What's a good way to "test" a friendship?
August 3, 2019 1:43 PM   Subscribe

How do you know if someone's a true friend before they wreak havoc in your life?

The problem is that when I look online for how to know if a friend is a true friend, they come up with things that really take a lot of investment in that friendship before you get to find out. For example: If you're sick in the hospital and they don't visit you or call you now and then to see how you're doing. Then they suddenly appear again when you're all well because they need a wingman, or they want to borrow something etc.

Ok, but I don't want to have to wait to get into an accident to find out whether my friends are genuine. And faking that in order to test the friendship is um... really fucked up. I was just wondering if there are less f'd up ways to test whether your friends are really your friends, because certain recent events in our lives has made us realize that the absolute worst time to find out who doesn't care about you is during a time when you need these friends the most.
posted by fantasticness to Human Relations (20 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I think you answered your question: You don't. It's a shitty thing to do.

Instead, you pay attention to cues. Do they only want to spend time with you when you're helping them or when it feels like you're filling out a roster? Do they help you with smaller things? Do they feel like they're interested in you and care about you when you hang out, or does it feel one-sided on your part?

And importantly, do they see the friendship the same way that you do? Because honestly, people can have very different ideas about their relationships. It's really painful to find out someone thinks of you as a fun acquaintance when you think of them as a close friend, but it happens. What role they want you to play in their life?

But I don't think there's a way to "know" for sure until things actually get difficult because difficulty is the test.

I also don't think that framing it as "genuine" versus "not genuine" is ... helpful. That implies deception, and it's not a great way to approach relationships. Sure, think about whether they are selfish or whether they treat you well, and make choices based on that. But don't see it as weeding out the "fakers", see it as adjusting your expectations of people or weeding out the people who are not treating you kindly.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 1:58 PM on August 3, 2019 [51 favorites]

Alas, in my experience, that’s the only way to find out.

By way of example: two years ago, if you had asked my three closest friends whether they’d stick with me if I experienced a trauma, I guarantee you they’d all say yes.

But one of them assaulted me, the second chose to stick by him instead of me, and I lost the third to secondary trauma a year later.

People just don’t really know what they’ll do in extremis until they’re in it.
posted by ocherdraco at 2:00 PM on August 3, 2019 [34 favorites]

Here are some red flags:

A good friend won't repeatedly borrow money. If they ask to borrow more than, say, $100, more than once a year, or if they ask to borrow money before the last loan is repaid, be alert- they may be using you).

A good friend will put as much effort/money into gifts as you do. Not everyone has cash to buy gifts, so it's not a dollar-for-dollar calculation. But if you do things like buy them gifts, in an equal friendship, they would be doing things that show effort, such as making soup and dropping it off at your house when you're sick.

A good friend will help you, especially when you're stressed. Did they help you move?
Or they will check in from afar- when you're having a shitty week, do they text to ask how you're doing? Or if you have a job interview, will they call the next day to ask how it went?

A good friend listens to your problems and helps with your problems - in roughly equal amounts as you listen to them and help them. This may not be the same every single day- if one of you is in a crisis that person will probably talk more and need more during that time... but over a period of 6 months or so, it should equal out between you. You both deserve attention and help, not a one-way street.

A good friend speaks well of you to others, and keeps your secrets (the only secret a good friend would disclose is that if you were self-harming they might tell your relative or call an ambulance).

A good friend keeps their word and rarely flakes out on plans.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 2:00 PM on August 3, 2019 [17 favorites]

People that don't mind if I'm grumpy or ranty tend to be better quality friends than those that seem to only want surface and smooth/easy communication.

Having a conflict and being able to resolve it respectfully and have mutual interest in continuing to spend time together is another smaller test.

Standing up for you if someone is rude or insulting about an area they know about might be another look of higher quality friendship although admittedly a shyer person probably wouldn't do that.

Basically are they still there when things get harder, even if not at the level of a crisis. Surface friends don't buffer that stuff the way better ones do IME.
posted by crunchy potato at 2:01 PM on August 3, 2019 [4 favorites]

Get them talking about other people. everybody has a past and everybody past a certain age has a type or two, and a set way they treat those types that repeats itself.

get them going with anecdotes. like if you're talking about how your grandmother's sick, and they say Oh, yeah, relatives are so entitled and demanding, right? like, we have our own lives!

or if you're talking about another friend you helped out with something and they say Oh yeah, I'm always doing things like that, I'm just a giver, it's in my nature, I'm an empath and I just give give give, people in trouble can sense that so I have to avoid anybody needy or I'll just LOSE myself

(these are bad signs)

adjust to suit your own concerns.

also, try to be around them in small groups. to see how they treat and talk to others in the little things of life, because you can be more objective about observing it when not part of it. See if they have a long friendly history with other people or a series of ruptures.
posted by queenofbithynia at 2:01 PM on August 3, 2019 [4 favorites]

Any contrived test is at least a bit "f'd up." The fact is that friendships are naturally tested as they progress. Each time you ask for something new from a friend -- anything from a request to hang out to a request to provide intense emotional support -- it's a test in the sense that you will find out if what you're asking for is something they can or will provide at that point.

