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Are your friendships struggling? It’s possible they’re lacking two essential ingredients every friendship needs to flourish. 

If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up.

Ecclesiastes 4:10

Imagine two women. The first is enjoying incredible success in her career. She’s sought after professionally, makes good money and her work is respected. However, as her career has flourished, her closest relationships have dwindled. Though she’s busy and enjoying success, she’s lonely. She feels unknown and isolated.

The second woman is not thriving professionally. Many of her plans have not worked out, she’s been overlooked several times for jobs and she can’t seem to get break through the slump in her career. However, she has a wonderful support system: encouraging friends, supportive family and a vibrant faith that reminds her how valuable she is.

Which of these two women is happy? Which is fulfilled?

Nothing decides how meaningful or meaningless life is than the health of our relationships. Show me a woman with a successful career and bad relationships and I’ll show you a woman whose life feels lonely and meaningless. Show me a woman with a struggling career and vibrant relationships and I’ll show you a woman whose life still feels valuable and meaningful. Nothing is more fundamental to our nature than the fact that we are relational.

Our Friendships Form Us

Many of us like to think of ourselves as independent and self-made. This is not true. We are permeable beings – absorbing the presence of others. During the first two decades of our lives, we are who our family has made us. After that, we are who our friends make us. Friends influence everything from our worldviews to our attitudes, from our eating habits to our careers. To lack friends is to be unmade. 

We cannot truly be ourselves in isolation. Through the great mystery of relationships, we become more ourselves through the presence of others.

This is also why loneliness has risen so dramatically over the last decade. We have attempted to use screens and technology to serve as synthetic friendships. We have avoided the risk of investing in other people by distracting ourselves. It hasn’t worked. It’s only made us more sick. In his book Life in Community, Dustin Willis writes, “In a world where we are more connected technologically than we have ever been, at the same time we are more isolated personally than we have ever been. As a result, we desperately need to rediscover the depth of community God has designed for each of us in Christ as members of His church.”

We were created for community with God and other people. 

We cannot truly be ourselves in isolation. Through the great mystery of relationships, we become more ourselves through the presence of others. C.S. Lewis says, “In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity…” The more that we are surrounded by true friends, the more they awaken parts of us that have been dead, dormant or diminished. And we do the same for them. Each of us as friends plays an interconnected role of rousing one another into life. 

The Two Ingredients of Friendship 

In his book The Friendship Factor, Alan Lloyd Guinness says there are essentially two ingredients to friendship: activities and vulnerability. We do things together and we share our emotions and desires with each other. 

Friendship requires shared experiences. In her book The Power of Fun, Catherine Price studied what ingredients were necessary for people to experience true fun. She surveyed hundreds of people to uncover what conditions they needed to become playful, lose track of time, and feel deeply and joyfully connected to their experience. What was an almost universal ingredient? Other people. Almost all respondents (including introverts) said that when they reviewed their list of fun memories, the presence of others was essential. It was rare for people to experience true fun when they were alone. As every preschool teacher says: “Sharing is fun!” 

I would say that the flipside is also true. What do people need to survive unexpected tragedies and loss? They need the presence of others. They need the presence and support of friends. (This is part of what makes friendships harder as we age. Earlier in life, spontaneous experiences between friends happen more frequently. As we age, routine and responsibilities can crowd out shared experiences. This is why we have to plan them and prioritize them.) 

Friendship also requires shared vulnerability. If we merely share experiences but never reveal our thoughts, emotions or dreams with someone, we will never develop a genuine closeness. We will only pose as friends who are actually just pretending to be someone the other person will like. Lewis says that sex includes naked bodies but friendship includes naked personalities. We must show up with the unedited version of ourselves and let ourselves be known.

We must show up with the unedited version of ourselves and let ourselves be known.

When we think about shared experiences and vulnerability, we should keep in mind that either of these in excess can create relational problems for us. It’s not healthy to need the company of others all the time. Needing the constant presence of other people can develop into codependency. Likewise, we can become vulnerable in excess. Oversharing can develop into what Chuck DeGroat calls “fauxnerabilty” – a fake vulnerability that is self-centered and narcissistic. True vulnerability requires both divulgence of self and attunement to the emotions of others.

Consider your friendships: Do they have both shared experiences and shared vulnerability? If not, what can you do to nurture these?

Jesse Eubanks is the Founder and President of Love Thy Neighborhood. He’s been leading urban missions programs for young adults since 2005. He is the host of the Love Thy Neighborhood podcast and an ordained minister. He is the author of How We Relate: Understanding God, Yourself and Others Through the Enneagram from Zondervan Books and is passionate about the intersection of social action, relational health and Christian spiritual formation. Relevant Magazine named Jesse one of the top 50 Christian artists and activists making an impact on culture in America.