Your friends probably won’t be there for you when you most desperately need someone’s help

22-friends2I love being in the Bay Area. Because I went to school here, I know a lot of people around here. There’s always something to do; always someone to see. And when you know people, it’s also easy to meet new people. Seeing people is important. I have done no research into this, but I think there’s just something in the human brain that really likes the sight and sound of other people.

However, I think there’s also a danger of fetishizing friendship. For instance, a Facebook acquaintance recently linked me to this blog post, about slowing down and taking things easy and building up community networks. And I believe in all those things.

But it’s also important to realize that friendship–at least within the upper-middle-class American context within which I and most of my readers operate–is a very weak thing. I don’t mean it’s weak in that it’s valueless or ugly. I mean that it’s weak like a crystal sculpture: it’s a wonderful, graceful thing to have around…but if you put even a little bit of weight upon it then it will break.

My life has been very short, but from what I’ve seen, it seems obvious to me that your friends will not be there for you when you are poor or ill or suffering. If you are unemployed, they’ll forward your resume to someone, but they won’t let you live in their home, rent-free, for months or years. If you are ill, they might visit you in the hospital, but they will not nurse you back to health. If you are depressed, they will commiserate with you for a few hours, but if you keep being depressed–if all you can talk about, for months, is your depression–then they will stop talking to you.

Every time I write something like this on my blog, I feel like people see it as an indictment of them. It’s not. First of all, this is not based on personal experience. I’ve never had a major catastrophe in my life that necessitated help in this way. Second of all, I don’t see any particular need for the structure of friendship to be changed. This is what friendship is in our society. Saying that friendship should be stronger is like saying that motorcycles should have four wheels. It’s meaningless. A four-wheeled motorcycle is no longer a motorcycle.

Nor do I exclude myself from this summary. I like to think of myself as a person who’d go to the mat for his friends, but the truth is that I have already failed to do many of the above things for people who I was close to. If you are in dire trouble, I will probably not help you. Honestly, it won’t even occur to me that I should help you.

That’s why I am always a bit confused by people who put down and ignore their family. It’s fine to not be close to your family. And it’s fine to not like them. And it’s fine to not want to spend time with them. But there should at least be some kind of recognition that your family is all you have. I don’t know why this is, but I am fairly certain that even a weak and distant cousin would do more for me if I was in need than a fairly close friend would.

I’ve also found that the Indian-American community is close in a way that friends are not. I’ve seen examples of people who went through tremendous effort to help people with whom they had a very tenuous relationship, simply because they were both within the same part of the Indian-American community.

Which is just another example of how friendship is different from a relationship of mutual aid. Friendship is based on pleasure: you’re friends with a person because being around them makes you happy. The other relationships in our life aren’t necessarily like that: you don’t necessarily like your cousins or parents or children or wife or fellow churchgoers or the guys who sit in your section of the stands at the stadium. You don’t need to like them. You’re bound together by something that transcends pleasure. And I think it’s that connection–a kind of connection that, no matter how weak, cannot be severed at your convenience–that leads people to help each other.

I often ask people whether they have any enemies, because I am fascinated by the concept of the enemy. I don’t have any. And most people I know don’t have any either (outside of, perhaps, their work). And that’s nice, but it also means that we live in a context where we can sever relationships very casually, simply because we no longer like a person. And when people stop being fun for us, that’s what we–either consciously or unconsciously–choose to do.

Okay, so, right, this is all a bit of a downer, I guess, but it doesn’t need to be. I think most people already know this, more or less instinctively. But some people don’t. Some people put a lot of their emotional energy into their friends. They expend all this time and effort with the feeling that somehow, in some way, this will be rewarded. And it’s more than time. It’s getting emotionally wrapped up in other people: thinking about them, feeling their emotions, kindling a sort of platonic love for them. All of that can be very intense and sometimes even very pleasurable. But don’t make the mistake of thinking it imposes an obligation on either you or them. And don’t let it prevent you from maintaining or pursuing the kinds of relationships that will sustain you when you are in need.

