What are the necessary and sufficient conditions for truly simpatico connections?
June 28, 2008 7:08 PM   Subscribe

We've all encountered, if we are lucky and blessed, someone who transcends the definition of friend -- a truly simpatico soul (as in friend, not "soul mate"), someone with whom you can and sometimes do speak for hours, someone who "gets you." What accounts for the connection? Shared beliefs? Shared values? Shared aspirations Shared stage-of-life? It's got to be more than mere shared interests.

I know there have been a few interesting Metafilter questions posted about the nature of friendship (most recently on the "psychology of friendship"), but this goes beyond that. I guess I'm talking about what constitutes a psychological/emotional/cognitive doppleganger! It's different from a friend, and just knowing that such a person exists, even if you don't get to see each other that often, is a source of comfort and strength as we sail through life.
posted by adamrobinson to Human Relations (34 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
posted by phrontist at 7:23 PM on June 28, 2008

Chemistry. IME, anyway.
posted by rtha at 7:28 PM on June 28, 2008

I've had two people like that in my life. Part of it is common interests or "outlooks". But I think it's that you feel a "click" (or chemistry, as rtha said) with him/her, and he/she feels the same about you.
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 7:40 PM on June 28, 2008

Shared beliefs? Shared values? Shared aspirations Shared stage-of-life?

My best friend is a gun-loving, religious, right-wing Republican. I am very firmly and vocally none of those things. She is calm, thoughtful and nurturing. I am a recovering drama queen. Yet, we finish each other's sentences and make each other laugh until we cry. We love each other deeply and genuinely enjoy each other's company. I don't really know why. Maybe it's that we complement each other so thoroughly. I draw her out of her shell and challenge her to do things she otherwise wouldn't. She calms me and keeps me from going too far. Mostly, though, I think we are bonded by our shared sense of humor. We frequently find ourselves cracking up at things no one else finds funny.
posted by jrossi4r at 7:57 PM on June 28, 2008

Response by poster: I'm looking for deeper responses, and it's a topic every MF member can relate to. My question is what, precisely, causes the chemistry (oxytocin is a cute response, but please, let's get real). It's an intellectual-worldview-selfview, whatever kind of connection, not physical.
posted by adamrobinson at 7:59 PM on June 28, 2008

Response by poster: jrossi4r hits it on the head, but we're still all left with the mystery, surely we can get some insights into what's at work, or even what isn't
posted by adamrobinson at 8:01 PM on June 28, 2008

I can recall a line in a story, taking place in Arabia quite a long time ago where after smoking hashish the people were talking and laughing like they had been friends for a thousand years but had just met.

So this makes me a de facto believer in either reincarnation or brain chemistry. Actually these kind of friends are to me, the strongest argument for reincarnation.

That doesn't really seem like an answer though.
posted by Deep Dish at 8:06 PM on June 28, 2008

Great question! I think it has more to do with symbiosis than shared beliefs or experiences. Often you'll notice a connection with people who are radically different from you. I don't have any insight myself but I am looking forward to the responses.
posted by Flying Squirrel at 8:08 PM on June 28, 2008

I think it has a lot to do with acceptance. You accept your "special friend" just the way they are. You don't try, or have any need to change them. They are what they are; and you are what you are. It's kind of like with a dog. The dog knows how to have a perfect relationship with you. When your dog does something wrong, what do you do with him? He doesn't care what you do, he just loves you.

Someone who is completely on the same wavelength will love you just the way you are, because if they want to change you, it means that you are not what they want. There is an acceptance there that you each have every right to be exactly who you are, comfortable in your own skin, with no need to change. There is respect. No one is selfish. Nothing is taken personally. You are in service of each other.

It is seemingly rare when this type of friendship occurs, but it is a great delight when it does. I am totally blessed to have one of these relationships right now, and for the past seven years. My friend almost knows what I am thinking. We never, ever argue because we understand each other completely. It is a great comfort.
posted by netbros at 8:09 PM on June 28, 2008 [6 favorites]

My big brother is my best friend. We communicate at an even higher bandwidth that even Xanthippe (my ole lady) and i do. Also, he's got what the kids call my "back yo".

