How can we protect ourselves against expecting too much of our friendships? Can we do something to prepare for the disappointment? And what does one do to deal with it?
Near death, those suffering from a chronic illness feel less pain, in part due to medication, but also due to the fact that the process of death involves the shutting down of their organs and functions. “Less pain is not a good sign”, says psychotherapist Diane Langberg. We tend to agree, especially if we think about the terrible pain a woman experiences when she gives birth and how strongly the baby feels the fullness of the world, if, in order to be considered healthy, he must announce this fullness with a scream! It seems that, in our world, where there is life there is also pain, and where there is no pain something is wrong with life.
We might think it would be different for friendship, which we see as a refuge lying at the centre of our lives. We choose our friends from out of the throng of countless other people, because we consider them special and admire them, and they accept our shortcomings, while focusing more on our potential. This helps us to believe in that potential as well. Friends see things as we do, in aspects of life that we consider essential. And they enrich our perspective with their perspective, and our emotional resources with their own. We take refuge in friendship when we are hurt, hopeless, or discouraged, and expect to look at our friends as if we were looking at a much better version of ourselves, with the secret desire that what we see when we look at them will, at some point, be projected onto us.
But that pain we were talking about at the beginning is sewn in millions of patterns into the lining of any attachments we may have—even in friendship. That’s why we hear so often that it’s better “not to have expectations of anyone, so as to not be disappointed”. In other words, don’t get too attached so you won’t have to suffer when it ends. You can only call God and yourself a friend. Alternatively, “May God defend me from my friends: I can defend myself from my enemies!” This advice is often heard even among believers, although it couldn’t be further from true Christian philosophy.
The idea of not getting attached to anything comes from stoicism. The Stoics held that “the truly happy, virtuous life is one ruled by reason, not by emotion or passion.” In the same vein, they tried to reach a “passionless state of mind”. Most modern followers of this ideal do not know that it comes from the Stoics, nor that it was the result of a certain view of life, according to which only the material world truly exists. Of course, these are not good enough reasons to see relational stoicism as in conflict with Christianity. There are better reasons.
Often, praising the Stoic ideal comes as a reaction to pain. A lack of expectations is the strategy of an already injured individual to ensure that, at least in the future, they will not suffer. It is relevant that the plans and actions that go along with a lack of expectation subscribe to one crucial thing: the belief that the life worth living, the life worthy of being called “fulfilling”, is one in which the individual manages to take shelter from pain. Suffering thus acquires inflated value as a reference, and its avoidance becomes the purpose of life. Here, too, the incompatibility of Stoicism and Christianity appears.
Christianity and suffering in relationships
In Christianity, suffering occupies a central place for many reasons. However, it is never of ultimate worth. The fear of suffering does not have the right to lead one’s life towards an existence emptied of the slightest joy. On the contrary, the first step to protecting ourselves from disappointment is to accept that we cannot escape suffering. It is part of the game we call life. But for the Christian, pain is never the end of the road. Rather, in the context of suffering, happiness can sometimes be synonymous with the perseverance required to straighten out or adapt our path to our goal, even when obstacles arise along the way. We are happy not to run back to the start, to the place where we had not yet encountered barriers, but to continue running towards the goal we have set.
This is all the more true in the case of relational suffering, caused not by an external and uncontrollable cause such as illness, but pain caused by the other. Because the sin in our nature has the properties of an unstable chemical, it is realistic to make room, among our countless beautiful and bright expectations, for a darker one: that our loved ones will disappoint us. The arithmetic here is not accidental. Positive expectations need to be in a greater number than the negative ones, because they will help us as a buffer zone in contact with disappointment. It seems paradoxical when we consider that normally, the greater (and the more numerous) the expectations are, the greater the disappointments are as well. But this is the beauty of it! If we start from Christian premises in our friendships, then our expectations become our allies.
It is in our nature to disappoint, and it is unrealistic to live with the impression that we may never disappoint, or be disappointed.
