Friendship and soup

I’m not sure if I’m going to post this. If I do, be gentle. The friend I’m writing about reads here.

A friend and I had a discussion, of sorts, about friendship. About how it works best. My friend was of the opinion that friendship works best when it’s equal: you do this, your friend does that, and it works out in balance. That it’s unfair for one person to give overmuch to the other, and that because true friends are true equals, they respect one another as equals, and therefore it makes sense that they contribute the same.

I agreed to a point. But I found it a little off-putting to think that if I were to, for example, pick up something cool for my friend when I happened to be at the grocery store, that my friend would make a mental tally mark and make sure to pick up something cool for me.

I said that kills spontaneity. That yeah, over time you kind of want it equal, but it comes out in the wash. He said you can just kind of force that “coming out in the wash” to happen on a regular basis. And two people who are truly friends won’t want to take advantage of one another anyhow, so that kind of accounting takes place on a regular basis.

I didn’t like this. It bugged me a lot, until finally I had to ditch that whole model. Because I wanted to say something was wrong with it, but I didn’t want to say, “No, it’s fine for friendship to be unbalanced.”

It is, of course. If I’m sick, it’s okay if my friend picks up the slack for a while — even a long while — until I’m on my feet again. At some point, tables will turn, my friend will be in need, and I’ll be the provider and not expect total equality. But that didn’t feel like a good enough response.

And in some friendships, I think, there’s a certain imbalance that’s healthy; a mentor-student relationship, for example.

My new model was soup. That friends pitch in to make something separate from themselves, the friendship being something extra. And they both contribute to it: you bring the chicken. I bring the hot water. You bring the garlic. I bring the carrots.

You don’t want the same amount of garlic in soup as you have chicken. You can’t have the same amount of carrots and water. But over time, the two of you make something you couldn’t have had on your own. It’s more communal. It’s creative. Plus, I added, this model works for large groups as well, for teams and communities.

The obvious question is, how do you know it’s fair and you’re not being used? And there I say what every chef does: you taste it. If your friend isn’t contributing enough, the soup will be off a little, and then you have to make a decision: do I add more to make up for my friend’s lack, or do I push my friend to add more, or do I cut my losses?

Figurative food for thought. Two different ways of managing a universal.


  1. capt_cardor

    I guess I am troubled by this. I always felt that friendship was a bond formed by a liking for someone based by some commonalities, such as similar interests, life situations or simply a shared loneliness. No give and take, no measuring, no critical evaluation unless there is a sense that something is wrong with the relationship.

    When I was growing up, I lived in a “transitional” neighborhood that was going downhill fast. My friends there were from all nationalities and ethnic groups. Italians, Germans, Irish and then Haitians, Dominicans, Jamaicans, Chinese and Puerto Ricans. Most were very poor and not well educated. My mother called them my “League of Nations”. Yet we were friends. They often came to my home and played games with me. They ate lunch with us often and my Mother often gave them our used clothes and toys. They had nothing material to offer me and probably never would. I had no expectations, but I still felt that they were true friends.

    When my family finally moved from that neighborhood, I was very sad, not because of the move, but because of the lost friendships.

    1. philangelus

      It wasn’t in terms of “stuff” given, though. The equality seemed to be in terms of how much effort A gives versus how much effort B gives. IE, it can’t always be that I make you laugh and you listen to me. Or that I tell you my hopes/dreams and you don’t tell me your hopes/dreams.

      It seems a bit like a tightrope to me, and the other person wasn’t as concerned (it seemed) with being on the I-gave-too-much side as on the I-didn’t-give-enough side.

      Like you, I don’t really think of friendship as a debt to be repaid. It initially took some work to figure out what he was saying.

  2. Kate

    Yeah, this (the reciprocity model of friendship) doesn’t sit well with me. I like your soup analogy, I’m just not sure that either model really captures the essence of friendship.

    I went back to something I wrote about friendship a couple years ago ( and I find I still agree with my conclusions then – that Cicero was right to define friendship as, ” a complete identity of feeling about all things in heaven and earth: an identity which is strengthened by mutual goodwill and affection.” The more commonalities, the stronger and closer that friendship can be.

    I understand why there’s a tendency to think of friendship as an exchange which needs to be regulated and observed for inequality. No one wants to be taken advantage of, and most of us don’t want to be a burden. I’ve had friendships wither because, as a relatively poor SAHM living in a one-bedroom apartment, I never felt able to reciprocate invitations. I don’t really want to be perceived as a hanger-on, out to get something for nothing, and that has made me a little reticent as a renter in an affluent neighborhood!

    But once a basis for friendship is established, fears like that should fall by the wayside. I don’t think friends ought to keep score – I think too much score-keeping will kill a friendship, because instead of finding a basis in shared delight in each other’s goodness and in your shared interests, values, etc., the focus shifts to being about what you DO for each other (rather than what you ARE).

