What is the meaning of Friendship?

Not all friends are created equal.  There are casual acquaintances, confidants, good friends, life-long pals and then, “BFFs,” as the kids call them today.  When I first started pondering the topic, I thought it might be a tad banal. However, the deeper I dug, the more intriguing it became.

To begin the discussion, I invite you to take stock of your current coterie of friends.  Consider their impact in your life.  If any of them are toxic—overly needy, negative or one-sided—get rid of them. Life is entirely too short to waste it on bad friends. (A theme for a T-shirt?)

The research for this post began with my asking male and female friends the qualities they looked for in forming a friendship and what it would take to kill it.  I was also curious to see if major differences existed between the way men and women approached the topic. 


Being present for you at any time of day or night was a reoccurring response.  Joan Brower, President of LDNY, explained it this way. “To me, a truly close friend is the one I know I can call at 2 am in an emergency and who knows she can call me. She’s the one by my side during all the peaks—and most of all, the valleys of life—celebrating joy and supporting me during grief. And together we can laugh and cry and share and learn together through the years.”

Michael Apstein, physician and wine writer says he looks for someone who will listen seriously to what he is saying. For me listening means giving the person your full attention, not changing the topic, and turning off your cell phone.

According to Lila Gault, former PR agency owner, “A good friend also needs to have empathy.”  This means being aware of their friend’s emotions and feelings and reacting to what the individual is going through.  Women are particularly good at empathy, certainly better than most men.

Half of the people I spoke with said having a strong sense of humor was also critical to a friendship.  In fact, when the question came up during a taxi ride earlier this week, all three women present replied simultaneously as if rehearsed —“The ability to laugh together.” 

For me, the most important attribute of a genuine friend is someone who will help me be a better person.  That includes being painfully honest when it is necessary.  It also means bringing out the best of you when you are not able to identify your own positive qualities.


 Sue Huffman, former food editor and Food Network pioneer, instilled in her children early on that “in order to have a friend you have to be a friend.”  This give-and-take is critical to maintaining long-term friendships.  Making friendship a priority by being there for each other, offering advice, and checking in periodically is what it also required. If it is one-sided, chances are the friendship will be short-lived.”

As Joan DeCollibus, a canine fashion designer, explained, “At 59 I have boiled friendship down to this: how giving you can be with the other person. If two people can be generous with one another, they can build a friendship.”


A direct benefit of having good friends is that it reduces stress.  We count on friends to pull you through life’s adversities, including serious health issues.  The Journal of Clinical Oncology did a recent study which showed that women with breast cancer were four times more likely to die if they didn’t have many friends.  This applies to other illnesses as well.  Generally speaking, both men and women with lots of friends supporting them experience less pain and stress when ill.


Thinking that the question might reveal a striking difference between the sexes, I first asked Ben Judd, a 30-something technical support scientist, and our granddaughter, Nicole’s boyfriend.   Ben claims that “It’s easy for men to find prospective friends due to common interests. However, shared values and morals are what make for lasting friendships. Recognizing one’s character and being able to speak openly without fear of judgement is paramount to friendship building.”

Two long-time, male running pals agreed with Ben.  But they were also eager to talk about a different facet which differentiates men from women: male bonding.  The phenomenon was not based on beer and football—as I had conjured up in my mind—but rather on extreme circumstances.  They talked about “buddies in combat who, when faced with a life or death situation, were willing to sacrifice their life.” This type of male relationship could even be considered a form of love, they explained.   

A fourth man, Ross Wasserman, a food marketer, had a different opinion.  He believes it has less to do with gender than personalities. ”Is one needy or does one need to be needed? Are we trusting and/or trustworthy, extroverted or introverted, vain, insecure, generous...do we choose our company by how they make us look? I think these things apply to both sexes and orientations.”  And the debate continues.


Here is another age-old question to ponder. Granted men and women are built differently and our “hunter-gatherer” labels cannot be denied.  According to one of my male friend a friendship with the opposite sex is usually based on one of two things: professional interest or sexual attraction.  He claims that for most men find it hard to overcome the initial sexual attraction.  However, when it becomes apparent that the female is not interested, her personal attributes become of greater appeal to the man and the sexual focus gradually diminishes.   

This topic has been around for a long time.  While some deny a true male-female friendship is even possible, I disagree.  If there are strong professional connections or areas of mutual interest, I believe a warm, caring friendship is possible. However, it is usually up to the female to define the parameters of the relationship especially if any awkward sexual overtures come into play along the way.

That said, don’t expect a friendship between the opposite sexes be the same as between same sexes.  Guys like to joke around or delve deeply into topics where they can show off their intellectual prowess. Unlike women who are naturally empathetic, I find my male friends tend to avoid getting into deeply emotional topics.


People were very clear on this question. Michael Apstein said that he would break a friendship if something he asked a friend to do was not done, unless there were an exceptionally good excuse. Lila Gault added that a “breach of trust, self-destructive behavior, or intolerable political differences would end a friendship” for her. Ross Wasserman agreed with Lila’s first point wrapping it up poignantly by saying” “Betrayal of trust. I might be able to forgive it but without trust, a friend is just company.”

 One of the quickest ways to destroy a friendship is through jealousy.  Donna from my knitting class explained that “I try to never judge myself against my friends.  There will always be someone richer, prettier or with a better upbringing than mine.” If you allow comparisons in your relationship, it is doomed to fail.


 Research shows that our brain can only manage five people at a time to play meaningful roles in our lives. Back in the 90’s British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar, observed a correlation between the size of our brain and social relationships. The conclusion of his research showed that we could accommodate 150 friends.  So, I imagine those 150 individuals are subdivided into the various categories mentioned at the very beginning of this post.  However, only five can sit at the top of your friendship pyramid. 

Whatever the number of friends you have in your life, one thing is definite. Never take any of them for granted.  Respect and revere these relationships, especially the “Big 5.” When the chips are down, you will be saved if you have a posy of pals who really have your back.