So I guess those are the two things I'm looking for in a best friend: Bandwidth and Backyo.

This was probably no help. Do you have a big brother?
posted by stubby phillips at 8:16 PM on June 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

I think Martin Buber writes about this phenomenon quite well in 'I and Thou'. The central idea being that occasionally you meet people that you're able to instinctively communicate with beyond the egocentricity of the I that you use to navigate life with. Of course he goes on to say that it's possible to have these kinds of experiences with everyone if we cultivate them. 'Man to Man' takes a more academic look at this idea and explores the ethics around it, but both are good reads.
posted by thankyoujohnnyfever at 8:20 PM on June 28, 2008 [6 favorites]

What accounts for the connection?

They're like you. Rather than having to translate your thought into speech, they understand your thought process 'cause they think in a similar way. So it's no longer just you in your head, you've got a playmate.

Of course, other people can understand you, but the key difference is that they have to make an effort. These 'likeyous' instinctively understand you and validate your view of the world or thoughts, so they seem more real.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:38 PM on June 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

My guess is that a big part is having the same body language, or more generally, the same non-verbal communication. That's probably what makes people click together - being able to understand each other on a deeply animal level.
posted by anadem at 8:41 PM on June 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

Like netbros said above, and stubby phillips too, for that matter -t hat type of connection requires absolute acceptance of the other person, and having their "Backyo."

I have a friend like this, and I think they may have saved my life (or at least my sanity). I'm utterly grateful to her, and I think that she feels the same way about me. If she needs anything, I will do it for her. It's a rare and precious thing.

It's a lot like falling in love - who can say absolutely what causes it? Absolute opposites have fallen for each other, as have those who are similar. Maybe it's just a simple matter of falling in love with someone who you don't want to have sex with. I think it's the same mechanism.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 8:41 PM on June 28, 2008

As Brandon said.
posted by anadem at 8:42 PM on June 28, 2008

Aren't the most fortunate marriages those where the partners share their ways of communication? How wonderful to be in love with and loved by a person who gets you and whom you get.
posted by anadem at 8:45 PM on June 28, 2008

Response by poster: I think we're on to something. The Buber reference was really interesting. I think one of the characteristics of such a connection, the more I muse on it, is that we feel more our "true" self with such a person, and feel more OF that self (the connection calls on more of our truest nature than do more superficial "relationships" -- i.e., the vast, vast majority). I guess what I'm saying is that with such individuals, we ARE different beings (get to experience parts of our selves) that we don't normally get to exercise. Thoughts?
posted by adamrobinson at 8:48 PM on June 28, 2008

Mechanism counts for something, no? I'm often surprised at how arbitrary the original spark is -- a shared enthusiasm for something random and quite specific (Bruno Taut, TMBG, a great album or song, a mutual passion for building potato guns, etc) that morphs into a shared way of thinking and talking and developing curiosities in tandem.

Totally different from "shared interests." I think Brandon's right, in that it has much more to do with how you think than what you think or talk about. Circumstance does seem to matter, though. My closest friends have tended to emerge out of chance encounters, where chemistry clicked at the right time and place, and created space for something wonderful.
posted by puckish at 9:14 PM on June 28, 2008

Anyone have a link for the Buber (or part of it?). It sounds interesting but also maddeningly abstract. But...having the reference might help to bring the thread outside the realm of purely personal experience.
posted by puckish at 9:20 PM on June 28, 2008

In my experience, my best friends have been those I've both known longest, and who give me that father/older brother feeling. My "manfriends" as my girlfriend calls them are fairly varied in their characteristics, similar in beliefs, mostly taller than me, and enjoy my sense of humor in that they permit my eccentricities, humor my mistakes, and generally enjoy musing questions like this one. There is one condition; none of them can take me too seriously. And they don't.

So I thought that was it. They are older brothers, I'm an adopted younger brother, they can live through me in my playful childlike antics, and I can impress them, or embarrass them, to my heart's content.

My girlfriend actually fills the above requisites pretty well, too. (taller, older, larger hands, works harder, makes more money...)

