Problems of Friendship

what does it mean to have friends?

Problems of Friendship
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Photo by David Torres on Unsplash

There is a worldwide trend toward isolation and loneliness, a trend seen in declining rates of stable long-term spousal partnerships, higher rates of single-person dwellings, and a general decrease of life-satisfaction [1][2]. Friendship is a vital part of any stable life — human beings are, first and foremost, social animals — and yet a deepening degree of isolation seems to pervade our cultures. What is this trend, and how is it that people in a highly-interconnected age, can be feeling more lonely than ever?

Part of the Socrates Cafe method is examining our own experiences — we bring our experiences into the limelight and explore their innate roots and the patterns which those roots derive. “Honesty would require that one subject one’s convictions to frequent scrutiny [Phillips, Socrates Cafe].”

This leads me to inquire of my own life, first, regarding the nature of friendship. What aspects of friendship are most important in my life, and do I feel fulfilled in them? And yet this is such a broad place from which to begin. Perhaps a better location from which to start this inquiry is a definition. What, exactly, do I mean by “friend”?

When I consider the people in my life, I find myself automatically categorizing them into various levels of intimacy. When I first consider this, I find myself doubting that friendship is inherently tied to how long I have known someone, or whether or not they are related to me by blood — rather, this scale of intimacy seems to have roots in how deeply our ideologies are linked, and how similarly our perceptions of the world align. For some of my relations, the gap is broad when it comes to such connections. For others, much closer. For all who are related to me, I find a genuine desire to increase my contact, but given the great physical distance between myself and most of these family members, that increase of contact is hard. And, even so, are any of them “friends?” Friendship itself seems to imply something more immediate to my mind — a specific sort of communion, as well as a relative frequency of contact. It is more than familiar feeling, more than affection or love — though it likely includes such things. Some, certainly, are friends — but why?

My definition, then, is not much less broad than when I first began it. Friendship is a connection which is not necessarily defined by relation or distance, but is likely to include a relative frequency and continuum of contact; it likely includes affection or love, but does not necessarily need to — it is a connection somewhat separate from these emotions, even though they may coexist alongside it.

To tighten my definition, I will take a look at some of the limiting factors: what brings out a friend from the realm of mere acquaintances? Considering this, there are many aspects, but the primary ones again return to a couple of the aforementioned knowns: a similarity of worldview and a certain frequency of physical connection. The deeper these two intertwine, the deeper the friendship. And a friendship is deepened by length of time, though merely knowing someone for a long time does not denote friendship. Still, a friendship which has an anchor in my deep past may remain, in all emotional senses, “active” even if I and the other person rarely see one another.

My partner uses a definition for friendship which I like, and it’s one that I will adopt here alongside these other ruminations. For her, part of friendship is about feeling that someone is easy to spend time with; that the person is someone who you can feel comfortable with, and whom you do not need to maintain barriers with (therefore: someone you can implicitly trust to believe and behave in certain ways which align with your own). Of course, sometimes, even for very close friends, if enough time is spent apart to accumulate differing life experience, when you see that friend again it can feel a little awkward at first — there are almost always moments of “getting comfortable” to be had with someone, unless (perhaps) daily contact can be maintained. So I might amend this definition by saying that, though various degrees of friction are natural with friends, with close friends there will always be the implicit understanding that the friction will vanish once enough time has been spent together to “sync” up.

As I look at these various qualities of friendship, it becomes clear that my pool shortens. I have a wide number of people whom I know and like, and might call friends — but how many of those do I implicitly trust and feel at home with? Surely their number is not as great as my Facebook “friends” list.

Diving deeper, some other important elements of friendship (for me) are: the ability to feel safe when disagreeing on an issue — which carries with it an implicit notion that ideas which are disagreed upon will be carefully reconsidered by myself and my friend — that we value our friendship more than our ideologies, which therefore may allow either mine or my friend’s ideology to alter depending on the needs of the friendship and the trust we place in our communicative practice.

Even deeper, for the truest of friends, I must feel sure that — at least in some capacities — they will place my needs ahead of their own, should circumstances require it. Likewise, I must feel that I would be willing to sacrifice for them, even if some degree of danger were inferred, or if some level of disruption of my comfort were incurred.

In talking to people I know and in researching this matter, I find that life circumstance matters to some degree as well. It is at least easier to be close friends with people who share your rough position in life — socially, economically, philosophically, intellectually, and professionally. Attached to all of this is some sense of forward “momentum” in the life of the people most likely to be closest friends: it’s harder (though not impossible) to maintain close ties to someone who is not “moving” within their life, who is not seeking new horizons and expanding their abilities. If I am seeking to always better myself in some way, then I prefer to be around people who are also seeking self-betterment (though, of course, the specific form of that betterment does not need to be identical).

