What Are Friends For?

I seem to have what might be called a tenuous relationship with the concept of friendship. While for most, the title of this piece speaks to the obvious and accepted nature of the friend relationship –

Person A: “Hey, thanks for doing that thing.”
Person B: “That’s what friends are for!”

– for me, it’s an actual question. What ARE friends FOR anyways? It’s not always clear to me.

I think this is built in to me, this utilitarian view of human relationship. My easiest social interactions are those for which the utility is clear. Interactions with shopkeepers and waitstaff and postal clerks? Easy-peasy. I understand what the interactions are for, and how they go, and what the roles are, and so am able to move through them with a minimum of alarm, and get a small and sufficient hit of social connection as a bonus. Everything about it feels honest and open and rational.

But, for me, relationships such as “family” and “friendship” are more difficult. The rules, roles, and reasons are less clear, the utility somehow assumed or unspoken or hidden or nonexistent, and the potential for unpredictability therefore heightened. I’m less able to know what might happen. Anything might happen. And I’m less certain about how to respond when anything does.

This all became quite clear to me when I was in a band. When we were playing music, when I was singing or smashing the mandolin or banging the drums, I was comfortable and happy and glad to be there. When we took a break and just hung out, I began to notice how much more difficult that felt.

It’s not that I don’t have many people with whom I am friendly, or whom I like, or with whom I interact. I just need to have a clear sense of the reason for my relationships. Most people, it feels like, are offended by the notion that friend and family relationships need to be for something, as if to speak of utility is to speak of using somebody. As if friendship and family are not explanation enough. As if, were it not for their usefulness, I would go away and abandon them. Perhaps for them, the utility of their relationships is obvious: friendships give them the monkeywired warm-body-effect their animal bodies need. And that is enough. Perhaps the utility is so obvious as to need no conscious thought or explanation.

But it’s not like that for me. I seem to have less need for warm bodies. I don’t much care to just “hang out” and “shoot the shit” and “party hearty” and all of that. And relationships apparently cost me more than they cost most others. So it only makes sense to me to be clear and discriminating in my choices. As my stepdaughter once said, or words to this effect, “a relationship with somebody else has to be better than being by myself, otherwise I’m not interested.” That always resonated with me. I’m pretty happy just being with myself, most of the time. Why would I want to be with other people if our time together wasn’t, in some way, better than my time alone?

So people’s fears do have some truth to them. I do assess my relationships in a cost-benefit manner. I do go away when a relationship doesn’t suit me, when the costs are too high, or the benefits too low. I do make judgments. I do seem to have different needs and desires from many others. And I do need a clear and conscious understanding of what a relationship is for in order to stick with it. I went away from Facebook for this very reason, and ended up on Twitter. Facebook feels more like hanging out and shooting the shit with friends to me. Twitter feels more like the marketplace. Facebook feels more unpredictable, wilder, filled with argument and persuasion and judgment. Twitter feels like a trip to the store or the post office, where people are open and honest about what they’re selling, and happy for a small hit of social interaction.

Sally says that I, as an Aspie, really only need one deep, close, intimate relationship with another human that really gets me. (In fact, one of the clues to my Aspie neurology was my take on relationships in general and the specific challenges of my relationship with Sally.) It’s true. Most of my social needs are met within my marriage. But I have room for other relationships, when I can find ones that align with what I want, and which make my life better than it is when I’m alone.

While I consciously took myself out of the friend game a couple of years ago, deciding to strictly limit such social activities as “hanging out” and “shooting the shit,” there are a few people with whom I (as a part of the Sally and Tim couple thing) happily spend time. These are people with whom my relationship to them makes some sort of sense to me. I know what it is for: I get to have with them the sort of deep discussions I love, on topics I’m interested in, in the open, questioning, dialogue sort of way that excites me. They are invariably truth-tellers, ready, able and willing to tell the truths of their lives, which fascinates me and helps me relax. And they are people with a proven ability to question their assumptions and examine and be responsible for their own triggers, so that any differences that arise between us can be processed easily, and not lead to conflict. The costs of relationship are low with these few souls, and the benefits are high. So I stick with them.

I understand that, to some, this utilitarian cost/benefit approach to human relationship might seem odd. But I wonder sometimes whether most people actually operate this way, and if I’m just conscious of the process, and open in the way I speak of it.

What do you think?


3 Comments for “What Are Friends For?”


i want to think more about this before i comment more, but off the top of my head, i agree. and it’s the degree to which we are clear about our needs and limits that sets the standard, imho. once we discover the benefits of our own company, even when it presents a challenge, the more we become more discerning in the company we keep, at least those of us who are wired this way. frankly, i don’t see anything wrong with that, it’s like these arguments of whether there is such a thing as pure altruism. who cares. if we take care of ourselves, including whom we allow the benefit of our company, this is not bad for humankind. like many things, it is an acquired taste. and, for me, the other side, the value of having one true deep friend, sometimes despite the challenge that may present, preferably one and the same a lover, however we define that, to me is the world. i’m wired that way. and, a few, select treasures of other people. life is short. good company is sweet.


I have heard this explanation before. I live it.

My awareness of the main difference though is that…..friendship to a large extent is a two way street…. and what i am reading here mirrors what i have heard my partner say. What i am asking and wondering.. is what do you GIVE to friendships, while i understand your needs are being met in a much smaller sphere and that it works for you i am only hearing in my understanding what you get

….i am curious about what you personally see as your role in the work on friendship – utilitarian or not what is it to bring to the equation to add to their *good things*?

Timothy Scott Bennett


That’s a good question! Traveling now, so give me a bit to respond. May take a separate post! T

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