    It shouldn’t matter whether my friends can give as much as I can, in terms of time, money, gifts, talent, or even emotional energy. If I know, sincerely and honestly, that they would if they could, and if I am not unreasonably burdening myself with these things (from the standard of what I can bear, not from the standard of equality), then their difficulties give me more, not less, reason to value the gift of their frienship, and not just because I’m keeping count for the day when I might need support etc.

    Anyway. I’m interested to see what your reader’s have to say!

    1. philangelus

      Thank you — you nailed it for me. The emphasis shouldn’t be on the doing as much as the being. That being together is just fine.

  3. cricketB

    I love the story “Stone Soup”, and how you applied it. That’s why I don’t like to state the moral when telling — the audience can usually come up with something better, if I let them.

    My brother’s marriage failed because there wasn’t an accounting. She looked after him when he was extremely ill, but he never took his load back. She claimed the dirty dishes around the house didn’t bother her, so he didn’t do them. Yes, it would also have helped if she had been honest with herself and him about the dishes, but they’re both at fault.

    The accounting doesn’t have to be formal, or even frequent, but we need to be aware of ongoing imbalances or habits, or they might get worse. We resent giving too much or worry that we’re not giving enough, or our friend does.

    Some imbalances will always exist. That’s normal and realistic.

    Some imbalances don’t have to be there. Those are the imbalances we should work on. Sometimes we need to get creative. I don’t work 50 hour weeks like my husband, but I make the effort to learn and cook his favourite meals.

    Also, be aware of how the other person values the currency. My son loves hand-knit socks, my husband doesn’t. I enjoy receiving good quality yarn, my husband prefers video games. I enjoy walking the kids to school, our former neighbour didn’t.

    I agree, worrying about balance, from either side, can make the friendship uncomfortable, but it’s equally dangerous to ignore imbalances and trends.

  4. cricketB

    Another thing: Sometimes what looks imbalanced is actually balanced. Knitters need someone to wear. Bakers need someone to eat. Storytellers need audiences, writers need readers. The hours put into creating something are more pleasurable because we know the result will be appreciated.

    Good friends know each others’ currency, and are honest enough with themselves and each other to help each other learn the currency, and let each other know when it changes.

    Also, didn’t Jesus say something about fraction of what you have rather than absolute value?

  5. Victor S E Moubarak

    True friendship is when two individuals are comfortable with the relationship they have with each other. It is not necessarily based on equality – be it financial, intellect or whatever.

    One individual may be fairly wealthy and able to buy gifts for the other. This apparent inequality can be counter-balanced by the fact that the receiving individual may have a great sense of humor and fun to be with, or be clever with certain manual tasks (carpentry, car mechanic, electrician etc) and therefore able to lend a hand.

    The important thing is that both individuals are comfortable and happy with their lot and sharing it (however great or small) with the other.

    A true example of this is our friendship (relationship) with God.

    No matter how we try we can never repay Him what He has done for us. Nor would He want us to – He needs nothing from us after all.

    But are we comfortable with our relationship with Him? If not, we need to check our Faith.

    God bless.

    1. philangelus

      I’m never really comfortable with my relationship with God because I know I could never really be fully the person God wants me to be, but I keep trying.

  6. Promise

    Love, love, love that analogy!

  7. philangelus

    Something else occurs to me: what if the thing I give is little, but to the other person, it’s huge. For example, my friend becomes unemployed; while out, I dig out my copy of What Color Is Your Parachute and hand it over; because of that book, my friend lands an awesome new job and comes into a much better standard of living and a truly enjoyable, fulfilling career.

    To me, that would be little to give. But to receive something like that, it’s huge. Which is it?

    Meanwhile, maybe just by watching my friend take such huge strides, I become inspired to go after something I’ve always wanted, and then I succeed. To my friend, it wouldn’t have been an intentional “giving” at all, and yet to me, it would have been a huge gift. Again, which is it?

  8. Xallanthia

    I agree with your analogy. If I had to try to calculate where I stood on the “who gives more to whom” scale with my best friend, I’d be totally lost! She and her husband introduced me to my husband. We buy little gifts (<$10 usually) for each other all the time just cause we think about it. She likes to feed me and/or treat me to dinner; neither of them had a car for ages so when I lived there I would always drive them around. How do you even calculate that kind of thing? You can't assign value! But even on the things where you could, like the little gifts, if I made a point to get her something every time she got me something, and vice versa, we'd both be out of money right quick!

