What rules do good friends follow? (thoughts wanted)

I’ve been thinking about friendships and why some last and others fade away. It seems there is an unwritten set of rules people who stay friends are able to follow, even if they don’t even sit down and discuss them.

I’ve certainly never had a friendship where there was an official meeting, where a  friendship charter was drawn up detailing what everyone expected of each other, or planting seeds for how to deal with difficult situations that might arise. Have you ever been a friendship where a compact for how the friendship should work was discussed?

It seems strange to me how sometimes the most important relationships in our lives are assumed to not require the same investment of consideration for how they function (or fail) as the relationships we have at work.

I’m looking for your thoughts on what the implicit, or explicit, agreements friendships that last have. And any stories you might be willing to share about how you arrived at those ‘rules.’ Or how the lack of them impacted you.

Looking forward to your thoughts.

45 Responses to “What rules do good friends follow? (thoughts wanted)”

  1. Getzel Rubashkin

    A true friend sees you as an end as opposed to a means. Means are only maintained for as long as the ends necessitate.

    1. Scott

      I like that.

      This seems like something you have to figure out for yourself about your friend: am I a means to them, or an end? It’s not the kind of thing you can just ask. Instead we try to interpret from their behavior which we are to them.

      1. Getzel Rubashkin

        Yea, I can’t really think of rules. Behavior flows from attitude and we will interpret behavior to match a perceived attitude. What you’d interpret as rude and judgmental from a stranger you see as concern from a friend – someone you have seen is values you objectively.

        It’s not something you can request clarification on, but it is something you can and should ask yourself about the friendship that *you* offer.

      2. Joanne

        I’ve asked myself the same questions. I’m in my early 50’s. I’ve had many friendships in my life, the majority of whom have come and gone. Aside from my husband I have a couple of long-term friends and a few acquaintances.
        I actually like my own company, a lot. I believe my long-term friends are of the same mind. I love them and they love me. We occasionally get together to catch up. But that’s all we ask of each other and it works well for all.
        I’m a bit of a loner, but I do like to socialize. We do a lot of that with family. I think friends are people who have come into your life because you wanted them there, you know they are always there and you can rely on them for support. And, of course the feeling is mutual and that is understood between you and it goes without saying.

  2. Odai

    In my experience, my closest friend and I both went through a difficult experience together. Mutual suffering definitely cemented that relationship, but I don’t know if this is true for everyone.

    1. Scott

      Odai: I’ve had similar experiences. What is it you think about surviving a difficult experience helps the friendship? Is it the trust it gives you that your relationship can survive challenges?

      This suggests it’s not rules that matter, but facing challenges and both behaving in a way the other person appreciates through, or after, that experience.

      1. Odai

        It’s comforting to know that somebody else is in your situation, that they’ve got your back, and it builds a sort-of trust that isn’t built any other way. Maybe it’s that sense of trust that keeps people together, even afterwards?

        I can imagine how trust-building through mutual suffering would have helped to cement ancient tribes of people.

  3. Erick G. Reid

    I agree with posts thus far, and want to add that lasting friendships are those that withhold judgement and/or try to walk in the friend’s shoes.

    1. Odai

      Would you agree that there are some people that just seem incapable of withholding judgement? I’m wondering if those people lack any strong friendships in their life (which would be very sad).

      1. Erick G. Reid

        According to a friend, such incapable folks live in the US Midwest. :) “Midwesterners are judgemental” I love the irony of this assertion.

        Yes, I do think there are individuals at the more intolerant end of the spectrum, and you bring up an interesting factor: that an inability to put judgement on a shelf may well reflect a lack of strong friendships (which itself may be in part a function of upbringing) in their lives; an attitude which, in that feedback loop way that many things go, may serve to limit the strength of their friendships. Nature and nurture.

  4. Heather Bussing

    When I had babies, I made a pact with my friends that we would stay friends:
    1) even though our kids would get bumps and bruises on each other’s watch;
    2) even though our kids would hurt their kids’ bodies and feelings, and break their toys;
    3) diapers, clothes and blankies could be borrowed indefinitely; and
    4) we would call each other any time we wanted to smoke cigarettes, drink scotch, get a divorce, or run away.
    I have an unspoken grown-up version of this with my friends now. It’s us instead of our kids, bruised feelings instead of bodies, and books instead of diapers.

  5. Drew

    This doesn’t apply to me, but I believe a large part of marriage/couples counseling is making these rules explicit: What each partner expects from the other, what behaviors are acceptable and what ones aren’t, etc.

