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Assessing friendships. (Stresslines).

Some professionals create for themselves a cadre of relationships that serve and sustain them throughout their lives: spouses, lovers, intimate others, family members, dear friends, colleagues who care and are cared for in return.

Others -- despite the best intentions -- experience their relationships as a mine field requiring guarded movement lest a surprise explosion trigger, the loss of needed body parts. Most of us have had the experience of a onetime friendship turning sour. When a relationship curdles, healthy folk will feel the pain, conduct the postmortem, take ownership where indicated, and invariably scratch their heads and wonder what went wrong.

Many factors intersect in the development of meaningful relationships: desire, attraction, opportunity, availability, common interests, personal grace, freedom from the various madnesses, the good-sense to live one's life well. On the other hand, selfishness, defensiveness, emotional problems and immaturities will invariably produce the seeds of discontent that may grow into unresolvable breaches. Usually, we just wonder why the other person went goofy on us.

The ancient Greeks took a more philosophical approach to the nitty gritty of human intercourse. They were less concerned with the vagaries of human interaction: the momentary ups and downs, the on-again/off-again, the tantrums, the peak experiences, the feel-good/feel-bad stuff of contemporary advice columnists. The Greeks grooved on more timeless aspects of the human dilemma and the moral lessons that flowed therefrom. And, they found some, including the notion that the kinds of friendship define the limits of the psychologically healthy and the ethically possible.

Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, considered friendship itself as one of the virtues or at least a vehicle to achieve virtue. He points out that friendships are motivated by the various objectives that move individuals to love: the useful, the pleasant, and the good. Thus, the three kinds of friendship: the utilitarian, the pleasurable, and true friendship based on virtue.

Utilitarian Friendships

Individuals who befriend each other on the basis of mutual usefulness may find apparent meaning in the utility of the relationship, namely that it seeks to achieve some temporary benefit.

Many friendships between professionals are stirred in the crucible of mutually advantageous endeavors. Such friendships, no matter how charged with initial excitement and enthusiasm, are mostly opportunities for bilateral back-scratching.

Caring for the other person is linked to what they might secure for us rather than for the appreciation of the personal qualities they possess. Since the nature of what is useful is constantly changing, when the useful purpose ends, so does the friendship. An exchange of goodies by ships passing in the night. Squeeze them when you have them, but be prepared to cover your backside if and when bad news breaks out.

Pleasurable Friendships

Aristotle cited the relationships between guests and hosts or between amorous lovers as the most evident gratification-based relationships.

Friendships motivated by pleasure are "good-times relationships." They arouse the hope of titillations in the offing. In fact, many contemporary relationships are based primarily on shared pleasures: bridge clubs, barbecues, golf outings, Superbowl parties, and a whole host of social get-togethers that occur under the rubric of having fun.

Eating, drinking, gaming, playing, making small talk over fine wines and choice cuts, pleasing and being pleased -- the friendships that occur in these circumstances are most frequently transient because the object of the friendship is itself temporary. Enjoy them while you have them, namely until the music stops. But, don't expect them to contribute much toward personal growth.

Virtuous Friendships

Aristotle notes that perfect friendship occurs between people who are both good and alike in virtue.

Friendships based on the mutual appreciation of qualities of character most easily lead to the reciprocal good will in which the sense of loving and being loved can both flourish and nurture our paths through life.

We know that true friends wish well for us without hint of pettiness, jealousy or reservation. We know that we can confide our innermost thoughts and confusions to them Without fear of judgment. We know that they accept us for who we are. We know we can count on them in times of difficulty -- and, they on us, a reality that further hones moral character. Such friendships pack a lot of punch in the feel-good and usefulness departments, as well.

Most of us will feel fortunate if we find even a few true friends throughout our lifetimes.

Aristotle cites several good reasons for the lack of frequency: (1) people of high moral character are rare; (2) such friendships require time and familiarity; (3) people are unlikely to really know each other until "they have eaten salt together" (that is, weathered some bad times honorably); and (4) unwavering trust develops slowly.

Once established, however, the friendship tends to endure: Distance may interrupt the activity of the friendship, but the experience of the friendship remains embedded in thought and feeling and serves as a guide to future action.

It behooves us to be thoughtful about the purposes of our various friendships and careful in the choosing of friends. When the possibility of a true friendship occurs, it should be nurtured and cherished. As Aristotle concluded, "For without friends no one would choose to live ..."

Dr. Bernard G. Suran, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and diplomat and fellow of the Academy of Clinical Psychology and the American Board of Professional Psychology. This column is published under the sponsorship of the Quality of Life / Stress Management Committee. The committee's website is at The Quality of Life / Stress Management Committee, in cooperation with the Florida State University College of Law, also has an interactive bulletin board on the web, called "Happy Lawyer is Not an Oxymoron: Health and Satisfaction in the Profession." The Happy Lawyer board is located at
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Author:Suran, Dr. Bernard G.
Publication:Florida Bar News
Date:Nov 1, 2001
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