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Clearly, the more defined I make my concept of friendship, the fewer potential friends I have — as opposed to acquaintances — and even among those who I view as friends, those who are “close” who I share a nearly instant and effortless recognition with — who I can spend time with effortlessly at the drop of a hat — become rarer still.

But am I destined to become an isolated hermit, barely able to even call myself a friend (after all, I do not always feel very close to myself)? Surely, I have shown that I have a capacity for building connections — even those people who are acquaintances now seem to carry the potential for greater connection, perhaps even friendship? So what is it that might make this occur?

One possible route to a stronger definition occurs to me as a write:

Friendship — especially close friendships — come from shared time. One of my friends I have known since, literally, he was in his mother’s womb. I’ve got the pictures to prove it. We spend very little time together and have many bridges to cross before we can commune well — and yet there is an effortless quality to our meetings. There is, I should rather say, an instant recognition which seems to pass between us, a connection born from the long history between us, and all the childhood days spent close together — as well, perhaps, even the lifelong friendship that out mothers shared long before we, their children, existed.

But is time, alone, the builder?

To this, my answer must again be “no.” One of the dearest and closest people in my life has only been a part of my life for about a third of it — and an intimate part for even less than that. And yet I feel a connection to her which is ultimately as strong as one I feel to my immediate family. What can account for this?

Time did play a part, clearly — and our relationship deepens as time passes and as we continue to share experiences. But two other factors play equally important roles. First is the combined nature of our affection: we both wanted to be closer; we both recognized in the other characteristics that drew us in, and we both applied a great deal of energy at making the time to get to know one another. Added to this are those aforementioned traits. We share worldviews in a fundamental way — even though specifics may alter, certain core aspects of our personality (how we view the importance of certain types of fiction, for instance) are more similar than with anyone else I have ever met. As our lives diverge in terms of temporality and experience we need to constantly reassess our current ability to communicate and see “eye to eye” but we can ultimate rely on certain fundamentals remaining the same. We can also, as mentioned earlier, trust the other person to try and see things our way, as well as trust that ours or their beliefs might actually be altered simply through our communication.

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Ultimately, then, how may friends do I have? Few — very few. And yet I also have the tools for deepening those friendships that I already have, as well as turning many of my acquaintanceships into friendships if I (and they) so choose. Given the emotional and life-circumstance needs which I’ve come to realize are part of what I consider close friendship, I have to admit that such deep friendships will be harder to build than I might like… and yet I also have the experience to know that such friendships are possible. First and foremost, all it takes is time. Making the time for someone, actively connecting with them and ensuring a frequent and reliable repetition of contact and communication is vital. This alone might tell me whether or not someone is destined to become a friend or a close friend — if they are willing to actively pursue this sort of time commitment with me, they’re probably drawn toward me in the same way I am to them. This would imply some instinctual understanding that they harbor certain characteristics which sync up with mine. If we build upon that instinct and allow it to become something more, well… I guess we’re friends.

When I look at my life, I see in myself a need for more and deeper friendships. I see a need for a community of friends. While people my age often have a lot of social connections, it seems that it’s often not until one reaches an older age that one finds a deeper satisfaction with the friends in their life [4]. I, for one, am not willing to let that process remain unexamined. I intent to continue taking an active role in my friendships — prioritizing the relationship building side of my life. It’s not enough to be merely connected to people, I want to share communion with them — I want to be part of a community, a tribe.

What about you? Where do friendships stand in your life? Where does your community reside?

Odin Halvorson is a multi-genre writer. His work has appeared in Book XI: a journal of literary philosophy, Duende literary magazine, The Stonecoast Review, and two Anthology collections from Enso Publishing. He has also produced three chapbooks of poetry, including a collection of ELH 5–7–5 haiku. He has served as editor for Duende, Stonecoast Review, and currently services as the senior editor for Socrates Cafe, a journal for the non-profit of the same name.

Hi there! I’m Odin Halvorson, a librarian, independent scholar, film fanatic, fiction author, and tech enthusiast. If you like my work and want to support me, please consider becoming a paid subscriber for as little as $2.50 a month!


  • [1,4]:Nicolaisen, M., & Thorsen, K. (2016). What Are Friends for? Friendships and Loneliness Over the Lifespan — From 18 to 79 Years. The International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 84(2), 126–158. doi:10.1177/0091415016655166
  • [2]:Schumaker, J. F., Shea, J. D., Monfries, M. M., & Groth-Marnat, G. (1993). Loneliness and Life Satisfaction in Japan and Australia. The Journal of Psychology, 127(1), 65–71. doi:10.1080/00223980.1993.9915543
  • [3]:Christopher Phillips, Socrates Cafe: A Fresh Taste of Philosophy

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