    So sometimes people *do* put explicit effort into their most important relationships.

    1. Ciprian Rusen

      I agree. I think friends and loves ones are those who put explicit effort into their most important relationships.

      I have had quite a few friends who did not put any effort into their friendships. Therefore, the moment I stopped making an effort to connect, travel, talk with those people, everything ended there.

      We do appreciate each other, if we would see each other, we would talk as if nothing happened but, because that explicit effort is not done by either of us, the friendship died.

      1. cory

        I completely agree a friendship has to have effort put in from both sides mutually. I’ve had many on sided friends where I would contact them to hangout and we would but if I didn’t they would rarely or never contact me. Those are obviously not very good friends because there has to be a mutual care for the other person and how things are going for them.

  6. Guillermo Mendoza

    All my lasting friendships are based on the fact that we pass the common days annoying eachother. This seems to help us bonding.

    Then, when times get hard, we help eachother. We are sincere, we talk about stuff without witholding anything and thus get real help.

    That’s all.

  7. Mike Hill

    I think your circle of friends is based on relevancy.

    My closest friends share similar way points in life, we can relate about life, and can relate and laugh about it. We hang out often, communicate daily via phone, email, or text.

    Invites to life events are a given.

    Perimeter friends (aka Facebook friends), may have formerly shared some relevance, but it has since faded. We see each others stuff, and give a like or a comment here and there.

    The select few may get the invite, but it’s 50/50.

    Outer rung friends are the ones you see in extended social gatherings, and enjoy catching up on where life has taken them since the last time you all saw each other.

  8. Ciprian Rusen

    Trying to define friendship: “Friends are those people who make the effort to connect with each other on a regular basis because they care and they enjoy the connection. Not because they have something material to gain from that connection.”

  9. liz

    On one hand of course friendships have rules, you gotta be kind and funny and smart and interesting, you gotta like movies and music and ping pong and fun stuff like that! but my best best friends just feel right no matter what lifestyle differences and occupations we have. I’ve been best friends with a junkie 5 years younger than me, an 86 year old man, a guy who hasn’t worked in ten years and lives with his parents, really lovely people who I happen to click with. That’s why I like the movie Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus. She looks normal but feels best with her “strange” neighbor. As far as work relationships, it’s all long distance for me and it’s all about business and making a good product with hardly any chit chat or knowledge of our personal lives really. I think it’s sad sometimes, I’d rather walk down the street to a cool workplace and have a dozen excellent people to work with who make me laugh and grow, who also enjoy doing what I do design-wise, but alas tis not so…

    1. Scott

      It is interesting to me how whatever the ‘rules’ are, people who come from all sorts of different backgrounds can match up with people who have similar ideas and become friends.

      But it seems many people end up with friends who are much like they are, in terms of age, career, and politics. I wonder if that’s because they all inherit the same ‘rules’ because of those life choices? Or if you simply tend to become friends with people you meet on a regular basis? (If you don’t meet diverse kinds of people, you can never become friends with them). Curious.

      1. liz

        I’m not sure I understand how you inherit rules, don’t you always make choices?
        Similarly to Stuart Buck below, yes, you happen to do things with all sorts of people, but don’t you seek out those who mean the most to you and call them your friends and the others are more like acquaintances?

        1. Scott

          Hi liz: by ‘inherit’ I meant we make choices without thinking hard about what the rules are. Our friends end up as our friends: I don’t know anyone who at some specific time made a list of rules and then went about trying to make friends to fit them.

      2. Eric Nehrlich

        My friend suggested the theory of “reality coefficients”, wherein we have values as to what matters in the world, and get along better with those that share those values. For instance, a devout Christian and an atheist have very different values as to the importance of religion and as to how the world works, and it will be difficult for them to have meaningful conversations (and therefore a friendship). Not impossible, but difficult. Similarly for a diehard sports fan and somebody who doesn’t follow football.

        We tend to be friends with those who share our values about the world – this tends to clump us together with those who are much like us, as you note, because those with similar backgrounds have similar values. I don’t think it is so much about the “rules” of friendship, per se, though.

        For me, friendship isn’t really about rules – I knew somebody who insisted she couldn’t be friends with somebody that she didn’t see every two weeks and this made absolutely no sense to me. I sometimes go for months or even a couple years without seeing close friends, and I don’t think that affects our friendship. So for me, it’s all about people with whom I connect and with whom I have more meaningful conversations.

