It will take two years before you can know if you have a true friendship with another person. Time and experience are the only ways to measure trust. You must have experiences which include conflict, and the way you move through conflict is the greatest identifier of a virtuous friendship.
Ernest Hemingway famously said, “If you want to know if you can trust someone, trust them.” It is this simple. You as an individual who has chosen to live virtuously, must decide to place your trust in someone knowing there is always a possibility of being disappointed. If your trust is violated, then you must decide if the relationship is repairable.
Everyone will disappoint you at some point. Some in minor ways and others with major violations to your trust. You will also disappoint others, even if it were not your intention or by your direct actions. Often your words or actions are misunderstood, taken the wrong way, or simply ignored.
You are familiar with the term, a “honeymoon phase”. Upon meeting someone you may find them witty, entertaining, insightful, pleasant company and the list goes on, but through time and interaction you learn what is under the surface and decide if there is value in placing time and effort into the relationship. You may also meet someone who you perceive has potential but lacking in wisdom or experience, and you must decide whether to invest yourself in the individual in order to create opportunities for them. There is no way to know how the relationship will go early on.
Eventually, you’ll have a disagreement, a debate, or an action one of you finds questionable – this conflict will be the true test of where the relationship will go.
Friends who challenge one another will have conflict. Virtuous individuals will find ways to move through the conflict and come out the other side with potentially a deeper friendship. How to live, politics, religion, faith, education, science, finances, philosophy, relationships, and other topics should be on the table of discussion at all times between friends. These are the ideas which form us and build our thoughts and friends are there to help us formulate our thoughts and positions. The time we have on planet earth is short and so we should be engaged in discussion and debate about the big ideas.
I’ve discovered some of my most valued friendships are with virtuous men who think differently from me. I may at times even consider some of their ideas unvirtuous, but I understand their convictions about these ideas and permit them to persuade me. I have friends who are atheists, liberals, far right, pro-choice, Trumpers, climate change deniers and a long list of positions I do not hold, but I still listen to them in our discussions and consider why they formulate their ideas as they do.
I have a saying with my friends, if I didn’t love you, I would not share with you the most important convictions in my life, it is because I love you, I passionately share my convictions.
We now live in a society where people who disagree hate each other, or if differences are discovered relationships are ended. Someone who will end a friendship over a political discussion lacks virtue. In friendship we care so much for our “second self” we continue to find ways to influence with kindness and commitment.
Cicero wrote in his Treatises, “It often happens that friends need remonstrance and reproof. When these are administered in a kindly spirit they ought to be taken on good part.” He continues, “But the man who is most to blame if he resents plain speaking and allows flattery to egg him on to his ruin. On this point then from first to last there is need of deliberation and care. If we remonstrate, it should be without bitterness: if we reprove there should be no word of insult.”
My faith is the driving force behind my decision making. If all the people around me felt the same as me, who is there to persuade? If my faith is the most important force in my life and I don’t share it, aren’t I behaving as if it had no value? If I do not share my convictions with those who feel differently, aren’t I behaving disrespectful toward them?
We should be open to conflict in our friendships. We must trust the other person is sharing, reproofing, correcting, or discussing topics out of concern for us. The battle of ideas should be a treasure in friendship as we share our convictions in love for the other person.
After conflict we must also be open to agreeing to disagree and realign with all of which we do have in common and remember our care for the other person.
I have a friend who was going through a difficult time about fifteen years ago. He felt as if he were at rock bottom. I told him I wanted to share something with him which was very important to me about faith in Jesus Christ and how my faith had pulled me through very difficult times. Part of the Christian faith is to share your belief with others and offer them the opportunity to put their faith in Christ. And so at the end of our discussion I offered him the opportunity to put his faith in Jesus. He told me it wasn’t for him. He just did not see things the way that I did and he did not want to make a decision about Jesus. I told him I understood.
His next question was, “What happens now?” I was confused by the question and stated I didn’t know what he meant. He told me other people had shared their faith in Jesus with him and when he didn’t agree with them, they discontinued the friendship. For me this was a heartbreaking statement. How could people who shared the same faith as me make a demand instead of an offer? If getting immediate agreement was the only choice how would Christians ever build true friendship with others?
I told him I was his friend no matter the choices he did or did not make about faith in his life. Since that day we’ve had other conversations about faith, and we still do not agree. This is a committed and caring friend and I want what is best for him, and he wants the same for me. We disagree on an important topic in my life, but we have plenty in common, a care for one another, and ability to move through conflict on a particular subject. Our ability to engage in the battle of ideas and permit conflict is what makes our relationship wonderful.
Conflict related to poor actions may be different. Lies, half stories, fraud, and other violations must be thoroughly considered before moving forward in a relationship. One party or both must confess their failures and establish a desire to not repeat them. One or both parties must be open to forgiveness and a willingness to move past the offense.
Some violations of trust may be forgiven, but impossible to reengage in the friendship once known. Cicero writes, “It will happen at times that ab outbreak of vicious conduct affects either a man’s friends themselves or strangers, yet the discredit falls on the friends. In such cases friendships should be allowed to die out gradually by an intermission of intercourse…unless, indeed, the injurious conduct be of so violent and outrageous a nature to make an instant breach and separation the only possible course consistent with honor and rectitude.”
I’ve experienced vicious conflicts with a few friends in my 52 years. While I hold to my convictions and the rightness of my anger, I confess a failure in my process of separation. I could have gone away quietly, created less drama, and maybe saved some hope of reconciliation later, however, I did not take Cicero’s advice, allowing friendship to die out through a lack of interaction. I did see the behavior of these individuals as harmful to others, but it was a battle of ideas, not physical harm, and I should have walked away quietly.
Cicero continues, “For there can be nothing more discreditable than to be at open war with a man with whom you have been intimate…our friendship should seem to have died a natural rather than a violent death.”
I’ve learned to take Cicero’s advice in the past decade and in unresolvable conflict, quietly step away.
As I have stated, separations should be the great exception to conflict. Most disagreements or disappointing actions between virtuous people you should be able to resolve. My Christian faith says all people are sinners, and all people fail. If God offers us grace, we must also offer grace.
Conflict will generally come within the first two years of a relationship. If you move through the conflict well, you should have a friendship of greater value.
Two years gives time for the personality of person to completely reveal itself. This is true with all relationships, even in your work with employees, vendors, and clients. Markets change and contracts must be renegotiated, products and process sometimes fail and then comes the test of the relationship.
Kindness must be the control of conflict and conviction. An opposing view is never changed by hatred and separation. As we engage with our friends, and potential friends we must let kindness drive the bus. Virtuous people also bring this practice into their conflict with strangers.
Offer your trust to others and be willing to be disappointed, and when disappointed determine how to move through your conflict with a desire to reconcile and forgive.
There will be times in your life when you responded incorrectly, or violated the trust of someone else, or needed reproof. Be open to listen, learn, and to ask for forgiveness. You will build deeper and more trustworthy relationships when you are able to identify your own shortcomings. This is never truer than in the friendship with your spouse, and we’ll address this next as what should be the most important friendship in your life.