There is no way to know if someone will be a "stay with you in the hospital" friend until you get there. And early in a friendship, almost no one will be, even if they are entirely genuine and could be at that level after the friendship develops more.

So maybe one way to look at it is that friendships develop over time, becoming stronger and "truer" as they progress. You can help that along by stepping up when your friends ask you for things and by asking for progressively more yourself over time. At any point, if a friend doesn't provide what you request, that doesn't necessarily mean they aren't genuine, though; you might just be asking for more than they can give or for more than they're comfortable giving where the friendship is at that point.

As others have said above, you can and should always be on the lookout for whether friends are treating you well or not.
posted by whatnotever at 2:03 PM on August 3, 2019 [16 favorites]

Red flaggy things that pop up within a month of knowing each other:

Did they get too friendly too early, too intensely or possibly wall you off from colleagues or other friends?

Do they treat others well (sales people, wait staff, immediate family, cleaning staff, other friends)?

Do they offer to split costs?

Do they overshare feelings, including the feeling that they love you already?

Do they ask for too many favors?

Do you get an unsettling feeling early that sometimes they don't really "get" you, i.e. they decide the wavelength you're both going to be on before you've had a chance to decide for yourself.

Does the potential friend understand and respect your values? (You're a decent tipper. You don't share vicious gossip. You show up for others as much as you can. You immediately pay back money if you had to borrow a small amount because you left your wallet at home.)

Does the person respect your time/boundaries if you've lightly mentioned them? (i.e. no flaking on plans early on; no expectation of constant texting if you hint that you're a minimal texter or never text at work)

Do they borrow stuff and not return it? Or expect to share clothes, car, equipment because you're bosom buddies?

Does that person respect your privacy?

Do current friends like the potential friend?

Do they "poach" on your existing friends before slowly becoming part of your circle?

Is there a little too much drama about small matters?

Are there out-of-the-blue emotional explosions that surprise you?

Is there an even balance conversationally? (That can mean that each of you unloads at different times, but you each get a "turn" to do that.)

Does the person talk obsessively about the same personal problem early on and over and over?

Does he/she drink too much?
posted by Elsie at 2:14 PM on August 3, 2019 [21 favorites]

Also,there are different kinds of friendship and people are available in different ways. There can be the "help me move a couch up a flight of stairs" friends, the "drop everything and drive me to urgent care" friend, the "let me call at midnight and cry" friend, the "guaranteed to make me life and feel good about myself" friend, the "let me sleep on their couch for days [or weeks]" friend. Not all friends are going to be willing and able to all those things and I won't say they aren't "true" friends just because they can't stay up until 2 am talking or can't handle emergency houseguests.

For me the truer test of friendship is the quality of the relationship. Can I be my true self when I am around them? If something bothers me, can we talk about it? If something bothers them, can we talk about it? If someone gets it wrong, will they listen, will they care, will they try to repair the friendship? When that happens, if I'm in the hospital, I can take the risk fo letting them know that I need help and they can show up in the ways they can and let me know their boundaries when they can't and we can both be OK with that.
posted by metahawk at 2:16 PM on August 3, 2019 [27 favorites]

I think people have to live with the reality that there are different levels of friends. I have friends who are fine but probably wouldn't help me in a crisis. If and when the crisis comes, then I'll know who the deeper friends are but I won't necessarily dump those who didn't or couldn't rise to the occasion. I wouldn't want to get rid of friends who are a little flakey, or who perhaps have stronger commitments to other people than they have to me (and limited time/emotional/financial resources to help everyone) any more than I'd want all my casual friends to drop me because I have closer people in my own inner circle, who come first in my own capacity to help people. I think as you get older, you learn to relax and accept the fact that friendships come in different flavors, rather than a binary of fake and real friends. It's much easier to live this way. :)
posted by nantucket at 2:17 PM on August 3, 2019 [35 favorites]

People can be weird in crisis situations and their reactions can be entirely dependent on the situation and their own personal issues and/or idiosyncrasies. Maybe you have a friend who is totally flaky if you're going through a breakup but would end up being the best person to turn to when grieving the death of a loved one.

