Friendship Tested

by Martin E. Marty

Martin E. Marty recently wrote Modern American Religion (Vol. 2): The Noise of Conflict.

This article is a chapter from his new book Friendship. © 1980, Argus Communications. Used with permission from Argus Communications, Niles, Illinois. This article appeared in the Christian Century, December 24, 1980, pp. 1266-1272. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Friendship finds its own distinctive place in a society where most other ties are commercial and programmed. A friend creates a haven of hospitality where you can regather your energies for a more open assault on less accepting portions an inhospitable world.

People who resist having friends take on one set of problems. Loneliness and isolation gnaw at those who are incapable of being friends or of being befriended. It would be nice to picture friendship as the arrival of a utopia in which all turned out well -- though that kind of niceness might also induce a killing boredom.

But people who do have friends take on another set of problems. They have egos that collide with other egos, wills that clash with other wills. Their drives will not always match the desires of others within their circles of friendship. They do not stop being agents of conflict simply because they have friends. Anger is in their arsenal of emotions, and it will find its way of jeopardizing friendly relations. One partner may make unreasonable demands on the other, or spend too much time chewing an ear and expecting counsel. We do friendship a disservice if we overlook these problems. One way to begin to address them is by throwing the issues against a screen big enough that we can see them clearly. In this case we will use the simile of divine relations to human connections.

‘Wrathful Love’

I once heard a curious phrase about the love of God. According to the writer, divine love may take the form of a zornige Liebe, a "wrathful love." In this as in all attempts to deal with the strangeness of the divine, the phrase-maker had to settle for an inadequate expression. Of course, we assume that we know how to separate anger from love. When I am angry, either something has gone wrong in me to jeopardize my love and lovability, or something is wrong in you, my friend, and I need the strongest sort of emotion to tell you off or to keep you at a distance. When I am loving, I cannot be angry. And when I am caring, in the way that friends can be, I must suppress my standards and let you do as you please, without letting anything bother me.

Elegantly simple, perhaps, but not true -- at least not so easily. The writer’s attempt to speak of the extremes in God within one phrase falls short of the divine reality, but it points to something of which we all are somehow aware. In biblical faith God is so different from us, and the sacred so remote from our profane feet, that when we violate perfection, God -- in this picture drawn from human emotions -- is wrathful. It is intrinsic in the nature of God to show anger toward that which violates the good. Some of the biblical pictures are so curiously patterned after human action that God comes off looking like a petty tyrant. But most of the time anyone who thinks deeply about it sees reasons for the anger of the Holy.

Such wrath would drive us away from, not to, God, were it not for the fact that under it all, or prior to it, we have sensed that God "is" love. God accepts us when we are outside the range of acceptance. Because we have heard that this is the nature of God, and because we have checked it out, we pay attention when the wrathful side of God is revealed. It does not break our tie with the divine.

On an infinitely more domestic and graspable scale, something like this wrathful love can touch humans during the course of a fulfilling friendship. You would not call another person friend did she not possess qualities that you admire. You count on the friend for affection and for friendship’s kind of love. But because the two of you are, close, you will disappoint your friend more than will someone at a distance. A thousand times she will explain what course of action pleases her most, and each time you are neglectful. Finally your friend "lets off steam." But among friends, being angry is often a more creative emotion than feeling hurt. If we have learned the limits of anger and have found rites for overcoming it, expression of such feelings can clear the air.

Of course, if we bring nothing but temper and irritation to our relationship, the friend may drift away. She has no reason at all to "take it" or to care about its source unless that source is a person liked or loved, important in her life. By finding rites for overcoming anger, I mean that we find ways to ensure that it will not have the field to itself. We know how far to go and when to stop. We are not so egotistical as to think that we have a right to dominate our relations to a friend by setting all standards and absorbing all disappointments. Maybe our friend has a right to a bit of "wrathful friendliness" too, to even the score. By speaking of the rites of anger, I refer also to the fact that creative people can devise means of conversing about the strong emotions that occasionally should erupt between friends.

In the end, anger in the context of friendship plays its part. in the economy of emotions between people who know each other well. Now and then we hear tragic stories of friends who fell out to the point that disappointment led to outrage, and outrage to murder. We are less likely to hear of the channels through which people vent their emotions in ways that will not disrupt the world -- channels that can soon again be passages for caring. Friends have more motives for ending anger than for continuing it; their friendship constitutes a better basis for building on trying experiences than for letting them shatter relations. The same is not true when anger erupts between people who have no previous shared history. Wrathful love has built-in controls. Loving love is sloppy. Wrathful wrath kills. The combination, a curious joining of anger and friendly love, offers alternatives in a world of hatreds.

