5 Questions That Reveal If Your Friendships Are Real ... Or Fake

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According to science, half of your friends don't think of YOU as a friend in return.

We all want to know if we're in the "right" relationships — how to tell if we are ... and if we are not. 

We ask ourselves questions like: Which person would make the best partner? Who are my real friends? Who truly has my back? 

Don't worry if you find it hard answer these questions with certainty. Even scientists have a surprisingly hard time answering these questions in their study of successful relationships.


In a study led by Professor Alex Pentland of the MIT Media Lab, 94 percent of people who nominated someone as a friend expected to be nominated in return. Hey, I may not know the capital of Mongolia, but I know who my friends are, right? Wrong. Only 53 percent of people's "friends" nominated them as friends, as well.

This means that about half the time, the friendship was one-sided.

Yikes, right?

So how can you tell whether someone is really your friend equally or not?

If someone offers to pick you up at the airport, does that make them your friend? How about a person who invites you to his wedding? Or someone who goes through the trouble of attend your wedding? Does that mean the person really cares about you, or that they just like a good party? What if the person comes to your wedding but won't drive you to the airport?

How can you tell?!

Although, you can’t do a lot to control reciprocity, you can tell if someone’s good for you or not.

To help, I’ve come up with five criteria by which you can quickly assess any relationship. The answer to each question is binary — "yes" or "no" — so pay attention to the answer that instinctively and spontaneously arises before letting your thoughts interfere with your response. Chances are that your gut reaction to these questions is accurate. 

1. Do they have your back?


The first criterion to consider is simple: Does this person fundamentally support you, or do they cut you down?

I almost feel silly explaining this, since it seems self-evident. But friendship and love bias our judgment, and sometimes we people send us mixed behaviors — sometimes warm to us, sometimes cold. Someone who is truly on your side will empathize with you when you make a mistake, give space for your aspirations, look for ways to make your life better, and have your well-being and safety in mind.

2. Are you an option in their life, or a priority?


The text comes at 6 PM on Friday, when you were supposed to meet up at 6:30 PM: “Hey dude! Sooo sorry not gonna make it tonight. Something came up. Rain check?”

Nowadays this is an all-too-common occurrence. So common that Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has even given it a name: liquid modernity. This is a society in which no commitment is solid, and everything is provisional: jobs, dwellings, spouses, ideologies. And with the ubiquity of instant electronic communication, all appointments are subject to change (up until the very last minute), lest a better deal pops up.

But your instincts tell you when the other person passed you over for a "better" opportunity. And when they're hanging out because they're looking for some company, not necessarily your company specifically. So, prioritize those who prioritize you.

You can still be friendly with those who mostly treat you like an option, but you probably shouldn’t bend over backwards to accommodate them in your life.

3. Are they friends with you ... or with what you have to offer?


My friend Sasha is great, but she has a hard time making friends. Why? Because she has a famous father, and she never knows whether people want to be friends because of her, or to gain access to her dad.

Even without a famous relative, we’ve all got some special sauce that someone could be after. Maybe you have connections this person wants access to — whether that's your company's box seats at the game, your beach house, your babysitting services, etc. that Maybe you’re rich or famous yourself, or have friends who throw good parties.

If you're unsure whether your "friend" is choosing you or not, ask yourself if they only call you when they need something, or do they regularly check up on you and include you in their plans?

If you don’t like feeling used, there are two things you can do: First is to remove the Users from your life. Second, stop dancing for your dinner. If you feel someone’s so cool that you need to have Cirque du Soleil tickets every time you request their company, you’re really just setting yourself up to be used.

Either they’re grateful for your company just as you are, or the friendship isn't sustainable.

4. Do they add life energy to you or drain you?


The other day, my friend Johnny was visiting from far away. I’ve known Johnny for 15 years and shared a lot of experiences with him. I’ve even been to his wedding. And yet, after every one of our meetings, I feel spent.

Why? Negativity, complaints, gratuitous attacks on your person (especially attacks disguised as helpful suggestions), being pointlessly demanding, constant requests for attention: These are behaviors that can drain your energy in a hurry. If the purpose of friendship is a flourishing of the soul, this ain’t the formula for it.

You can still be friendly with these energy vampires, especially if they’re essentially well-meaning people who just happen to annoy the crap out of you. But just know that, for your own sanity, you want to minimize their dosage.

Instead, choose to spend more time with people who add energy to your life. You know who they are — the ones who point out the butterflies on the roadside, call you with a new joke to tell, and can’t wait to take you to try this new dish.

5. Does this person bring out the best ... or the worst in you?


If I were to walk by you and say, “Hey, I really like your dress,” chances are you’d smile and return the compliment: “Thanks, you look great, too!” On the other hand, if I were to say, “Hey, watch where you’re going, jerk!”, you’d probably return that favor and say, “Screw you, too!”

Same person, two very different reactions. Psychologists even have a name for this: The Pygmalion Effect. Our interactions (and expectations) have the capability to draw out dramatically different versions of people. So, similarly, whenever I hang out with my friend Sonia, for some unfathomable reason I find myself complaining about the world, mocking passersbys, and being a generally snarky version of me. Whereas when I’m with Gail, I feel my vision expand, my thoughts ennoble and my heart open.

Again, I’m not quite sure why this happens, but I do notice the consistency of the effect: Sonia brings out the snark; Gail brings out the sweet.

The purpose of friendship is the flourishing of the spirit, meaningful fellowship, and interactions that lead to our personal growth. So it makes sense to spend less time with those who make us feel like meaner versions of ourselves, and more time with those who bring out our kindness, generosity, and expansiveness of heart.

To that end, we would do well to select friends who have our back, make us priorities in their lives, treat us like worthy ends in ourselves, and stoke us with more of the energy that allows us to be a force for good in the world.


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This article was originally published at The Tao of Dating. Reprinted with permission from the author.


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