Anyone who has or has had a truly close friend could probably write what follows; could at least add items to the list and insights that are unique to their relationship. While every relationship can claim its own dynamics, the characteristics of close friendships are both obvious and subtle – and at times unnamed – to those experiencing them.
None of what follows claims to be original. Ever since Cicero, at least, much has been written about friendship. But it seems especially important in this Age of Technology to name and stress the marks that render certain relationships rare and precious – and worth treasuring.
The first mark of true friendship is honesty. True friends share at deeper levels the truths of self they rarely share with others: their dreams, fears, insecurities, beliefs and disbeliefs. Sharing their own truths is the measure of trust they bring to and find in the relationship. Without honesty, even should it hurt, there can be no true friendship.
But that honesty cannot happen without presence, the second mark. Not simply physical presence but the psychological presence friends sense together, a presence that requires careful growth, that time and distance does not diminish. It can happen on the phone because of voice and emotional contact, which becomes more difficult with email and tweets and texting. Presence has its own power but requires more than mere words for “connecting.”
The third mark is acceptance of each other’s truth. Acceptance does not require agreement nor rule out judgment but asks for openness to differences. True friends do not try to manage or live another’s life, or expect the other “to be like me.” They may be able to ask for help or insight for living their own truth and offer the same as well, but their acceptance of each other precludes any sense of control. Acceptance between friends is an attitude that often goes unnamed because it is so essential to the relationship.
A sense of freedom of self is the fourth mark. Both friends experience with each other an almost spontaneous openness, a tangible lack of self-consciousness that invites sharing without a sense of risk. It is almost as if they see in each other something of themselves that has them feel safe and known. The freedom found in true friendships renders them unlike any other relationship one may experience.
The fifth mark of true friendship, that is, intimacy, includes the previous four – intimacy in its purest sense. Cicero, in the final chapter of “De Amicitia,” in fact in its closing sentence, writes, “I exhort you to put virtue, without which friendship cannot exist, in such a position, that you may think that with the exception of virtue nothing is more excellent than friendship.”
Finally, true friendship is a gift two hearts share. The best gifts are given unconditionally, like the gift of life itself. It is in such giving that two friends find a hint of something more the other side of time.