Comments (



  1. Terra

    I think much of what you say in this post is true (and depressing) but I wish you’d addressed families that are actively harmful or abusive.

    You say people shouldn’t let friendships “prevent you from maintaining or pursuing the kinds of [family?] relationships that will sustain you when you are in need.”

    However, although you may be tied to your family in ways you can’t easily sever, sometimes those people are toxic, damaging, or abusive—worse than no support at all—and you CANNOT fix them. And probably shouldn’t try.

    But it seems to me that your post is suggesting this is all we have, and we shouldn’t expend too much of our emotional energy trying to cultivate alternative support networks that might be… less structurally sound and permanent? Than a damaging relationship we might have with our families?

    Maybe I’m misreading what you’re trying to say.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      That is something that I did think a little bit about. I don’t know the answer. Yes, you really can’t fix your family. However, I’ve known people whose families were really terrible, but who were still their main source of financial and material support in times of stress. Sometimes that’s the problem, and the family uses that support as a bludgeon. However, if your family is damaging you mental and emotional health, then you _do_ need to cut off ties with them.

      I think that people who had really terrible families are often exactly the people who are prone to put too much weight on their friend relationships and to rely on them in ways that they shouldn’t.

      For these people, maybe the solution is to become closer to more distant parts of their family. As I noted above, I think that even a distant cousin can be a stronger and more reliable source of aid than a close friend. That becomes even more true when the cousin _is_ your close friend.

      If a person really can’t have contact with their family, then (in addition to all the wonderful friends that they make out in the wide world), they should think about their support groups. Building strong contacts within your ethnic group is the best thing. I’m amazed at the extent to which people from the same country will help each other. Also, if you have an alternate sexuality, my suspicion is that friendships within the LGBT community (where people often don’t have a family, due to ostracism) might provide more mutual aid, and perhaps this is also true within BDSM or polyamory circles (although I have no experience there). However, I think that this is less common nowadays, particularly amongst upper-middle-class gays. Maybe they should be part of a church or reach out and try to form a friendship with their physical neighbors: someone (anyone) with whom they have a concrete relationship that can’t easily be dropped.

      Some people might say that the SF / con-going community would be a place to find a safety net. I have my doubts…but I guess it’s plausible enough….

      I think the most dangerous thing is to just turn a blind eye and say, “Oh, yeah, this is true for most friendships, but MY friendships are different and stronger. And MY friends would never abandon me.” I don’t think that friends abandon you because they are bad people or because your relationship is weak; they just do it because that’s how the world is.

      1. rarelytame

        I mostly agree with you about the unreliability/fragility of friendships, but I’d argue that it would be equally dangerous–perhaps more dangerous–to your “most dangerous thing” to give up on your friend networks, just because they might crumble.

        It’s excruciatingly painful to experience the failure of a friendship and discover the person you thought would be there isn’t, but the illusion of support has value, too. I would far rather write off that individual as a horrible person and a bad friend, and go find new friends (who may later fail me again!), than feel as if my two choices are to either accept that I’m completely alone in an unfeeling world or accept that I may have to tolerate abuse from my family to survive.

        I guess this is like religious faith? (I’m an atheist, myself, so maybe I shouldn’t make this comparison. I hope it’s not offensive.) Personally, I need to be able to believe in a few of my friends. I desperately don’t want them to fail me, and they often do, repeatedly, and it’s horrible and painful sometimes, and I occasionally come away from these relationships with emotional scars. But the scars my family inflicts are often worse, and I think that’s true for any number of people.

        1. rarelytame

          And I have no idea why it changed my name between posts. It’s me, Terra, again. Terra LeMay = Rarelytame.