        There’s an element of shared experience as well, as others have mentioned, but that’s only part of it. I can have a stronger connection with a friend that I see once a year than a coworker that I see for hours each day. Sometimes coworkers turn into friends, but it’s pretty rare for me – at each of my jobs, there’s generally only one or two people I stay in touch with after I leave.

        In summary, I don’t understand the rules of friendship. But I’m thankful for the friends I have :)

      3. liz

        Oh yeah I didn’t get that wording but I see now. I was wondering do you know within a minute or two of meeting someone new if you’ll like them? May seem a fast judgement as written like that, but really, don’t you get a feeling right away and judge super-consciously or not if someone’s motivations are in line with yours?
        To Eric Nehrlich I gotta say I disagree. I’m an atheist and my husband is Catholic, or as Catholic as you can be and still marry an atheist. But I know what you’re saying, some people are adamant about being the same in some ways. It’s not a rule with me, but right now I can’t think of any friends of mine who are Republican.

  10. Stuart Buck

    I think that the vast majority of friends at any given time are people that you hang around only because of your life circumstances — you happen to go to school with them, or church, or work, etc. Only about 5-10% of friends (if that much) will actively stay in touch with you for non-self-interested reasons if you move to a different place or change jobs, etc.

    1. Carrie

      I highly agree with what you said here. For all my life, I’ve moved every three years. What you suggested and what I’ve experienced are in-line.
      Because of being naturally (very) shy, friendships are often born by chance. Thus, when I move, those friends who I developed friendships with only because of “life circumstance” leave almost as quickly as they came. Only a few stay for longer than a week or two, and about half of that small handful fade away soon after. Even with facebook, we hardly ever talk. On average, the amount of friends I’ve stayed friends with in every place was only one or less.
      Just one.
      Therefore, I agree with what you said in that only 5-10% of friends stay actively in touch with you for “non-self-interested” reasons, and, like you said, maybe even less than that.
      To answer the question (“What rules do good friends follow?”), I would have to say good friends care enough about the relationship to go *out of their way* to maintain it. However, not just that, but also they have to care deep down. I’ve moved away from friends who I *knew* very well cared about the relationship, but when they lost the convenience of just being able to talk to me in real life, they also lost part of their willingness to go out of their way to maintain it. They didn’t care enough deep down, and when it was put to the test they just faded away. They must love and cherish the things they experienced with you.
      Also, real friends have to understand and accept you. When I say they have to accept you, I mean they have to accept your flaws. They have to have a certain level of understanding you or else fights will develop that could have the potential of breaking up the relationship. Another thing is real friends can’t have too much pride for themselves, and have to be humble at times. (Pride can destroy many things and is a terrible thing… bit off topic :P)

  11. jonathon

    I had heard people talk of friendships they have, some glibly say, I can count all my close friends on one hand, others say they have no friends, some say they have loads.
    I say with a certain amount of bitterness I admit, you’ll find out who your earthly friends are, how many clubs really want you as a member , how many xmas do’s your invited to, how many dear friends golf days you are allowed to attend, you find all of this out when you unfortunatly go manic.
    As soon as you fall down through the mania to depression and suicide, they all will come to your wake.
    They did to my brothers anyway.

  12. Derek

    A good friend will never guilt you for their own gain.
    A good friend will not use you solely for entertainment, or to embarrass you infront of a group – to make themselves look good in front of others.
    A good friend does not compete with you financially, romantically, or emotionally.
    A good friend is someone who will recognize when you need help before you realize it – especially with addiction or depression.
    A good friend has empathy for you and respects you as much as you do for them.
    A good friend does not pressure you into something you would feel extremely uncomfortable doing.
    A good friend focuses primarily on the positive things in life.
    A good friend tries to maintain a healthy balance between scarcity and abundance in life.
    A good friend knows when they’re truly a good friend, and thus years can go by without interaction and friendship maintained.

    There are people who pretend to be ‘good friends’ in your life … and yet they will do the opposite of every item on this list – and you may blindly accept them because you care about everyone in your life.

    You BECOME who you spend the most time with.
    Choose wisely!

    1. Holly

      The “rules” for friendship are fluid, depending on the situation and the people.

      At its heart, I believe that the real rule that presides over friendship is the golden rule: Do for them what you’d like them to do for you were the circumstances reversed. It’s a situation where both people have decided to put each other’s well-being as a priority. You know who they are, you learn or know what lines shouldn’t be crossed, or how to best be what they need from another, and they do the same.

      A good ruler for relationships for me is if I’ve had a massive disagreement with them that would be grounds for validly ending the relationship but reconciliation resulted instead, provided we learned from it and adjusted things accordingly, they’re worth sticking by and vice versa.

