The wisdom of friendship consists in finding those who do not require a price, or ask you to change.

Social reality reveals that friendship is given a special status compared to other types of relationships, like, for instance, marriage or intra-family relationships. Friendship is born when conditions are favourable. I like it, it suits me, I need it, they make me laugh, they get me are basic criteria for choosing one’s friends. All these criteria have to do with our own person. In light of this fact, a few questions arise. If we are at the centre of friendship, where could we possibly find potential partners for our friendships? Can two friends give themselves to one another equally? What happens when one gives more than the other? Is it appropriate to expect one to compromise on behalf of the other?

Friendship requires nothing, but it receives plenty

A friend is an answer to something deep within ourselves, “something that we are”, without the intention of changing us or our friend being changed. Aristotle, in Nicomachean Ethics, identifies friendship as one’s participation in the existential consciousness of the other. It is a reciprocity in the perception of what the other feels and thinks. You feel that they think in the same way you do.

Acceptance, genuineness, and empathy are just a few of the ingredients that make up an authentic friendship, and the degree of comfort offered by the relationship is owed to the fact that neither seeks to change the other. No one wants a friendship in which the other wishes to change them according to their own misguided goodwill. Change, regardless of the direction it’s coming from, is a costly project. Time, emotions, conflict, and stress are just a few examples of this cost.

The ideal friendship does not require anything of the other, it only enjoys what is already available. The simple, natural manifestation of what the other is answers our deepest need. The wisdom of friendship consists in finding those who, without being asked or without feeling that something is required from them, give and do not expect to receive.

Friendships are chosen, they don’t just happen. “I am a friend to all who fear you, to all who follow your precepts” (Psalm 119:63). Befriending those who, by their natural way of being, help you fulfil your needs, creates the premise for satisfaction and longevity in a friendship.

What do we do when we and our friends have conflicting needs? How do we deal with situations in which, regardless of the decisions we make, one or the other is negatively affected?

The utopia of reciprocity: equality

Reciprocity in friendship starts from the premise that we can reach a win-win situation or we can reasonably compromise to both parties’ benefit.

Often, expectations of reciprocity create the impression of an attitude of entitlement, which inhibits the receptors of satisfaction, joy, and gratefulness, and does away with the surprise element in the relationship. When someone offers something which does not meet the other person’s expectations, regardless of their intention, this is not perceived as a win by the one receiving it.

Measuring involvement and contribution in a friendship turns true reciprocity into an impossible equation. The mathematics of reciprocity in the context of a friendship depends on each person’s perception. The evaluation and instruments of the received or given gifts are in constant flux. When someone is desperate and receives help, that help is perceived as the most important gift they could receive.

Things get complicated when someone receives a gift they do not need. Such a gift is often quantified as a sacrifice from the one giving it, and excludes reciprocity. The unhappiest situation is that in which the one receiving help perceives it as enslavement or an intrusion into their being. In this case, the one who is being helped even expects the situation to be mended.

The equation of reciprocity can be used as a scale of what we receive or give. Measuring reciprocity from the perspective of time and emotions simplifies the equation but does not solve it. Try as we might, it’s almost impossible to invest time and emotions equally in one another. The diversity of human needs is the main reason for this. Some perceive the freedom their partner gives them as a benefit, while others always need to be together and do everything together.

Reciprocity through beneficial compromise

Acceptance and beneficial reciprocity indicate the presence of compromise in any type of relationship. Compromise implies both parties giving up something they desire, in the interest of a beneficial result for both parties. As long as it does not threaten fundamental life principles, compromise is beneficial and necessary. If its consequence is the destruction of the value system of one of the partners, this leads to frustration, and later to conflict. In case life principles and values are at stake, one needs a different kind of compromise, one in which the parties mutually respect contradicting opinions and behaviours. However, the more compromises are reached, the more vulnerable the relationship becomes. As Romanian writer Camil Petrescu once said, “the great wisdom is to choose friends who will not make you compromise”.

“Of all the means which wisdom acquires to ensure happiness throughout the whole of life, by far the most important is friendship” (Epicurus).

False reciprocity and other excesses

Sometimes, reciprocity generates its very opposite. An extreme example of this would be Stockholm syndrome, where the victim becomes obsessively preoccupied with the needs of their kidnapper, neglecting their own needs. Attachment to the aggressor leads to the impossibility of voluntary separation. On a smaller scale, there are people who, losing the awareness of their own worth following trauma or abuse, need to be dominated in a relationship. In such cases, paradoxically, the completely unbalanced relationship offers the perception of reciprocity. One has their need to receive satisfied, while the other’s desire to give is satisfied. This is an extreme one should avoid.

There is also the problem of unbalanced altruism, which can devour our internal resources and thus become harmful. This consequence ultimately impacts our neighbour. As in the case of emergency protocol when a plane crashes, or mothers caring for their babies, the wellbeing of the one giving is both the condition and the source of their neighbour’s wellbeing. The main condition of giving is having something to give. By taking care of yourself you take care of others. At the same time, altruism can be to the disadvantage of the one it touches. Some gifts, or the moment in which they are given, can be disadvantageous for the one receiving them. By always being the one compromising you can encourage abuse, laziness, stealing and so on. At times, refraining from giving can be the best gift for your neighbour.

The premise of reciprocity from a Biblical perspective

The Bible’s affirmations when it comes to friendship underline what is most important: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). “A friend loves at all times” (Proverbs 17:17). “No one should seek their own good, but the good of others” (1 Corinthians 10:24). “Give to everyone who asks you” (Luke 6:30).

The foundation of friendship is loving your neighbour. This is actually the bedrock of humanity. God created humans in His image, and He defines Himself as love. Therefore, by loving, humans live. If humans’ greatest need is to be loved, their greatest responsibility is to love. A Christian does not offer to receive, but receives to offer. This is God’s way of manifesting Himself to humans. He gives before we give or deserve. The problem with removing love from friendship does not consist in emptying it until it disappears, but in filling it with selfishness and malice. Friendship without love leads to hatred and misunderstanding.

In the case of biblical friendship, reciprocity is the implicit consequence of giving. By giving, I give to myself. At the same time, altruism is contagious. Besides the implicit happiness it produces, it offers the most favourable conditions for the neighbour to act in an altruistic way as well. The benefit is thus doubled.

Ștefăniţă Poenariu is the president of the Holistic Christian Education Association, which operates Transylvania International School.