  9. Carla

    I loved reading your post. I have struggled so much this past year w/ friendships. Trying to maintain them, making time, balancing, etc. etc. My problem has been with balance. I don’t feel as though if I give a friend something that I would expect anything in return and I would hope the friends I had would feel the same way if the roles were reversed. On another note, balancing. I believe when it comes to maintaining a friendship that there has to be a certain level of balance. I was caring and giving all the time in my friendships and it became a full time job. These people sat back and took all I had to offer w/ out ever offering me support or trying to keep in touch. Over the past several years I have suffered 4 miscarriages. I needed my friends during that time but really had no one. They were too interested in talking about the happenings in their lives. A friend of mine is expecting now. The only thing that I asked was that our conversations be balanced. I know she is excited about her pregnancy and I do truly want to hear all about it, however, I am currently in a place in my life where I want to try again. I would like to talk to her about my struggles just as I would want to hear about her excitement. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to work this way in many of the friendships that I’ve had. I give, give, give, and give some more and get nothing in return. I do expect emotional support in return and the help of making sure the friendship doesn’t die out. I don’t believe it comes to keeping score, just making sure that you are a “true” friend and you both do what is necessary when it comes to being the “best” friend that you can be. Friends are hard to come by these days. If you have a friend that you love, enjoy spending time with, and you have common ground then nothing is wrong w/ making sure to nourish the friendship. I do feel like there are a lot of friendships these days where one will give 90% and the other will only give 10%. That isn’t a little off balance, that is time to look for new friends. 🙂

    1. philangelus

      I experienced that too. One person, after she found out my baby was going to die, said, “THat’s terrible. If you need anything, ask me. Now, about my life–” and proceeded to pour out her heart about her drama-of-the-minute. Eventually I said, “Right now, I need to focus my energies on my family,” and so help me, she never called back again. That’s more than an imbalance: people like that are users.

      1. Kate

        I think you pinned it when you say that people like that are losers. Cicero would say that the friendship loses it’s basis when one member of it behaves in a way that reveals a lack of moral foundation. That is, these friendships didn’t fail because there wasn’t a good accounting as to who was giving what, they failed because your friend’s callousness revealed that they did not, in fact, actually possess the moral goodness and shared values that are the foundation of true friendship. With such a person, true friendship is not possible. (Ref: Cicero in “Laelius: On Friendship”)

        I’ve had mentor-pupil relationships that I wouldn’t exactly call friendships, where I’ve recognized from early on that the other person isn’t capable of forming a genuine sympathetic bond because of their own wounds and fixed selfishness. It doesn’t hurt so much when you accept from the beginning that you can never be totally free in this relationship because the other is not someone to trust with that much of yourself. It’s my own version of boundary setting, I guess.

        But a friend should be someone you can be free with and trust with your very self, because sympathy is the very basis of friendship. I know from my own experience that it is a shock when you find that what seemed like a friendship really isn’t !

        So I guess what we’re all getting at here is this quandary: how to protect ourselves from giving too much to the wrong people, without getting into the headspace of constantly keeping score (which in itself robs us and our friends of a certain freedom which ought to be the mark of friendship).


    2. cricketB

      50%/50% works for many friendships, but for the important ones, like marriage, 110%/110% works better. Give that little bit extra to build for the future. It’s more of a frequent awareness of the opportunity to give a little bit more rather than an accounting.

  10. Patient Husband's former officemate

    While I like the soup analogy, I’d extend it to say that, sometimes, I’ll make the soup entirely myself because I think you might want some. Similarly, there might be occasions where you make the soup without any input from me because you thought I might want some.

    I feel that an important part of friendship is the enrichment that knowing you and spending time with you brings to my life, and vice versa. If you’re always making soup for me and I never help or make soup for you, your life may not feel particularly enriched by my friendship. However, maybe I contribute by singing or something (I mean figuratively; you’d never want to hear me sing). Sort of like in a game of Calvinball – if you’re going to keep score, the score may sometimes be Q to 12.

  11. AnotherFaceintheCrowd

    Without disagreeing with you, I wonder if there aren’t different kinds of friendship, in some of which reciprocity will make sense. Sometimes you’re friends just because you like spending time in one another’s company, sometimes you’re friends because you have a common interest, sometimes because you *do* do things for one another (no, don’t knock it — one hand washing the other can be life-or-death important ), sometimes because you’ve been thrown together by circumstances, sometimes because it’s a way to rub along better and sometimes even because it’s expected. Who’s to say that some are better than others? In my very humble reckoning, any relationship mutually satisfying to both parties isn’t a bad one — unless it’s causing harm to another.

    1. philangelus

      I don’t think the balance definition is entirely wrong, and I’m not grading them. Obviously it works for some. I wanted to explore other functioning models of friendship and came up with soup. I’m sure there are a great number of varieties of friendship models. I don’t feel fully comfortable with balance as the only definition of a healthy friendship.

      I think the “equal balance” model works really well for, say, allies. It doesn’t take into account simple socialization, which works very well with the soup model. And there’s PHFO’s model which is the “befriending because it makes me feel good” model, in which the giving is its own reward (I would guess because the giving itself reinforces our self-image as giving people, and we genuinely enjoy being kind.)