The Scrimmages of Friendship

Having friends is not a way of avoiding conflict in life; rather, it impels people to find ways to make conflict creative. Some years ago people used to play a game about cloning. When it was believed that we were on the point of being able to change human nature or the makeup of the human race in the laboratory, speculators began talk about the shape that new race should take. What might be done to alter the human makeup? How could humans be changed? What qualities should be screened out of them?

A common answer was that the experimenter would eliminate the element that induced conflict. Thus, if one were to duplicate parents in their cloned offspring while eugenically preventing "unscientific" births, screening out conflictual people would be an experimenter’s most important concern. Then there would be no war, little violence, and little threat to safety. Utopia would be on the way. But no sooner had people written such a scenario than questions began to arise: If you eliminate conflict and all forms of competition, will you not eliminate creativity? Will not the human adventure end? It was impossible to resolve such questions, since the necessary experiments would cause unimaginable and irretrievable changes in all aspects of human life. Interestingly, the answers game-players gave usually told us much about their own values. Those who touted free-enterprise competition protested most loudly. Those who believed in socialist cooperative life felt most ready to make the move.

The difficulty of cloning, and perhaps its permanent impossibility for humans, has led to less speculating of this sort in recent times. But enough has occurred already that thoughtful people tend to agree more now than in the past that the impulse to be in conflict colors life. Whether this impulse is a trace of some particularly vicious strain humans inherited from simian ancestors or whether it is the worst blight of original sin, we seem to be stuck with it as a part of human nature. The trick is to channel it creatively into harmless outlets or to devise rites to control it. And in a world of conflict, being a friend or having a friend seems to be one of the best checks.

The problem is that, for many people, friendship only presents one more combat zone. For friends, never coming into conflict is probably a sign of apathy; people who care deeply about anything in the world are going to disagree and, if they are free, they will express their disagreement. If one friend were to dominate the other so that there could be no voicing of conflict, their friendship would be jeopardized or might change its character until the relationship no longer deserved the name friendship. Yet when friends dispute, they also risk losing each other. Fallen-out friends are central to the story of many a fallen empire of generations-long feuds.

Since we cannot do away with conflict, how do we make it creative; how do we see to it that a more humane circle of friendships emerges? If suppressing and avoiding it are not possible, the best alternative is to anticipate conflict and set up structures for handling it. By speaking openly about the potential problem or by devising little gestures and kidding routines, partners in friendship set up a circumstance for handling disagreements. They have in a way resolved not to let anything break their bond. They might conceive of their arguments or differences as scrimmages for the larger game of life. The coach who has the best interests of a player in mind does not keep him or her from the front lines during practice. Athletes need seasoning, not avoidance.

So it is in the scrimmages of friendship. If two people share a deep bond of like-mindedness or affection, it will survive debate and conflict. And precisely for this reason, friendship is one of the more congenial zones in which people can test the limits of argument. By not expecting serenity every day, a friend avoids the dangers of boredom. By establishing rules and playing by them, the friend outlasts conflict just as he or she does on the squash court or after arm-wrestling. "It’s only a game, however seriously we have to take it while it is in process.

Friendship does represent lower risks than do other relations in which the partners are temporary adversaries. Lovers’ quarrels might lead to sweet reunions, but first they will issue in torrents of words that neither partner ever forgets; they remain in memory and prospect to haunt a love. The intimacy imposed by marriage makes the stakes so high that serious conflict can lead to divorce. The family has enough societal sanction for inducing claustrophobia that conflict there -- as between mothers and daughters in the kitchen or between fathers and sons over life styles -- can blight a personality. There is no escape.

Friendship allows for less intimacy and more freedom. A person does not have to make things work quite so convincingly among friends as with a mate or a child. This means that somewhere in life there is a space between life-and-death combat on one hand and boredom or illusion on the other, a space where people can be true to themselves and their values even as they wrestle with another, and with competing values at middle distance. Here, as so often, friendship, written off as a "second-best" kind of relationship (when compared to family, to love, to organizations for justice), reveals the function which it possesses but which society overlooks.

Revealer of a Darker Side

Being a friend can mean being tested. Those who are sentimental about friendship have not interviewed enough people. They would be surprised to learn how hard it is for many people to rejoice in the good fortune of their friends. One of the most disturbing features about the human heart, its tendency toward jealousy, leaped out at me once in a line by novelist Gore Vidal: "Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little."

