What Makes Friendship Real?

For me, it's when someone is willing to risk the relationship in order to help when it's needed the most

Photograph by Getty Images

I have a history of being a crappy friend. I met Beth in Brownies, and we were as thick as thieves until junior year of high school, when we both liked the same boy and he picked me. I threw over a 10-year friendship for a 6-week relationship.

I also broke up with another friend in high school because she wasn't popular enough and I thought she'd damage my cred. My ever-important high school cred.

So basically, I was a jerk in the friend department (and possibly the my-entire-existence department) until I hit 30. I was somehow humbled by life enough at that point to stop treating people like crap, and to try to actually be a real friend.

Now here I am, 20 years later, wondering if I'm succeeding. I mean, at least I know I'm a better friend than, say, Linda Tripp, but I still have questions.

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What makes someone a real pal? I mean, sure, there's a death in your friend's family, you show up for the funeral. She gets married, you go to the wedding. She gets sick, you show up for the sick part. (As long as said friend is not barfing. In the event of barf, I will leave something lovely at the door, but you will not see me till you're not germy. Sorry. It's a phobia.) I know all that, and I also know not everybody gets even those basics right. One guy turned down the invitation to my wedding because, as he put it, "Really, what fun am I going to have at your wedding?"

So showing up. I get how meaningful that truly is. But what about truthfulness?

I have some friends who will insist I don't look fat in anything, and some who, when asked, will say, "Yeah. Those pants kind of make it look like you're smuggling pistachios in your hips." I should add that I'm not an obsessive "I'M SO FAT!" kind of woman, so if I ask if my outfit doesn't flatter, I really want to know if my outfit doesn't flatter. I appreciate the friends who will tell me (shout-out to Marianne).

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But not everyone is like me. Some women would be horrifically offended if they were told the truth about such a thing. And what about the bigger stuff in life? Your friend is drinking too much. Or she seems like maybe she needs a few meds for her moods. Your friend's husband is a nightmare.

Should you be honest about what you see going on in her life? Or is it none of your business? What if you say nothing and she drives drunk, or her mood disorder gets her fired? Where's the line between supporting and enabling? If you see a friend making the same mistake over and over, and all you do is nod your head and say, "That sounds awful" and not "You need to get your drunk ass to A.A., pronto," how good of a friend are you really being?

Do you just wait to be directly asked for your advice? "What do YOU think of my felonious, unemployed husband who enjoys a delicious Mickey's Big Mouth at 10 a.m.?" I mean, how often does that sort of question really come up?

I've gone both ways on this sort of thing. I tend to be the "she didn't ask for my advice so I won't give it" type, but a few times, I've worked up my courage and told a friend I was worried she was headed for trouble. Once it resulted in an honest conversation, and the other time I was told if I ever brought it up again, my friend would end our relationship right then and there.

So, I'm still on the fence about it. I don't want to be the critical know-it-all who doles out unneeded advice, especially when my own life is not in perfect order. But I know for me, I've appreciated the times I've gotten unsolicited words of wisdom from friends, even when it initially hurt.

That, to me, is the mark of true friendship—when someone is willing to risk the relationship in order to help me when I really need it the most. I strive to be the kind of person who values what's going on in my friends' lives more than I value just being liked by those friends.

By the way, you look really thin in those pants.

Tags: friendship