There is no way to "test" a friendship until an actual event happens. But there is also a huge difference between someone not being there for you at a time of need and "wreaking havoc on your life." You can't really know the first until such a situation occurs but there should be early red flags for the second.
posted by acidnova at 2:38 PM on August 3, 2019 [12 favorites]

You're setting up friendship as a binary, "genuine vs. not genuine" scenario, and in my experience it doesn't really work that way. Every friend you have, being human, is going to be flawed, so they will sometimes be a flawed friend, too. Also, every friend brings something different. Some people are good at emotional support; some are not. Some people are dependable; some are flaky (but mean well). Some people remember birthdays and like to give gifts; others don't but will be a listening ear when you need one. Etc.

Also, there are different levels of friendship as people have mentioned. Not everyone can, or should, give their all in every friendship or relationship. What to you may be a "non genuine" friend may just be a person who has put you into the "not close friend" category in their life, so they set up more boundaries and are less available.
posted by bearette at 2:40 PM on August 3, 2019 [21 favorites]

When I'm struggling with questions about other people and their behavior, I find it helpful to turn the question around first. How many friennds do I have? What ways do I show my friendship to each one? If you start with your own life right now, all the questions you have about other people's friendship with you are at least put into perspective when you start noticing how you act with different friends. No judging. Just noticing.
posted by kestralwing at 3:43 PM on August 3, 2019 [8 favorites]

You can't test a friendship, any more than you can test love, and still be ethical. You can merely live your life and pay attention to trends rather than moments. With my closest, longest-held friendships, whenever we talk, whoever's life is in the most turmoil or period of changes gets to "go first" and share stories, and that's fine. But if it's always about your friend's life and your friend never shows interest in your life and never asks (or gives the opportunity to share), there's an imbalance.

I have four close friends, two girls and two guys. Only two have even met one another, as they're from different parts and eras of my lives. The oldest, I've known 35 years, and shortest, about a dozen years. Each of us have disappointed one another at some point, I'm sure, over those years, mostly (if not entirely) unintentionally. Two have raised children, and three were (and two are currently) married, so their life obligations could not always prioritize friendship all the time. Two (one woman, one man) are superior at emotional support, though they're fairly good at practical things. One guy has terrible at being there emotionally, but he's there when he can, and he'd give me all of his money if that's what I needed, though he probably couldn't give me the supportive language I might want; he wouldn't know how. And one woman is superior at practical, take-charge things but very uncomfortable with emotion. So it's important that your expectations of individual people are realistic. People can't always be what we want, and it's unfair of us to judge others by how we'd act, or what we need.

You cannot test trust or affection. Only true circumstances can do that. One friend (the one who has known me the least long, but who lives the closest (relatively) to me) drove 2 hours to sit by my side for just a few hours when I was unexpectedly hospitalized, knowing she had to turn around and drive back to her city in the wee hours. One friend (with severe clinical depression) once neglected to do a five-minute tech thing he promised he would do so that I could go away on a trip without worry. But she's not, per se, a better friend than he is. She isn't more genuine.

I often worry that I disappointed my best friend because, while going through a crisis of my own, I wasn't supportive enough of her during a death in her family. However, she doesn't feel that way at all because she's a wise one, but also, because she looks at the totality of our lives.

With newer friends? Well, they're newer. You don't know how they work. That takes months or years or lifetimes. Different people were raised differently, with different expectations regarding boundaries and expectations, and the very thing you want from them may be the thing that they think would make them a bad friend.

I'm the kind of person who jumps into your life and am omnipresent; introversion often seems like disinterest to me. I have a very close, adulthood-long friend, who was brought up to wait until someone asks for help because being around when someone is having a crisis feels, to him, like he's intruding. It has taken a lifetime to (barely) persuade him otherwise.

A person who ALWAYS puts themselves first is not a good friend. But not all friendships are ride-or-die. Some friendships are, "You like X? I like X, also. Let's be Xish friends! Hurrah!" And sometimes, people who love us will fail us because humans are flawed. If you never want to risk disappointment by others, you'd have to be a hermit. Otherwise, you can just be the best friend you know how to be, in a way that feels fair and natural to you, and watch, over time, how others behave.
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 3:44 PM on August 3, 2019 [17 favorites]

Their response when you ask for help with small things can provide you with some information. If they're NEVER open to feeding your cat/ lending you their lawnmower/ dropping off toilet paper when you're sick, they're unlikely to be helpful in other situations.

Developing these sorts of interdependencies is also a way to strengthen friendships. Someone you've driven to the doctor's office and who's helped install your air conditioner is not only the type of person who is more likely to stick around, but is more likely to have made a deeper commitment to you just through mutual assistance.