      Real friends are people who’ll stick together despite things going wrong.

  13. Malcolm McKinnon

    Might friendship stem from shared experience because it helps you successfully anticipate a positive reaction from others and they from you?

    Biophysiologically, the MPFC fires for friends more than strangers (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/10/101012173218.htm) – and the region is known to process personally related information. Might friendship be experiences interpreted as particularly personally related?

  14. Joe McCarthy

    I’d start with the reverse golden rule: Do unto others as they would have you do unto them, which I first encountered in the book, How Full is Your Bucket?, and offers other insights into friendship … and relationships in general.

    The reverse golden rule is much more easily applied in the context of a good friendship. A good friend is someone I know well enough so that I know what they would have me do unto them … and who knows me well enough that they know what I would like to have done unto me.

    I would also include the rule of reciprocity. Good friendships are two-way, not [primarily] one-way; I’m not sure if it is even possible to have a good friendship if there is a significant power imbalance between two people.

    Finally, I would include honesty. A good friend is always honest with me, and is willing to offer constructive criticism, not just positive feedback … and I’m not sure anyone would consider someone who offers only negative feedback a friend of any stripe.

    1. Scott

      I’m curious about whether you explicitly brought up the notion of ‘rules’ – I can’t imagine doing this without it being awkward.

      1. Holly

        Pardon my butting in, but it’s kinda like that bit in the free-thinking essay about forks in Ethiopia. Most of the time it’s not necessary, but when it is, yes. It is quite awkward indeed, especially when people don’t understand why you don’t understand/share the set of “rules” they assume everybody ought to know/have/share, etc.

  15. Mike Nitabach

    My closest friendships that I have maintained for years and years share two essential characteristics:

    (1) They were initially forged in periods of close and/or extended intense contact: school, work, or hobbies. Some of my closest friends I have spent thousands of hours with over the years, while others I have spent only a few weeks in close contact with.

    (2) There is an unspoken but absolutely firm commitment to the mutually understood principle that the ongoing strength of the friendship does not rely on the frequency or duration of recent contact. Some of my closest friends I see only once every few years, but when we see each other, it is as if we had been together all along.

  16. Damon Sams

    It seems that in a lasting friendship you learn each other traits and personalities and you except them for who they really are. Example is someone can be mad at my friend and I will say why, after they explain, I will say what did you expect, that’s just him. What that has taught me is that I have accepted that my friend will be my friend. He will act or react as he always has and I have accepted that. Now the interesting part of that is that no matter how old we get at some level we still act as we always have, that’s not to say we haven’t matured, it just at some level I understand what he is about. The friends that I have lost are the ones I feel have changed or they feel that I have changed. The interesting part about that is if you ask my best friend or parents and they will say that’s just Damon, implying that at my core I haven’t changed. So it would be interesting to really understand what has truly changed, who I am or who they are or my ability to except who they are at their core?

  17. Patrick Lowman

    I think a lot of what was said about experiences that build trust are very important. Once that is there then I think I am able to actually relax rules rather than follow a lot of different ones. I get to relax the rules about what I allow myself to say to others. I get to relax how I project myself. Not fully but I sorta expect the same behavior on my friends part. It leads to a strong bonding experience and let’s you know you can count on that person. Friendships where I can’t relax my own rules like with coworkers, tend to be a little less strong as a result.

  18. K0nsp1racy

    I have always looked at by relationships with everyone– not simply friends– as a series of concentric rings of trust. While my personal interactions do not waver in a social contract, I have a certain set of fluid criteria that dictates the level of trust and friendship that is afforded to the person.

    On the innermost ring, occupied by people including my wife and family, is the complete “take a bullet” trust. On the outermost ring is the online people I meet and most people I meet initially. There are several rings in between, and all vectors move inward until my implictly defined rules are broken.

    As Mike Nitabach states, frequency and duration of contact are not important, as I have many friends that I only see once or twice a year. In addition to Mike’s comments above, the following contribute to a solid social contract:

    1) Friends would never do anything to intentionally embarass or harm you.

    2) Friends respect commitments to family ahead of opportunities with friends.

    3) Friends should never engage in a financial transaction that upsets the level playing field of the social contract.

    4) Friends will tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear.

    5) Friends forgive for mistakes that are made.