        2. R. H. Kanakia

          I don’t think anyone should give up on their friend networks. Friend networks are extremely important for companionship and mental health. And they’re also important career-wise. You’re going to find your job through your friends. You’ll find your agent through your friends. You’ll probably find your spouse through your friends. It’s extremely important to stay connected within the world. Personally, my most favorite activity in the world is talking to people and meeting new people. I feel like people see this as “either you can rely on your friends or there is no point in having them.”

          I don’t see it that way at all. I know I can’t rely on them, but I still love my friends and thank God that they’re in my life. I don’t see why a person should go through the cycle of bitterness and disillusionment that you describe. Why not just recognize the true nature of friendship and then build systems into your life to do the kinds of things that your friends can’t and won’t? That way you _never_ need to have this bitterness shade your friendships again.

          1. rarelytame

            I think I may have misread your post, or possibly we’re talking about different things, as what you just said seems to contradict what I thought you were saying. I will think on this.

            Also, just as an aside, I think we may be coming at this from dramatically different places, with regards to life experience, social status and social safety nets? Maybe? I’m not sure, but am thinking on that too.

            In any case, you said, “…build systems into your life to do the kinds of things that your friends can’t and won’t?”

            That is the goal, of course, isn’t it? But I hope to have friends in my life who will be there when systems fail, as they sometimes do. (And in some walks of life, it’s quite a challenge to build stable, reliable self-support systems.)

            Anyway, thanks for the thought-provoking post! I’ll be mulling this over for a while, I’m sure.

            1. R. H. Kanakia

              Yep! I am also fairly young, and my friends are largely irresponsible and only just learning to manage their own lives (although, since many of them are tech people, many of them have massive financial resources). So, I could also be completely wrong about these things =)

              Hard to know whether people will be there for you or not until you actually need them. My suspicion is that my friends won’t, but I haven’t actually put it to the test, so who knows?

  2. cristinelikeswords

    while i agree that Expectations, by definition, are problematic, you seem to be denying the very existence of true Gifts. yes, kindness is a rare bird in our competitive, privileged cultures, but she is not extinct. there are still people who joyfully offer food and shelter to strangers as well as friends, without thought of reciprocity. there are still people who are willing to sit for hours with a friend in the ER, to nurse them through illness, to bear witness as they slog through periods of depression. (While i have you attention, let me mention that Depression is Very common now, and all this pretending otherwise only exacerbates the problem.) to say your friends will drop you if you get depressed… seems to me to be a cold and somewhat hostile message to put out there, rahul. you are painting a picture of a society that no one would choose to live in. you must acknowledge that there Are those who share shelter, resources, connections, clothing, everything down to the food on their plate. some of us do still practice that kind of friendship. some of us see pain and need as a challenge to be met with love and awareness. as a valuable lesson in patience. some of us do service work that is not about padding a resume or networking. i think if it as being kind. i am not naive… yes, the world is changing, and people are increasingly skeptical of gifts. we have been led to believe that what comes free must be a trick or a trap. simply not true.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Yeah, I agree, there are people who offer food and shelter to strangers or near strangers. I’d argue that it’s _more_ common for people to do that than to help their true friends. Some people have an ethic of kindness that they tend to practice in an undiscriminating way. But a person’s friends generally aren’t those people. A person’s friends are a bunch of people selected for various mutual sympathies.

      I don’t think my message is at all cold and hostile, Christine. I think it’s hopeful, and I hope it will lesson the amount of pain and disappointment people feel when their friends don’t live up to their unrealistic expectations. I think that the more pessimistic message is to tell people: “Oh, almost all people are terrible; you just need to find the vanishing few who are good.”

      I don’t think that. I think that most people are pretty good. It’s just that their (and my) sense of their responsibilities is different than you seem to think it should be.

      1. cristinelikeswords

        1 disappointment is an inevitable result of expectations.

        2 hope is as empty as fear.

        3 i did not at any point in my post use the word “should” or suggest people “should” be a certain way. please, please… do not put words into my mouth.

        4 i found you post interesting and thought-provoking. i am not looking for an argument. perhaps we can agree to disagree?