Guidelines for Assessing Friendships

From The Encourager Newsletter Issue#002 June 2003. Copyright © 2003 by Don H. Morris.

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. John Donne (1572-1631 CE), Meditation XVII


Donne was keenly aware that human beings are intimately interconnected. Each person experiences daily two types of needs that can only be met by social interaction: (a) Instrumental (task-oriented), and (b) expressive (emotional).

Instrumental needs are met when the people in our lives perform practical, concrete actions. They do things like baby-sit, give us a ride to the store, help us pack for a move, or provide vital information for making decisions. Love, empathy, caring, and trust meet expressive needs. We need smiles, hugs, kind words, and caring connections just as much or more than we need practical assistance.

Throughout our lives, we develop hundreds of relationships to meet this huge array of needs. When a pressing need arises, often it is our friends and family that we turn to first. Sometimes this is appropriate, and sometimes it is not. An understanding of friendships will greatly increase the likelihood of getting our most important needs met.

Let’s start by seeing how the rules of friendships operate. As you read, note especially how these rules differ from the rules of the other relationships in our lives.


A good friendship is a relationship of trust and mutual sharing. Good friends share deeply with each other on a wide range of important and not-so-important topics.

Forging a friendship requires risk-taking and effort; it does not happen automatically when two people first meet. Some relationships never develop into true friendships. Loneliness and isolation result when a person has difficulty in establishing and maintaining good friendships.

All relationships follow certain rules. When these rules are not followed, the relationship may falter. A relationship that could have met both instrumental and expressive needs may instead dissolve away entirely. An understanding of relationship rules can help a person develop deeper, richer friendships. Here are five of the most important.

Rule One

Friendships are both deep and broad.

The depth of a relationship refers to how intimate and personally revealing the information is that people share with each other. Some relationships, such as co-workers or classmates, never go beyond the surface or factual level. With some people you may go somewhat deepr, sharing opinions as well. True friends share deeply, telling each other not only facts and opinions, but their inner feelings as well.

The breadth of a relationship refers to the number of personally important topics people talk about with each other. Some relationships are limited to one or only a few topics, such as sports or current events. Such relationship may be quite animated and friendly, but are not true friendships. Friends share on a wide variety of topics.

Friendships, therefore, are marked by having both depth and breadth. Other relationships may be either deep or broad, or neither.

Rule Two

Friendships are reciprocal.

Reciprocity is the give and take of a relationship. First one person speaks or communicates nonverbally, then the other responds. Then the first communicates again, and the interaction continues until a stopping point is reached. A relationship can exist only if a communication effort made by one person is acknowledged and returned by the other.

The term stroke may be used as the fundamental unit of social action, referring to any act that implies the recognition of the presence of another person (from Games People Play by Eric Berne). Strokes can be physical (touching, hitting), verbal (praising, criticizing), or nonverbal (smiling, scowling).

Diagram of a Pair of Strokes

A Pair of Strokes
(A Transaction)

An exchange of strokes constitutes a transaction, which is the basic unit of social interaction. Some encounters between two people are made up of a single pair of strokes, while others consist of many pairs. When one person makes all or most of the communication efforts in a relationship, it is not reciprocal. True friendships are.

Rule Three

Friendships are balanced.

In most relationships each person shares a similar amount and depth of information with each other. A relationship is out of balance when one person shares more information than the other. The counselor/client relationship, for example, is not intended to be balanced (the client shares much more). Friendships deepen when they are.

Rule Four

Friendships grow and deepen over time.

Most, but not all, relationships are best when they are incremental. New acquaintances share small bits of information while getting to know each other, and gradually reveal more about themselves as the friendship deepens. This gives each person a chance to test the waters to see if the other person can be trusted with personal information. If a person shares too much when first meeting a person, he or she may scare the other, or a one-sided relationship may develop. If a relationship does not grow in depth and breadth over time, the two people are either not investing the time and effort a friendship requires or it is something other than a friendship. Other types of relationships are essential in our lives, but they must not be confused with friendships.

For example, we like for the sales clerk at a store to be friendly. But we usually do not have a relationship that grows and deepens with clerks. There are other people with whom we share quite deeply on a particular topic, but little or none on many others. Examples include physicians, accountants, mechanics, and many others. Although we need and appreciate cordial relationships with people in such roles, we must not assume these relationship are friendships unless and until we make them so. It is essential that we make a clear distinction between the various types of relationships we have with the people n our life.

Rule Five

Friends are proactive with each other.

A folk proverb says In order to have friends, one must be friendly. A mark of a friendly attitude is the willingness to make the first move in an interaction. This can take the form of introducing yourself to someone you do not know or calling a friend to make arrangements for an activity. It is especially important to be proactive in conflict situations, which are inevitable in friendships. Apologize without being asked when you realize you have offended someone. Set up a time, preferably in private, to discuss a problem when one arises with a friend. A proactive person initiates appropriate interaction in relationships rather than always reacting to what others do.


Since friendships require mutual, balanced, incremental self-disclosure, it is essential that we learn more about this process. Self-disclosure is defined as ‘intentionally revealing to another person important information about yourself that cannot be observed by others.’ It is potentially richly rewarding, but poses significant risks. The other person can use the information revealed against the discloser. The following questions can guide a person in deciding when and to whom to self-disclose (from Looking Out/Looking In by Ronald B. Adler and Neil Towne).

  1. Is this person important to me?
  2. Is the risk of disclosing reasonable?
  3. Are the amount and type of disclosure appropriate?
  4. Is the disclosure relevant to the situation at hand?
  5. Is the disclosure reciprocated?
  6. Will the effect of disclosure be constructive?
  7. Is the disclosure clear and understandable?

Action Challenge

1. Think about two of your most important relationships.

  • Name three instrumental needs each relationship meets.
  • Name three expressive needs each relationship meets.
  • What needs do you meet for these people?

2. Again, thinking of two of your most important relationships, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is this relationship deep and broad?
  • Is this relationship reciprocal?
  • Is this relationship balanced?
  • Is this relationship growing and deepening?
  • Are you proactive in this relationship? Is the other person proactive with you?
  • Based on your answers to the preceding questions, can you truly say this relationship is a friendship? If not, what other kind of relationship is it?

For a different approach to assessing relationships, see the companion article Mapping Your Social Network


Berne, Eric. (1964). Games people play: The psychology of human relationships. New York: Grove Press.

Adler, Ronald B., & Towne, Neil. (1999). Looking out/looking in: Interpersonal communication (9th ed.). New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

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