I have already mentioned a fundamental Christian premise: A friendship is not created between two robots programmed to push the right buttons on each other, but between two people made out of flesh, with countless and unknown selfish impulses that will still come out in spite of education and sustained efforts to love each other as we love ourselves. It is in our nature to disappoint and it is unrealistic to live with the impression that we will never disappoint, or be disappointed. The Bible is straightforward on this subject: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). But if disappointment cannot be avoided, how do we prepare for it?
When we know that the disappointment and pain associated with life are natural, they no longer take us by surprise. A significant part of the pain of disappointment is shock: “How could you do that?”; “I wasn’t expecting this from you…” If we take into consideration the possibility of being disappointed when we set expectations, the shock will not hit as hard.
“But what kind of friendship can you have with someone you expect to disappoint?” Well, an honest friendship. Any of us can and will disappoint a loved one at some point in life. Will this tarnish us as human beings? Will it make us unworthy to be loved and more suitable for the garbage dump of society? Of course not. We are not just the sum of our flaws. Nobody is. And if, as far as we are concerned, we manage to see ourselves as more than our shortcomings, Christianity, by order of the golden rule, requires us to do the same to others.
Friendship does not mean two imperfect people looking at each other, waiting to see perfection. It means two imperfect people looking in the same direction; that is, having similar expectations. The more common the expectations we have, the richer, more desirable, and the more worthy our fight for friendship is. That is why any friendship benefits from the realistic feeding of expectations. Of course, an important condition is that both friends cultivate these expectations, because this reinforces the importance that both give to the relationship. Preparing for disappointment and our response to it also rely on our involvement in the relationship.
Like a marriage without benefits
Most refer to friendship as a kind of a marriage, minus the “benefits” (as Americans say) and without that frightening “until death do us part” commitment. A kind of convenient relationship: “I have something to gain from you, you have something to gain from me. As long as we both win, we’re super friends. When one begins to lose, friendship dissolves and that’s it”. Such friendship, says American pastor Timothy Keller, is unworthy of its name. According to the Bible, “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a time of adversity” (Proverbs 17:17). A friendship is a commitment as strong as a marriage, otherwise it is not friendship, but networking (i.e. socialization based on bartering). Commitment means that we both look at our relationship as if it is precious to us, regardless of the other’s circumstances (they don’t make good jokes anymore, don’t dress as well as before, their business didn’t work out, their work relationships don’t serve me anymore, or they are not so popular anymore, etc.)
Expectations vs unconditional friendship
Friendship, like love, is an unconditional commitment. It also means that it does not depend on the context the other is found in, but also that no one can impose it on us. In order to withstand the storms, it must be cultivated. Stoicism leaves us without an umbrella in the rain again, because in the face of hardship the Stoic’s solution is to grit their teeth. If your friend disappoints you, you are to sweep up the shards of your heart and move on, like a hero. Misunderstood Christianity seems to say the same thing: turn the other cheek, forgive seventy times seven, as if the forgiveness offered by a finite person could be an infinite resource. This also leaves us without an umbrella in the rain!
In essence, however, Christianity has the most convincing and encouraging argument for forgiveness: it has the Example! We learn to forgive others from the One who forgave us. We see that His forgiveness was not cheap, even though we received it for free. Forgiveness always has a price, but it always costs the giver, not the recipient. The one who forgives looks at their heart, sees the damage, but says, “OK, I’ll take care of it”. The forgiveness we learn from God does not wait for the other to try to glue together the shards they have produced, but absorbs the loss and covers the damage from their own resources.
There’s a reason why psychologists at the Gottman Institute have discovered that kindness and generosity are by far the most important attitudes that make marriages last. They are the same ones that make friendships last.
Who pays the bill for disappointment?
We learn from Christianity that the forgiven are not required to pay anything: not with bitter regrets, not with promises that they will never repeat the action that required forgiving, not with obvious efforts to compensate, nor with the continual self-humiliation for the mistake committed. In our friendships, although we pretend to forgive, we often do the opposite: we want the other person to pay for the damage, sometimes only in our minds (we forgive, but we praise ourselves for our generosity). We also learn from Christianity that forgiveness is not a virtue that we produce, but a tool that helps us repair ourselves so that we can continue to pursue that goal that we share with our friend who has wronged us. This repair to ourselves must take place, whether the common goal still exists or not. But friendship, without a common goal, cannot survive.