We are ready to hear, "Every time an enemy succeeds, I die a little." The people who link animal and human behavior, or the experts on the selfish gene who do not think true generosity exists, set us up to believe, that friends hope only their enemies will have bad times. Why seek friends except for mutual defense and aggression among the band against the foe? On those terms, it would be expedient to hang out only with the apes who can pull their weight, the avengers who have the muscle and courage to do in the outsider who threatens. Any weakness or failure in the band of allies could jeopardize security and life itself.

Flip that over, then: Whatever strengthens the muscle or morale of a friend is to my benefit. Not so, says Gore Vidal, whose blurted confession, some tell me, matches something they have felt all along. I do not know how widespread this emotion is. But after I thought about it, examples started coming to mind. Some years ago I won an award -- what looked like an earning but felt like a grace. From all over the country there came letters of greeting, spontaneous bursts that can make one’s day or one’s life. We are glad for you, dear friend, most of them said. They did not sound as if they wanted me to share the prize with them; I did not suspect them of being friendly now so that I could speak up for them when they were in the running. Other letters were just a tinge more grudging. Not bad, old boy; of course, there were more deserving ones in the running, but the judges were specialists in your field. I join you in being thankful for good luck. What are the reasons for such a response?

Experts on the mind know little about the roots of jealousy and envy, and we do not have to tug at those roots now. For the moment the point we must stress is the testing that friendship brings. One of the ways to enter the human race, to be ready for encounters with enemies, is to have survived having friends. They make the first demands upon us and our emotions because they are close at hand.

Some time ago, a young woman of my acquaintance phoned in tears. As her tears abated, there was still quavering in her voice, and a touch of shuddering in her tone and outlook. Something had gone terribly wrong. As she quieted, she brought up the name of someone I knew to be her best friend. Had Norma, let’s call her, been taken ill? How long had she to live? Was there an auto accident? Cancer? None of that. I breathed more easily. Was, there, then, a misunderstanding, a falling-out? Had one of them slammed the door in the other’s face? Did they need a veteran arbitrator to thaw their frozen relations? All of that, said my friend, she could have coped with on her own.

What, then, was the problem? It turned out that there was a vacancy in their organization. Someone had to move on or move up. My friend sounded as if she felt that she was next in line, ready to win the Most Qualified Candidate of the Year award. Good. She deserved it. Could she live with disappointment if management had the bad sense to pass her up? Yes and no. Why yes? Because they might bring in someone from out of town, somewhere else in the firm. Then why a possible no? What could go wrong?

"They’re also considering Norma. She could conceivably get it."

"So, wouldn’t you be happy? Aren’t you each other’s best friend?"

"Yes, we are best friends, and no, I wouldn’t be happy. Because we are best friends. We wouldn’t be, then."

"Would Norma be over you? Would she be a bad boss?"

"No, she wouldn’t be in the same line of staff, so that would be no problem. I just can’t stand the idea of something good happening to a friend and not to me."

"You mean you’d rather see an unknown outsider or maybe even someone you don’t like have good fortune, while Norma and you share lower rank?"

"I’m afraid that is what I would rather have. That’s how I feel."

"Do you realize how weird this phone conversation would sound to anyone who doesn’t know you but knows that you claim to be Norma’s friend?"

"Let it be weird, then. And we don’t claim to be friends. We are friends. Our friendship has weathered everything except the success of one and the jealousy of the other. I’d rather not put it to that test."

Every time a friend succeeded, she died a little. Someone as close as a friend, someone whose more intimate thoughts we know, holds up a minor to our emotions even when we do not want to look. When something good happens to a successful stranger, that is a remote story as if from another planet. We need pay no more attention to it than to a chart of the bureaucracy in a foreign land or a fictional film about an organization half a world away. But when something good happens up close, unless it directly benefits us, it threatens us. My caller had not seen direct benefit to her in anything that enhanced Norma’s life. She was more preoccupied with herself and her ego than with her bond to another human. So long as neither leaped forward with a success or a grace, they could live a happy and untested life together.

Lest the suspense that flows out of that phone call distract from our larger plot, I should say that both Norma and her fearful friend advanced in their own lines and lived happily ever after. Or will until one of them succeeds again and the other, yet untested, dies a little. In cases such as these, we must learn to view the friend as an agent of testing, a gift in the form of an obstacle, a revealer of our darker side whose challenge makes possible great growth -- but never without struggle.