I guess what I'm saying is that, at least for me, it's the silent communication I get from these people that makes me connect to them. The wry smile when they're trying not to show I've done something funny, the sideways looks as they wait for me to react to something... all that stuff. It's a natural, unforced, unmentioned, unnoticed thing, and it's better than anything they've ever said or done that has meant something to me.

My question has always been related to this, but perhaps better put elsewhere. When it is so easy to tell when you are getting along with someone naturally, how can people put up with fake relationships? Don't bosses know that people are only talking to them because they are afraid or ambitious? Don't guys get the message that a girl is not interested? When I see people having coffee together, talking, I think within seconds I can tell if they are friends, forced friends, or acquaintances. Anyone?

PS, good question. Sorry about the rambling answer :)
posted by omnigut at 9:27 PM on June 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

By the way, I'd like to counter the "having someone's back" answers above. Without wanting to offend anyone, I've always had a dislike for that kind of condition. You could argue that a special friend, like the ones we're talking about, would never do anything you wouldn't support anyway, but I disagree.

Case; a good friend recently got into an argument where he was in the wrong. I sided with his opposition, because that was the right thing to do. It had no detrimental effect on the relationship as I can see.

Case 2; I recently found out that another good friend is harboring race/class opinions I don't share. I took about five hours to research and return an answer I felt could put her straight on a couple of things. She took it hard, but this kind of thing is important in a relationship. It's what builds trust, because you know no one is EVER going to do something for you simply because you're their "brother" or "bff." And then if they aren't complaining, you can be absolutely sure you're doing the right thing, because only then can you trust their opinion.

I guess to bring this back to the question, the "special friend," again IME, is one who doesn't play mind games. Honesty, right? Above anything else.
posted by omnigut at 9:36 PM on June 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Forgive my ignorance, what does IME mean? (two posters have used it)
posted by adamrobinson at 9:45 PM on June 28, 2008

In my experience.
posted by wv kay in ga at 10:32 PM on June 28, 2008

If you want all of I and Thou its not that long. I love Google books.

I think anadem is onto something big. Most of what we communicate is done nonverbally. To have a bond where you 'know what the other person is going to say,' or 'can empathize with with what they're feeling' you need to be able to relate to the verbal and nonverbal signals being sent your direction.
posted by Parallax.Error at 11:51 PM on June 28, 2008

I was thinking about this other day visavis my gf. Although we have some similar interests and similar views, what matters most is we have similar inclinations. As a result, in a given situation, we are likely to respond in either a similar or complementary fashion.
posted by Deathalicious at 12:07 AM on June 29, 2008

The people I've had this experience of "clicking" with have one thing in common: they think like me. They know where to push, where to ease up in conversation. They understand, innately, why I act a certain way - even if it's not how most people act. There's never an awkward moment after one of us tells an offensive joke. We have the same reactions to things, and even our internal monologues tend to follow a similar train.

All of my friends will accept my antics, some will understand them superficially, but only one or two will understand completely - understand what's going through my head, because that's exactly what's going though theirs.

These friends "mesh" effortlessly with me. Push in the right places, ease up in others. I like to think of it as puzzle pieces: most people will only mesh slightly, some people will fit well enough with some effort, but only a couple will fit perfectly.
posted by wsp at 12:42 AM on June 29, 2008 [4 favorites]

I very much agree with the "think like me" idea and wsp's comment in particular. Those people sometimes disagree about specific matters of opinion, or like different things or have different hobbies, but they still think in the same manner. This has been my experience, anyway.
posted by Nattie at 1:25 AM on June 29, 2008

I think it comes from having very similar reactions to similar life experiences.
posted by Ironmouth at 3:54 AM on June 29, 2008

I remember that Aristotle's theory on friendship clicked to me many years ago, but trying to find it I couldn't get the original, but here writer finely puts it: "someone with whom one has a relationship very similar to the relationship one has with oneself".

We are not really good at understanding ourselves and I think our ongoing challenge for cognitive understanding of our own emotional self is the secret ingredient that you are looking for from friend's face. In a friendship that internal relationship can be externalised: not my mind meeting my emotions, but my mind meeting your emotions and vice versa. Challenges like this become easier when parts of them can be externalised and talked about.
posted by Free word order! at 5:06 AM on June 29, 2008

For me it's validation. There are a lot of things in life, no matter who you are, that just make no sense what-so-freakin-ever and the general population just goes along with them so when you find someone who sees the same world you do, it's pretty significant.

