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The Mathematics of Friendship

Remember the neighborhood kids you grew up with? The ones you would play with from the second you got out of school until everyone headed home for dinner?

These friends are defining features of our lives, ones that make us smile long after childhood is through. But if we’re honest, they were relationships that required little effort.

Similar to friendships between grown-ups, some of those relationships were driven by convenience. Here’s some simple math: take one human and put a second human in the same vicinity, both of whom are interested in interacting, then add them together. What do you get? Instant friend!

I don’t want to downplay the importance of friendships of convenience—whether they start at the office, the gym, or a book club. Nor do I want to diminish the role those foundational friends played and still play in my life. A few of those relationships mirror the comfort and resilience of C.C. and Hillary’s friendship in Beaches.

Most friendships aren’t like that, though, are they? As adults, friendships are less like simple addition and more like a variable-ridden algebra problem. A question of whether or not two people’s unique set of (X) personal preferences, (Y) lifestyle choices, and (Z) ethics can be equal on both sides.

On the one hand, discernment is a good thing. As I’ve gotten older, I’m far less concerned with the number of people who like me. Being an introvert, I value quality over quantity. I want to connect with people who bring energy to my life. I’ve learned to enjoy my friendship with myself, a space where I recharge and find peace. Now, friendship is a more intimate proposition—one that I don’t extend to every acquaintance.

On the other hand, what feels protective can be lonely. Being so selective about who I let into my personal life dramatically lowers my friend count. I have an easier time being alone than most, but I also acknowledge the importance of connection.

Still, I don’t want to compromise on my standards for friendship.

Expectation algebra

We all expect the same thing from our friends: mutual joy. Our relationships should feed our souls and grow our potential, but getting there is neither congruent nor symmetrical.

Within each friendship, there’s an invisible scale. Sometimes, you’re adding more to the scale than the other person, and vice versa. This push and pull might be completely equal or consistently one-sided. Really, the balance doesn’t matter as long as both sides feel fulfilled.

The outcome on the scale has a lot to do with the type of friendship you have. Friendships with people you enjoy going out with and nothing more probably have very little on the scale, yet both sides can be relatively equal.

Other times, the distribution on the scale is determined by what each party needs. For example, if a close, intimate friend loses a parent, you’ll be giving more for a period of time, and that’s okay.

I’m happy to be there for a friend experiencing hardship. I love helping, even if they can’t offer me the same in return. I don't feel empty in those friendships, because I’m happy to give.

Fractions in friendship

Iranians are masters of hospitality. We subscribe to the mantra, “Your comfort is my comfort.” I always want things to be okay for others, which often shows up in my friendships. This is when I have to remind myself that I have needs, too.

Many of us struggle with being pleasers. We put our needs on the back burner to take care of someone else, whether that’s a partner, family member, friend, or even a stranger. Unfortunately, this creates unrealistic expectations and is entirely unsustainable.

Not surprisingly, pleasers frequently struggle to balance their friendship scales. Even though carrying more weight on the scale is sometimes acceptable, taking most of the weight in every interaction isn’t.

Pleasers are motivated by two things: a desire to avoid conflict and a desire to be liked. I get it—we all want people to like us. Most pleasers' motivation for serving others is just that, but is it worth it?

When you please others at the expense of serving yourself, you give away your power. Although power isn’t a factor typically associated with friends, it’s a crucial variable in every relationship.

When you have no power, you carry the total burden of the friendship. The scales are tipped in the other person’s favor, opening the door to a toxic relationship. Where’s the fulfillment in that?

Chronically unbalanced friendships don’t create mutual delight. Your relationships should add to your joy, not subtract from your happiness.

The absolute value of friendship

When I reflect on friendship and what it really means to me, I can’t help but think about those friends from back in the day. I’m still in touch with a few of them, and when we get together, it’s magic.

Rather than exchanging pleasantries and skimming the surface, we dive right back into where we left off, regardless of how long we’ve been apart. Whether our connection began in high school, college, or the early years of our professional careers, it remains unchanged. Even though life and geography have gotten in the way, there’s still something special there. We spend a few hours together, and it feels like we never said goodbye.

These emotional, spiritual attachments transcend time. The years went by without each other, but the love and intimacy remained. The cruel irony is that our moments together leave me wondering why I haven’t made more time for moments like these.

The two lead characters in the movie Beaches have a similar cadence. Their lives take them in different directions, but they always find their way back to each other. Even if their meet-ups aren’t always pleasant, watching them interact is an important reminder of the life-changing role friendship plays in our lives, if we let it.

Friendship should bring incomparable, incandescent joy. The best alliances are life-giving, abundant, and absolute. They don’t happen every day, but when they do, they’re worth nurturing. No matter how the math works out.


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