The Setting of Boundaries

Alongside envy in friendships is another problem: insatiability. Some people can never get enough of the friend. They become dependent, selfish, even overwhelming in their ability to consume a friend’s time and emotions. True friends know that there are times when we ought to withhold marks of friendship for the good of others. But just as in the realm of sex there may be people who evidently cannot satisfy themselves, as in the realm of food there are gluttons, so in human relations some people seem to have an insatiable desire to use up the time of their friends until they use up their friends. They can never bear to be alone, fearing the terror of the night around them or the demons within. Obsessed, they have cut themselves off from casual contact with people. So those who have permitted themselves to become the friends of such people come now to be exploited. The phone rings at any hour: "What are you doing? Can you come over? We’re getting a few fellows over to play cards. You can’t? What kind of a friend are you?" And as the receiver falls, one hears a hurt. Next time the friend calls or sees you, he will do what he can to make you feel guilty, to take or keep you captive: you owe me more hours, he implies. You have no right to a life of your own.

Setting out to satisfy such an attitude is no more helpful than pouring drink down the throat of an alcoholic: the taste only grows. Most people find a natural rhythm in their friendships and locate quiet ways to pass -on signals to others. We do have jobs, families, interests and privacies that need protection from friends, and it is important to guard . these zones and to signal when someone intrudes across their lines. If a subtle code does not successfully limit the friend’s demands on us, we must make clear statements of our needs. And if a friendship cannot survive the setting of boundaries, we must question whether it ever was very deep: Was the friend anything more than a consumer, eating up our time and affections? On the other hand, if we too readily draw the boundaries and allow for no sacrifice or inconvenience, then it may be as clear from the friend’s point of view that no investment in friendship is forthcoming from us. Better say good-bye, she may think, to look for other, better matches.

Friendship is a strenuous form of human activity. Most of us remember having had more friends as children than we have as adults -- or at least we were conscious of such bonds’ meaning more to us then. No doubt that is because children are more free of care and thus freer to cultivate connections than are adults. And perhaps they are also more aware of their friendships, more free to speak about them. "My friend Joey . . . my friend Sheila . . ." These are introductions of a sort that pass out of speech as people grow up and follow more formal lines: "This is my boss . . ." "Professor Smith teaches anthropology." "I’ve wanted you to meet a business associate." Less: "Here’s my best friend; I hope she’ll be a friend of yours, too." Adults are not as free as that.

Friendships That Fade

If friendships freely come, can they freely go? As they are born, do they die? Yes, we must admit, though not without some pain. But not everything in life needs to be clung to the same way. One can experience the passing of some friendships without any pain at all.

If you are in your middle years, see if you can find an address book from college days or soon after, when you first embarked on adult life. I have one such worn leather-bound book, made of materials that will last for ages. It has already outlived some friendships. Scanning it, I notice that not in a single instance was a friendship killed; not in any case did an old friend and I part as enemies. We did not even part knowing that we were parting.

Once upon a time the group of us made up "our gang." We came home from college at Christmas and partied many nights. In summer we might work six days a week, but when evening came there was always time for a date, a hamburger, or a long visit. A few score of us probably thought of each other as friends. Some disappeared for the military and never settled back home. None have the addresses they did 30 years before. Not many married within the group; as friends we had become brothers and sisters, and the attractions that cause people to marry were not strong. We are told that so it is in the kibbutzim of Israel, where unrelated boys and girls grow up as if siblings, and choose spouses from outside their circle. So with us.

Some of the group "succeeded," and we could track them down with Who’s Who or from people who know them. Others failed. I don’t know but that some may have committed suicide, though, as they say, "I should probably have heard." Once in a while when I have spoken in a faraway city someone will come up and ask, "Do you remember who I am?" And my eye retraces the outline of a face to see behind it the firmer lines of a younger face that I knew "way back when." Then it comes to me, and we spontaneously embrace. We turn to others in the circle and babble about those happy times. Everything is very genuine. We are sure that it would be nice to get together again. How are the children, if there are children? How is the spouse? Ow. Oh, I’m sorry. I hadn’t heard about the divorce -- or even the marriage, for that matter. And by the time I am back at the hotel and the old friend at his or her home, our meeting is only one part of the long day. Time to turn on the late-night news. A plane to catch in the morning.

To keep our sanity, we have to remember that even friends are like ships passing in the night; their lights penetrate each other’s zones of visibility, their solitudes touch and greet for a while -- but then they move on. The mind is not able to register nor the heart capable of storing all the positive contacts we have had through the years. We have to sort, to eliminate, to let go and let drop. There are books on my shelves that I once considered friends, books that someday will have to make room for other books. When I first read them, I could not picture the day they would be part of a gift to a library or a donation to an auction. If I could regress to the high school world in which I bought them and could re-create and then freeze the moments that led me to such books, I should be a happy creature. But not necessarily a human being, for our minds are not antique shops in which we can collect literally everything.

