3 Kinds of Friendships

This post was inspired by “Men, Women and the Mystery of Love: Practical Insights from JP II’s Love and Responsibility” by Edward Sri and this post is a condensed version of the chapter.

John Paul II writes in Love and Responsibility that “a person must not be merely the means to an end for another person.” We have free will and are capable of choices. Unlike the animals that act according to their instincts and appetites, we can use reason and act deliberately out of free choice. Through discernment, we can choose for ourselves and those choices can bring either good or bad outcomes. Each person is utterly unique, irreplaceable and unrepeatable. No one else can think or choose for you or me. “To treat another person merely as an instrument for my own purposes is to violate the dignity and freedom of the person” (Edward Sri).

Unfortunately human relationships are tainted with the consumerist mentality of give and take where love becomes a transaction or a bartering of goods that are most useful. A thing is deemed useful by its ability to stimulate pleasure and comfort for me and minimize pain and suffering. So this utilitarian view claims that happiness= pleasure. This view can be harmful as it affects our ability to have intimacy and truly relate to one another. I have caught myself weighing my choices in relationships to see how people can serve me or give me what I want or amuse me. Sri uses the example of having a friend ask if you have plans for Friday night and you delay committing to the invitation because you want to keep your options open in case something better comes up. But we like the option of having plans so we don`t dismiss it. We don’t want to close the door completely on this particular option and we want to keep this friend as a “back up” choice. But ask yourself: Are you loving or using our friends? This view hurts others because it reduces others to objects of use or entertainment when we are so much more than our use! We are human beings, not human doings. So many friendships and relationships today are so easily broken because of this utilitarian view.

According to Aristotle, there are three kinds of friendship that unite others.

1.      Friendship of utility - the affection is based on the use the friends derive from the relationship. Each person gets something advantageous out of the friendship and the mutual benefit of the relationship is what unites the two people as friends.

2.      Pleasant friendship- the affection is based on the pleasure derived from the relationship. This friendship is about having fun together, and letting the good times roll and they may sincerely care about each other and wish each other well in life, but what unites them is the good times and the emotional high they receive when they are with each other.

Useful and pleasant friendships are basic forms of friendship and do have value but they do not represent friendship in the holistic sense because they are based on fragile, conditional love. When the feelings fade, what happens? When the mutual use dissipates, what’s next?  What commonality will unite you when the feelings and purpose goes away? Friendships become temporary because the foundation of the friendship was based on temporary means. Feelings always fade, fluctuate and change. Mutual use is always in flux and can change at any moment. But there is a better option and that is virtuous friendship!

3.      Virtuous friendship –“friends are united not in self-interest but in the pursuit of a common goal: the good life, the moral life that is found in virtue. The problem with useful and pleasant friendships is that the emphasis is on what I get out of the relationship” (Sri). Yet in virtuous friendship both are committed to pursuing greatness, and seeking what is best for the other and they go beyond each of their own self-interests. By encouraging one another, true friends are focused on how they can give in the relationship. 

St. John Paul II says the only way two human persons can avoid using each other is to relate in pursuit of a common good in the virtuous friendship. This common aim unites people with a clear bond that seeks what is best for the other. When we don’t live our relationships with this common good in mind, we inevitably will use the other person. The tendency to selfishness or being self-centered can happen as we are prone to wanting things our way. We want our family, boyfriend, and friends to conform to our plans and desires and we may get immersed in our own needs without considering what our friends may need from us.

True friendship must be based on a common aim. Serving each other and helping each other grow in holiness must be the goal - our own inclinations should be set aside if the outcome will lead to a higher good. In each relationship, we need to work to prevent any selfishness from seeping through. Have a talk and discern together how best to use your time, energy and resources to achieve a virtuous friendship. Make love your aim. Seek what is true, good and beautiful in your friendships.