It's a source of comfort even though two of them are dead.

I'm not talking about people who think like me about a lot of day-to-day issues, or particularly understand me as a critter, just people who if you throw out a pile of evidence, would address it the same way I would - although not neccessarily to the same ends.

And then I have friends who are friends just because we've been friends for so long and they have been good friends. (A few years ago, I gave myself permission to jettison the people who were still "friends" because of tenure, which has really improved my attitude toward friends.)
posted by Lesser Shrew at 9:08 AM on June 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

A lot of people are mentioning connections that run deeper than words. I agree with this and think it does have something to do with shared experiences. I have reflected on different occasions that many of my very best friends are people who I might not immediately connect with if I bumped into them for the first time today. What made us so close was riding the bus together for an hour to and from school, getting through the same hellish schoolteachers in the context of learning to grow up, going on that trip to a farm where there was nobody else around to socialize with, etc. Depth, consistency, or intensity of exposure can quickly bring out either conflict or real attachment, and in the latter case, a kind of 'melding' of minds that leaves its imprint afterwards.

This also brings to mind the work of Hannah Arendt in her book The Human Condition. In it, she elaborates a threefold typology of human activity: Work, Labor, and Action. Work is what we do to survive. Labor is what we do to create something physical and external to ourselves that may last beyond our lives. Action is what we do and say in the company of others, the public sphere, that creates a story of ourselves which will last beyond us in human society. Action is a very special category because human virtue is both its means and its end. And in order to realize it, you must be in the company of others who can understand you, not just in the literal sense of your words, but in the deeper sense of how what you say (or perhaps communicate nonverbally) is revelatory of who you truly are.

A recent book called Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition by Robert Harrison (somewhat obviously) draws a lot from Arendt and talks about the sympatico relationship in the context of teaching. To make his point he quotes Plato, who writes in the Phaedrus: "No treatise by me concerning [knowledge of the matters with which I concern myself] exists or will ever exist. It is not something that can be put into words like other branches of knowledge; only after long partnership and in a common life devoted to this very thing does the truth flash upon the soul, like a flame kindled by a leaping spark, and once it is born there it nourishes itself hereafter."

I take both of these books to suggest that there is something about the absorption of another person, a process over time, that builds a connection that takes our communication with each other beyond words. I know there is much to say about an instantaneous 'spark' or set of commonalities in a relationship, but it seems to me that the real necessary and sufficient conditions for deeply 'sympatico' friendships are time and patience, which are difficult to locate, let alone dedicate, these days.
posted by LoneWolfMcQuade at 6:28 AM on June 30, 2008

Wow, my experiences are very different from most of y'alls.

My best friends - the ones that I have really clicked with - have understood me in deep ways, for sure. We share non-verbal communication, we know when to ask and what to ask, and we know when it is and is not appropriate to tease each other.

But they're not the people I never fight with, nor are they the people that support everything I do. Hell. They're not even the people that don't expect me to change.

If anything, my truly best friends are the ones that challenge me to change. Expect me to change. Call me out on my shit. And vice versa. They're the ones who tell it to me like it is. Who are somehow able to tell me exactly who and how I am, why certain patterns are destructive to myself or others, and do it in a way that affirms our friendship and my worth as a friend and a human being. They tell me what I do wrong without judging me for being imperfect. I like to think we are genuinely interested in helping each other become better people.

I guess tough love is "simpatico", for me.
posted by lunit at 8:04 AM on June 30, 2008

same as all great relationships: chemistry.
posted by violetk at 10:12 AM on June 30, 2008

My question is what, precisely, causes the chemistry

oh, didn't see this. i don't think chemistry can be really explained. your relationship with each person is unique and the chemistry you share with each person is unique. what creates the chemistry for one friend or lover or whoever is going to be different from what creates it for another.
posted by violetk at 10:16 AM on June 30, 2008

« Older Let he who be without sine...   |   I hate the smell of lighter fluid in the evening Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.