Friendship is about reciprocal cherishing. It may come as a surprise that to be a good friend you might need to be able to receive loving care as well as give it. But this is the essence of friendship. If you look at what you and your good friends actually do for each other from this perspective, you can see how when you are able to indulge each other you open emotional doors. The knots of hurt, the grudges, dissolve. You are receptive, responsive. So you have the feeling when you're with your friend that you are suddenly more able to express yourself, to relax, to breathe. It's like coming home to wishes that you were not able to feel, much less express. As one student wrote: "Talking with Isabelle after a painful evening, I felt free, content, lightweight."
You tell your friend, "You won't believe what happened today..." and this means, "You, as my friend, will help me figure out what happened today." This "you won't believe..." conversation is a crucial part of friendship; because it is the channel for relieving a diffuse "down" feeling we all have under our surfaces at times. Everyone has experienced some degree of depression, and at the bottom of that depression is our shock that our inborn expectation of cherishment has not been fulfilled. We are incredulous to find that our expectation could have been disappointed, whether it happened today or in the long ago past. "I do not believe that they treated me like that!" we say. Or "Oh my God, they were not there for me!" "My parents expected me to parent them!" "Why was I surprised...?"
Your friend is the one who can hear this cry of incredulity and comfort you. How? By being there, by letting you be a child asking for help. With your friend, you can revisit and work through your disappointments, get back in balance, restore your trust in people's goodness.
A deep friendship is therapeutic. But it differs crucially from psychotherapy. With a friend, you trust that if one day you are exhausted and harassed, the next you can be depended upon and dependable. Neither of you is the designated needy one; the helping role shifts easily—as it does not and should not in psychotherapy. When you are asking your friend for support, you are at the same time expecting to give it—and feeling able to give it because you have asked for and received it. There's mutual cherishment.
Because the basic dependent-dependable roles shift easily in a friendship, other roles can shift. So friendships have a fluidity other relationships may lack. Conventions and stereotypes do not apply. Adult playfulness is promoted: You be the parent, I'll be the child! You be the woman, I'll be the man! If your friend opens the door or pays the check, it's that you have agreed to that arrangement, not because you take it for granted and just carry it out. No meter is running when friends take turns; it happens spontaneously, like the Latin con-versare—to turn around together—in genuine conversation.
The readiness to play different parts is a manifestation of the freedom you have in a relationship that allows you to be yourself, to discover yourself, to develop. Ideally, unlike most parents, who have an investment in their children being mirror images of themselves, your friend recognizes and honors the goals you have set for yourself without imposing her own.
A friendship can come apart if one or the other of the friends is untrue to the bond or to what they have in common—their group, their cause, a moral precept they have accepted. Friendships can also come undone because one or the other of the friends has been uncherishing or fallen into envy of the cherishment the other is getting. Renewing the friendship then requires forgiveness.
Our expectation to be sweetly and indulgently loved is bound to be frustrated at times, no matter how caring a friend may be. And the frustration will echo what we experienced as children, when even the most conscientious parent in the world had more to do than attend nonstop to that helpless creature we all once were, the one Sigmund Freud jokingly called His Majesty the Baby. But good friendships have a built-in cure for lapses and shortfalls. A good friend will tell you when you have been uncherishing—and she will tell you in a cherishing way so that you will be able to hear her.
We Hear You!