you’re sour is when your friends really count, after all, and their help is most needed. Good friends accept each other’s weaknesses, cheerfully or not. They deal with our flaws, but also occasionally criticize us when that’s what we need to hear to snap out of a rut or destructive slump. They don’t just make us feel good—sometimes they push us around a bit by crossing boundaries.

Friends are precisely those people who show up unannounced when you’re down and convince you to go out, or call at all hours and initiate impromptu philosophical talks on dark matters. They have drinks and gossip to blow off steam, or eat greasy fries at a diner during the wee hours, laughing and analyzing all that’s gone wrong. And they definitely have patience for your moody blues when you’re going through a rough patch instead of asking, “Don’t you have a therapist for that?”

The new notion of friendship, by contrast, encourages us to develop very tentative relationships, constantly assessing one another’s value. Every friend is a potential stock to be dumped when it tanks. Perhaps that’s why Deresiewicz calls ours a time of “faux friendships.”

A friendship premised on the need to be surrounded by positive, exercise-loving people means that both parties have little tolerance for humanness. This friendship has a goal, and it’s the pursuit of personal betterment—as if life was a wellness event for self-improving types who shirk soda, alcohol, drugs, junk food, unpleasant thoughts, and discussions of life’s many difficulties. To be friends, you have to walk on eggshells and aim for high ratings, instead of getting to occasionally relax in a safe space, knowing there’s someone you can rely on in rough times.

Would you buy this product?

Our capitalistic thinking about friendship has gone so far that some people are starting to think of themselves as products. In GQ, writer Clay Skipper describes the wake-up call he received after receiving what he felt was a low score as a passenger on the Uber ride-sharing app. Determined to improve, he sent 40 friends, family members and exes anonymous surveys, asking them to rate his relationship skills.

Skipper created 11 categories to be rated on a scale of one to 10—including kindness, personal style, and “How Likely Are You to Recommend This Product (Me) to a Friend?” He also added a write-in option, asking “What’s one thing about me that drives you nuts?” Skipper is sad to report a composite score of 7.88, which is like a C+ in terms of school grades. He is forced to conclude that in a future when we’ll all be rated this way, he won’t be an appealing product.

While Skipper’s vulnerability is laudable, the premise of his test is horrifying. Please do not follow his lead and send one of these surveys to your friends. You are not a product or place of business subject to a Yelp! review. You are a human, though that fact may be hard to recall in this machine age.

The beauty of being human is that you are not easy to review, like a book or movie, and you’re not for sale anyway. Your qualities aren’t singular or fixed but ever-transitioning. You are a work in progress, light and dark, going through a process called life, which is happy and sad, good and bad, complex and fraught, not to be reduced to a ratings game or a one to 10 scale.

Friends appreciate you for reasons they can’t always articulate, and love you though you may cost them time and money and wear them out on occasion.”Essential and fundamental to friendship is that it is a natural, spontaneous, freely given and entered into relationship promised as much on subliminal cues that prompt liking as on anything that the parties could specify as a reason for engaging in it,” writes philosopher AC Grayling in the 2013 book Friendship.

You may have shared interests, attitudes, views, taste, style, appearance, behavior, sense of humor, but much of the attraction is unconscious, Grayling posits. He cites 16th-century French philosopher Michel de Montaigne’s essay “On Friendship“: “If a man urge me to tell wherefore I loved him, I feel it cannot be expressed but by answering: Because it was he, because it was myself.”

A pal who quantifies and weighs your relationship, calculates your contribution to their longevity and health, and judges you harshly when you’re suffering isn’t really a friend, then. That’s just a contact and—if we must put everything in transactional terms—one that’s not worth their salt.

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