  19. sdimeglio

    I have found that there some friends that I share a lot in common with in terms of politics and viewpoints on various topics and other friends where we are as diametrically opposed as possible. In those cases, once it is clear that both of us realize and respect that or those differences, the friendship survives simply because we both focus on just having a good time and enjoying the company of the other for a time or helping each other out and avoiding the points contention completely. Sometimes it works best just to accept the differences and focus on the commonalities. We know that, irregardless, we can depend on each other to do that no matter what.

  20. Jan Carol

    Seems to me that friendship is based on mutual interest and grows from there. I’m fortunate to have a few long time friends that have stuck around thru the good times and the bad. And boy, have we had some bad times.

    You’re right about not ever having a contract for a friendship, relationships are vastly different. Maybe that’s why friendships last longer than some relationships? There’s no expectations put on each other except to just be friends.

    From my experience, (and I’ve had lots of it), the relationships that last the longest have started as friendships – a good strong foundation of communication, trust and empathy. And they keep returning to that friendship again and again. I’d much rather have a deep friendship with someone rather than turn it into a relationship. But then again, isn’t a real friendship just an intense relationship?

    1. Scott

      The romantic element is another wrinkle – I wasn’t thinking about that, but when attraction is part of the equation there’s another set of rules up for discussion.

  21. Anca

    Loosing friendship makes you think a lot about this subject. Having the same values might strengthen the relationship in becoming a strong friendship. But not talking about what friendship means can lead to situations when you invest everything in that friendship only to find out that you have quite different views of what friendship means.
    I believe friendship should be for life and that you always put good friends (what this means for each person requires investigation) before your needs… I bet there are a lot of people who disagree.
    I think that up to a certain point talking about friendship is unnecessary. But when the friendship becomes stronger and you trust that person with your life, not talking and finding out in a crisis situation that friendship means different things for the two of you might hit you really hard. Finding out that the person you believed in is not who you believed (=your best friend) is something very hard to live with.

  22. Tania

    I really dont think there is any “rules” when it comes to friendship. It is the only thing that should come free of rules. Moral, values and respect is something we should all imply. I think if anything we should all look within ourselves and see if we are truly a good friend and treat others with respect. If there was anything such as rules I would set them for myself first. I really dont like to bad mouth my friends behind their back, so I am very careful in what I say, I dont like to lie either. Though I try and apply this to everyone I meet, I try to be honest with everyone I meet. However I am happy with myself. I think people who dont do this often dont even realise their doing it; they have so many ups and downs they often take it out on society. People become so involved in their own world and only think of themselves, they forget it can hurt people in the process. I have travelled so many places and met so many people, every one has a story to tell, I consider myself as a true friend, it really is up to people to realise that and the few that do, have a true friend for life.

  23. Tania

    I really dont think there is any “rules” when it comes to friendship. It is the only thing that should come free of rules. Moral, values and respect is something we should all imply. I think if anything we should all look within ourselves and see if we are truly a good friend and treat others with respect. If there was anything such as rules I would set them for myself first. I really dont like to bad mouth my friends behind their back, so I am very careful in what I say, I dont like to lie either. Though I try and apply this to everyone I meet, I try to be honest with everyone I meet. However I am happy with myself. I think people who dont do this often dont even realise their doing it; they have so many ups and downs they often take it out on society. People become so involved in their own world and only think of themselves, they forget it can hurt people in the process. I have travelled so many places and met so many people, every one has a story to tell, I consider myself as a true friend, it really is up to people to realise that and the few that do, have a true friend for life.

  24. Stephen Walli

    I’m divorced and re-married. I have daughters both of “relationship” age. I tried to write the rules for successful relationships for them as fatherly advice, based on a lot of my own reading and experience. It became three rules that apply to friend relationships in general as far as I can tell, and not just romantic relationships:
    * Absolute equality, even if you trade leadership back and forth mid-sentence.
    * Absolute honesty, even if those jeans really do make you look fat.
    * Be grateful for that person in your life every day.

    The last two are nice feedback loops. We lie to protect ourselves, so if you can’t be honest, you need to figure out why. Likewise, if you’re not grateful for them in your life you’re not tending to the relationship (and again you need to understand why).

  25. Cheryl

    I have a hard time believing a true friend is one you see every few years. I don’t believe you need to see each other every few days but regular contact to me is very important. Otherwise, the relationship gets shallow. Balance in the relationship is key. One can’t be constantly doing for the other with nothing in return. If one has no expectations, the other will rise or sink to that level. If you don’t expect anything, you won’t get anything, IMO.

  26. viviany

    Marriage is not a noun, but a verb. Marriage is not something that you get but something that you are doing. This is the way you love your partner every day.


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