It isn't always easy to tell the genuine article, especially when you're new to an area, have left old friends and family behind and feel you need all the friends you can get. It can be difficult at first to tell a prospective real friend from a friendly acquaintance or, worse, a friendly potential enemy or someone who simply isn't good for your own peace of mind.
A real friend wants you to do well. He or she encourages you to try, to enhance your skills, to take a positive risk. A real friend truly wants good things to happen for you and life to go well. He or she isn't competitive and jealous when life is good. Or judgmental and critical when life isn't going so well for you. A real friend wants to help with your sense of well-being, wherever you may be on that continuum at the moment.
A real friend respects the other positive relationships in your life. A real friend doesn't insist on exclusivity of affection and attention. A real friend realizes that our lives are enriched by a great variety of relationships. We can love each other without having to love everyone else in each other's lives. But respect is an important part of friendship. A real friend respects your other friendships, including the ones he or she does not share. A real friend encourages all of your positive relationships (and may question only those relationships he or she sees as harmful or hurtful).
A real friend is quick to say "I'm sorry" When there is a misunderstanding or a conflict, real friends apologize and seek to work out differences. Even if she secretly thinks that the problem is mostly your fault, a real friend will try to open a dialogue and start resolving the problem between you by taking responsibility and apologizing for his or her part in the difficulty.
A real friend is gentle with your feelings. Such a friend doesn't use you to dump negative feelings or as an emotional punching bag when he or she is in a bad mood. And even when you disagree, a real friend respects both your feelings and your opinions. I have a number of friends -- including one of my dearest friends, Mary -- who do not share my somewhat Leftist political opinions at all. But that is no impediment to our friendship and no reason for hurtful political exchanges. I understand and respect her beliefs and Mary understands and respects mine. There is no need to try to convince each other to think or feel or believe otherwise. Real friendships mean much more than a personal feeling of being right.
A real friend will be honest with you in a caring way. People who claim to be your friends will sometimes put a premium on telling you the truth -- and proceed to be brutally honest. A real friend will tell you the truth, but in a way that helps you hear and take in what she is saying -- and to be open to positive change. I remember an instance many years ago when I was caught up in the excitement of a friendship with an actress who was starring in a popular television series. I enjoyed her company greatly, somewhat to the exclusion of some other treasured friends, and I talked about her more than some other people in my life could bear. Finally, Robyn, a friend and co-worker, took me aside. She put her arm around me and I could see that she had tears in her eyes. "Kathy," she said. "I care so much about you and it pains me to see you losing yourself in this friendship. It's all about her -- and nothing about you. You have so much more to offer as a person and as a friend. I miss you." I was both stunned -- and warmed -- by her words. I knew that she was speaking from her heart -- and that what she was saying was true. I embraced her and thanked her for her courage and caring. And to this day, so many years after the friendship with the actress ran its probably quite predictable course, I still feel gratitude and affection for Robyn, as a friend who cared enough to speak up.
A real friend doesn't bail when the going gets tough. Real friends are with you long-term, through misunderstandings, through temporary standoffs, hurt feelings and differences. Any relationship worth having takes effort and, at times, patience, humility and the ability to make changes in the dynamics of the relationship or one's own behavior. A long-time family friend has declined to speak to anyone in our family since reading something in one of my blog posts a few months back that she apparently interpreted as a criticism. My brother and I had discussed the post early on and had agreed that, if she recognized herself in it at all, this might provide a basis for a discussion long overdue and the resolution of some painful differences. Instead, she has distanced herself -- precluding any possibility of resolution and causing both sadness and disappointment among some (though not all) family members.
A real friend is there for you -- and happy for you -- in your triumphs as much as she is during your tribulations. It's far easier -- though valued, too -- to comfort a friend in distress than it is to celebrate a triumph. That, perhaps, is the most important aspect of a real friendship: to be happy for you when your life is going well, even if his or hers is not. Or to be happy for you when a positive change in your life may not bring quite so much happiness for your friend. When Bob and I bought our new home in Arizona -- nearly a year before we actually left California to move here -- my friend Mary was genuinely happy for me, even though it meant I would be moving away. She shared my excitement as we poured over floor plans, as I showed her pictures of the house in progress and all the community amenities. "It's perfect!" she would say. "It's just so right for you. I'm so happy and excited for you!" Then we would look in each other's eyes and tear up, realizing anew the separation to come.
"But I really am happy for you, Kath," Mary would say, as tears streamed down our faces. "This is a dream and it's going to happen for you. You'll be in a place where you can get healthy and active and just enjoy your life every day. You so deserve all that and more!"
That is a real friend.