05 July 2007

The Paradox of False GoodWill: Unfriendly Friends

In our culture, people often regard others as friends not on the basis of shared values, but on the basis of some shared hobby or mutual interest - such as a book club, a sports league, or membership in the same church, synagogue, etc.

It is wiser to regard people as friends only when they have shown themselves capable of basic reciprocity. In other words, you are an acquaintance to someone with whom you bowl on Sundays; you are a friend to someone when you are there for them in their time of need. They are an acquaintance to you when they pick you up reliably as a member of the league carpool; they are a friend to you when they are there for you in your time of need ... and don't punish you for it afterwards. Friendship, necessarily, flows in both directions; reciprocity is one of the most fundamental components of human decency.

Abusers frequently use a maneuver Gavin de Becker calls 'forced teaming' - language that implies you're in something together, you're on the same team, you see things the same way, etc. What they generally have in mind, however, is a predator-prey relationship, with you as the main course.

The word 'friend' can be misused in this context quite easily. Keep a close and watchful eye on people who trot it out in the earliest stages of an acquaintanceship. Often, such people will quite soon thereafter experience a crisis - emotional or financial - that, on close examination, appears to be at least partly self-induced. Or, they may announce a suspiciously well-timed major illness. If this happens, you are wise to be cautious about the type and extent of support you provide. More often than not, you will observe that these people will have a strange and fascinating reaction to your own problems, and an even stranger and more fascinating reaction when you are unable to help them - in the way they have ordained that you should help - with theirs.

This reaction is hostility. Blunt, direct, unmistakable.

If, for example, you find yourself short of cash while in their company, these are the people who [having borrowed money from you less than two weeks previously because they 'left their wallet at home' when you met them for lunch] will lecture you about fiscal responsibility [while conveniently forgetting that they have still not repaid that $20].

Or if, to take another example, you find yourself on the receiving end of sudden unexpected verbal abuse from a mutual acquaintance or co-worker, these are the people who will leap into the breach without knowing what the issues are, and devotedly and energetically do everything in their power to assist the person abusing you.

Certain confirmation will be had if you confront these 'friends' regarding their behavior towards you, or if you simply express an inability to help them when they call on you for assistance. You will not be listened to; you will be completely unable to make yourself heard. There will be no reflection, self-awareness, or apology. There will be righteous indignation, usually in the form of a highly critical outburst, and you will be blamed for causing 'a problem'.

Yes, sometimes a genuine friend - someone you've helped in a major crisis - ends up with more to deal with just when you need a helping hand - and vice versa. But then, both parties are usually aware of this, see the irony, regret the circumstances, and try to find something mutually supportive to do for one another. A genuine friend won't actively compound your problems, and they won't blame you for asking for their help.

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