Also, I know this feels scary and demanding in our culture, but explicitly talking about these things with the people you have relationships with is really useful. While we don't always follow through on our commitments, knowing that we HAVE commitments is the first step in doing so. By talking about it you might learn that in one relationship you both want to have sex and raise children together, but don't want to be each other's health proxies. In another relationship you might be able to expect to see them every single week, but not outside of that standing date. Another might be rarely available but will get on an airplane in the case of x, y, or z.
posted by metasarah at 3:58 PM on August 3, 2019 [4 favorites]

How they talk about other people in their life is a huge flag for me. We all have to deal with people we dislike but if they mostly have bad things to say about people, it speaks to how they view others.
posted by winna at 5:08 PM on August 3, 2019 [8 favorites]

Friendships wax and wane, too. I'm 41 and have two best friends. One of them, I've been friends with for 23 years. Except for when we weren't speaking because something I can't remember happened. (Seriously, no idea.) But we're back to besties again. She lives a few hundred miles away, so she can't be here when I'm in the hospital, but she's on the phone and on my laptop. We're godmothers to each others kids.

The other one loathed me when we first met in real life. Loooong story. But now? We're like sisters. I absolutely adore her. She's my full-time caregiver, which helps with the whole spending time together thing. But she's hilarious and smart and caring and savvy and creative as hell. I love her and she loves me back. 7, 8 years ago, we'd have cheerfully killed each other. Now I can't imagine life without her. And the feeling's mutual.
posted by The Almighty Mommy Goddess at 5:25 PM on August 3, 2019 [6 favorites]

There's a bit of a gap between wreaking havoc and just not showing up. And there's also individual perception of the friendship and what a good friend does or doesn't do in different events. A while back a friend dropped a hint that she would like some support in a family situation - I showed up but if she hadn't let me know I would have assumed I wasn't needed and that she preferred for the situation to remain a family thing.

I think you can tell, over time, if people care about you and what caring means for them. You don't need tests for that. Are they willing to be vulnerable, are they comfortable with your vulnerability, do they acknowledge their mistakes? When other friends and family members are in crisis, how do they respond?
posted by bunderful at 6:34 PM on August 3, 2019

I’m an introvert, and my habitual pattern was to have a couple super close friends and rely only on them. This worked much less well as we all got older and had more commitments in our lives (especially since my friends were more outgoing and had larger social circles). I now make an effort to have a larger circle of people I’m reasonably close to / trade favors and support with, so if a particular friend can’t step up to help, another one likely can. You may be surprised who does. Implicit in this is getting comfortable asking more people for help.
posted by momus_window at 6:58 PM on August 3, 2019 [6 favorites]

In short, you ask for help and see who shows up, and you see if they are showing up for other people in their lives. What are their family relationships like? Are they petrified of hospitals and illness or do they support other loved ones through hard times?

On a lower level, do they help move chairs at the party? Bring a dish to the potluck or beer to the BBQ? If not, if you say "hey, I noticed you never bring anything" do they get mad/defensive or say "oh, I didn't realize that would be normal (based on my own family/cultural expectations), I can bring something next time"?

1. What happens when you have a need and don't say anything (do you have common unspoken expectations)?
2. What happens when you ask for something?
posted by Lady Li at 9:37 PM on August 3, 2019

There's a few more things going on here than you realize. People have VERY different reactions to grief in others or in themselves. There could be many reasons why a person fades away when a tragedy happens, and often they're fear/anxiety based. Fear of saying the wrong thing. Fear of bothering them. Fear of their own thinking about death or hard times. Triggering based on their past. Then you get the more banal "bad friend" ones like laziness or they just didn't care. Option B is a book I'm reading right now where she goes through the different reactions to her husbands sudden death at a young age with no warning.

What you can do is look at how friends engage with the world. Are they empathetic? Do they build seemingly lasting relationships that invite you into their life and also venture into yours when invited in a deeper way?

But really, you won't ever know a heart until you see it in action. I have a friend of 10ish years that I realize just... isn't interested in this, anymore. Emotionally letting me engage in his life (which makes me not want to burden him with mine). It does hurt. That same friend and his wife took care of my cats for 5 days when I had to sprint to the airport to catch a last second emergency flight and then slowly make my way back. They cleaned my entire apartment. It was unbelievably moving. But that same friend just doesn't in any way speak about something beyond superficial things.

So yeah, I dunno. Be the kind of person who will be there for people, and you have a higher likelihood of self-selecting for the same.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 9:24 AM on August 5, 2019

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