Wednesday 19 July 2023

The Currency of Friendship

Fran and I were on one of our daily calls when she said something that gave me pause for thought.

“Friendship is my only currency.”

We were discussing friendship in general, and a few issues we were each having with friends at the time. I asked what she meant. Fran explained that she has only her friendship to offer people. She has no car for rides, day trips, or excursions. No spare money to lavish on expensive meals or treats. She has a nice apartment, and a timeshare, but no second homes in exotic locations for friends to visit. Her only coin is herself. Who she is. It was clear she was wondering if it was enough.

I understood, precisely because I do have more to offer than just myself. I have a driving licence which means I can supervise learner drivers. I don’t own a car but I rent sometimes. When I do, I can take friends to appointments, visit them at home or in hospital, or go out for trips. I have money to lend or gift when it’s needed, to treat friends to gifts or meals or drinks out when we meet. My friends don’t expect to be paid for all the time, but I can afford to pay my share and maybe a little more. I have skills and experience I’m happy to put to use to help others. I’m able and willing to make time for friends when they need me. I have coin — literally and figuratively — other than just myself.

But what if I didn’t? Would anyone still want to be my friend? What would I have to offer? Who am I, in fact, without these coins in my pocket? Fran may question if what she has is enough, but she has good friends who want to spend time with her, people she cares about and who love and care about her. She may doubt herself at times but it’s hard to dismiss the evidence that she’s a valuable and valued friend. What about me?

Friendship as Exchange

Whatever their nature, relationships are transactional. You offer something and I offer something in return. The currency might be practical help, money, companionship, a listening ear, shared activities, support of various kinds, space, or simply time spent together. This might seem odd to you, a little mercenary perhaps, or wrong in principle.

Hearing that I was writing this article on the “currency of friendship” my friend Erik Anderson of Maine observed that, for him, “Friendship is priceless, BUT, like money, it has to be earned, and just as easily can be spent and lost.” This is something I’d not considered, but I like Erik’s take on the subject. Another friend, Paul Saunders-Priem, got into the spirit, declaring with characteristic humour, “Buy me coffee and cake and I’ll be friends with anyone for life!”

Joking aside, there’s nothing unusual or unhealthy about the idea of friends coming together to meet each other’s needs. Eleanor Roosevelt asserted that “[u]sefulness, whatever form it may take, is the price we should pay for the air we breathe and the food we eat and the privilege of being alive.” I’ve explored this previously in Please Wait Here Until You Are Useful. It’s natural and healthy, as long as you don’t lose sight of your needs in the process.

The [danger] comes from placing too high a regard on how others see us, and imagining that we’ll only have value to other people if we’re useful to them. “No one will like me just for me,” the voice of insecurity asserts. “But if I’m useful they will like me, and need me.”

I found a great example while I was researching this article. In response to an Instagram post about self-esteem and being “low maintenance,” someone commented, “You don’t believe you can be liked so you settle for being useful.”

What Do I Bring to the Party?

I’ve found myself in this situation at times, doubting what I have to offer beyond the role of resourceful and steadfast friend. “You truly are someone I can rely on in an emergency and at all other times” remains one of the most genuine, heart-felt, and valued tributes I’ve ever received from anyone, but what else is there?

My world seems small in many ways. I tend to live through the lives and experiences of others. I have a few close friends, my work, my writing. Occasional day trips. Vacations once or twice a year. I rarely have much in the way of exciting news to relate — or even boring news! Why would someone stay friends with me if they don’t need or want the other stuff? This isn’t a pity party. These are genuine questions grounded in experience. I’ve had friendships falter, drift, and ultimately end, when what I had to offer — my currency of friendship — was no longer wanted, or was provided elsewhere. That’s okay, but it leaves the fundamental questions unanswered.

What do you do if you feel you have little to offer, or doubt the transactional value — the exchange rate, if you like — of the coins you hold? If you feel able to, ask your friends and loved ones why they want you in their lives. In our book High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder there are a few examples of me asking Fran what I contributed most to our friendship.

[One time] she gave me the image of an oak tree, standing strong and tall. On other occasions, she has likened me to a rock or anchor, a still point of reference amid the uncertain tides of illness. I act as a buffer between her and the world, and balance her thinking, which tends to be mercurial, dogmatic, and strongly polarised.

I discussed this again with Fran recently, in relation to this blog post. “What’s my currency?” I asked. “What do I bring to the party?” After jokingly (I hope!) saying she couldn’t think of anything, she said talking with me helps her navigate her relationships with other people, which is an area she struggles with at times. She also values my “simple talk” where I share my walks and food and blogging, because they help ground and stabilise her. That meant a lot. It helped me recognise that the very mundanity of my life has value to Fran. It gives her something to hold on to when her life feels changeable and uncertain.

Another close friend, fellow blogger Aimee Wilson, offered to write something about what I bring to our friendship, which I could include in this article. I hoped for a couple of sentences, but she came back with a full blog post, which I’ll publish separately. I’ll highlight a few things here, not to “big myself up” but because it helps me recognise what I bring to the people in my life.

The part of my life [Martin] is probably the most important for is in everything to do with blogging [...] My blog (I’m NOT Disordered) has been absolutely monumental and fundamental in my mental health journey and has gone on to help my career life too; so it’s incredibly important to me that there is someone in my life who truly understands that. [...] He’s massively loyal — once he supports someone then he’s all in. He’s thoughtful and kind [...] He’s funny too — in the way where we both even end up saying the same thing at the same time because I found it funny too! And, most important of ALL of this ... he’s a BIG fan of my local pizza takeaway!

I’ve focused on the things I have to offer, but what do I look for in others? What am I happy to trade for my coins of friendship?

What Currency Do I Value?

It would be nice to have friends with transport who want to take me out places, or with money to treat me extravagantly! But really, those things count for little. What counts is feeling safe to share openly and honestly what I need to, no matter what it might be. I don’t always have a lot to talk about, and my issues often seem mild or modest compared to what my friends are dealing with. When I do want to talk, though, I need to feel my thoughts and feelings will be treated seriously and that I’ll be heard. The confidence that issues that might arise between us will be addressed promptly and directly is also important. Friendships are tempered by misunderstandings, disagreements, and problems that have been navigated successfully.

What Aimee said about me supporting her blogging resonates strongly. It’s part of why her friendship is so important to me. I publish a blog post every week, so whatever I’m writing about is on my mind almost all the time. It’s important that I have people I can share my thoughts and ideas with. It’s no accident that many of my posts are inspired by conversations I’ve had with friends. The contributions I’ve included here from Fran, Aimee, and Erik, are testament to that.

On that note, I’ll close with another of Fran’s insights about the currency of friendship.

“Presence is the most important thing.”

“Presents? Like gifts?”

“No. Presence. Being present.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Over to You

In this post I’ve shared my thoughts and ideas about what I call the currency of friendship. What is your currency with the people in your life? What is their currency with you? Do you feel friendship is or should be transactional? If not, what are your relationships based on? Fran and I would love to hear from you, either in the comments below or via our contact page.


Image by NFT gallery at Unsplash.


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