Letting friendships fade and die, then, may be part of a natural passage or a call of God. Friends are among the earthly things that may fall with the leaves and get raked or swept away. They may have a sweet smell, but it is like that of decaying leaves, for, with friendship, the odor of autumn comes. There are undying friendships, signals of resurrected life; there are dying friendships that we can restore later in life. And there are, mostly, quietly ending friendships among people far apart. Write someone a letter daily, and you cannot end the pages. Write annually, and there will be ever less to say each year.

The Counsel of a Friend

Along the way you have used each other for advice. That brings up one more problem area in friendships: knowing the limits of the friend as a semiprofessional helper. You can heed the counsel of a friend, but the friend is not a counselor. You can get therapy from a friendship, but friends are not therapists. Counselors and therapists have professional roles to fill. They become expert at what they do by years of study. Their preparation forces them to work out theories of human behavior, theories that can be of help when you present yourself and your specific problems. Through experience they have evolved comparative models by which you can locate yourself. From these few lines it should be clear that, relating to you in their professional capacity, they are highly limited human beings. You cannot capture life in roles, theories or comparative models. That is why counselors and therapists need friends who are not their counselees or patients.

And that is why people with trouble need to remember that friends cannot always be of help in every respect. Friends may be shocked at those creative moments when a therapist does not blink an eye or stop taking notes. "Doctor, I think my problems go back to the years when my father abused me sexually. You see, I . . . uh . . . uh." "Yes, go on?" The doctor has heard it before; maybe she hears it every day. That does not necessarily make you Case 306B, Category Incest. But it means that you are in a flow with which the doctor can cope. She can help you locate yourself in this flow and help you begin to face your problem.

Things are different, if, out of a rather clear blue-gray sky, you unload a problem based on incest on an unsuspecting friend. This friend has never been within textbook range of theory and would not know the incest taboo from a blind date. The friend has never met anyone with your problem and finds the topic disgusting. But rather than show it, he overwhelms you with torrents of shock and sympathy, all designed to help you but all capable of covering over his inexperience and ineptness. He means well, but he does not have the capability to help you to overcome your difficulty.

The therapist -- or the priest, for that matter -- often plays the part of a half-impersonal "other" who represents a larger humanity to the troubled soul. Take the priest: he can put on the robes of the confessional and speak with you about the God who presides over a moral universe in which you both find acceptance. In the act of forgiveness you rejoin the human race and enjoy a new dignity. Then this same priest can step out of his robes, put on a T-shirt, and clean up on you during a few rounds of golf until you think you have no dignity left. A friend can clean up on you, but he or she is not likely to be a successful embodiment of a larger humanity that must affirm you when you do not deserve it.

To observe that the friend is not a counselor or therapist is not to freeze him out of counsel but to see his gift in a special light. Your friend probably has no more experience with your problem than you do, and can receive the shock much as you do. Together you may live with it, and perhaps together you seek counsel. The therapist can say, "You are well on your way to cure; you simply have to experience the acceptance of other human beings." And your friend comes on the scene to be an agent of acceptance. The priest is enabled to say something as shocking as "God forgives you" or "I’ll forgive you" before turning you loose on a world that does not seem hospitable. And the friend creates a haven of hospitality where you can regather your energies for a more open assault on less accepting portions of that world.

"Talking things over" with a friend is one of the most enjoyable and, dare we say it, useful features of our relations. The mental stopwatch of the professional is running all the time. The clock ticks; the hour comes to an end. The priest runs a finger along the margin, and soon the ritual pages of the little black book come to the word "Amen," and the session is over. You go back into the burdening night or, worse, into the sun that forces you to blink in the face of a world that wants to do you in. But a friend, though she may be busy, is not monitoring your relations so closely. There is no next patient or next sinner waiting in the outer office or the next booth. There is, for now, only you. "Yes, I know you’ve told me a thousand times, but sometimes the truth comes through to me the thousand-and-first. So let’s take another run at it. No, I don’t know whether I can help you, but I think that my just being here with you is better than if I left you alone just now." Friendship finds its own distinctive place in a society where most other ties are commercial and programmed.

We might think, then, of friendship as being interstitial and tentacular. The rest of society leaves interstices and gaps, and friendship fills some of them. The rest of the culture offers possibilities for the development of the person, and friendship attaches itself to some of them. Yet in both cases friendship preserves its distinctive character, and prospers best when tested.