A Right View of Friendship
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Our culture is experiencing a loneliness epidemic. Author Kelly Needham offers one solution-build thriving friendships. Kelly answers some of your best questions about friendship.
A Right View of Friendship
Bob: Some of our friends are life-giving; there are others who are draining. Kelly Needham says we need to know how to respond appropriately to needy friends.
Kelly: We tend to do, I think, one of two things with needy friends: we either meet the need because it feels good to be needed/it makes us feel important; or we see them in the lobby, and we turn the corner, and go the other direction.
I think there’s a third option for us, and I think that we become a signpost to Christ, the only one who can meet those needs. That may mean difficult conversations, where we have to tell that person, “Hey, you are sucking the life out of me.” We have to be honest and risk that moment of contention and conflict, and say, “I can’t be what you want me to be.”
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Friday, April 17th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I'm Bob Lepine. You’ll find us online at FamilyLifeToday.com. The Bible talks about the importance of friendships. We all need friendships; we need one another. Sometimes those friendships can be draining. We’ll talk about how we deal with that, and other issues related to friendships, today. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. It would be an interesting conversation, I think, if you were with a group of people and you said, “Tell me about friendships that went bad.”
Ann: Do you think there would be a lot of those stories?
Bob: I’m guessing everybody could come up with a couple of what they thought were promising friendships, and something went south, and the relationship got broken. Maybe it’s never been healed or it was just never the same again, even though you tried to repair it.
That’s one of the things, I think, that scares a lot of people off from even trying to pursue friendships; because we know, when it goes south, that’s really painful and hard.
Ann: And we don’t want to experience those wounds again; so we shy away, being afraid that that could happen.
Dave: I would say the pain is really deep. It’s because God made us to desire and need community and friendship; and yet, when it goes bad, it hurts. So yes, the natural response would be, “I’m going to avoid that at all costs.”
Bob: We’re talking about friendships this week with our friend, Kelly Needham, who’s joining us again on FamilyLife Today. Welcome back.
Kelly: Thanks, Bob.
Bob: Can we call you a friend now?
Kelly: Yes, please do. [Laughter]
Bob: Kelly is a writer; she’s a speaker; she’s a mom; she’s a wife. She lives in South Dallas, and she has written a book on friendships called Friend-ish: Reclaiming Real Friendship in a Culture of Confusion—and a culture—we’ve talked about this—a culture of loneliness.
I wonder—I’m seeing the statistics that talk about how we may be lonelier today than at any point in the last 100 years, even though, as you mentioned earlier, Dave, we’re connected through social media. But there are higher incidences of depression and suicide and things that come up because we know a lot of people; but we’re not well-known, and we don’t have a lot of meaningful friendships.
As you were working on this book, did you see evidence of that?
Kelly: Definitely. Even people, who had friends in their life, still would verbalize a depth of loneliness that I would say is surprising. I think some of it is that people are settling for digital friendships over real ones. Sometimes, it’s that they’re settling for long-distance friendships that they would prefer instead of the ones right in front of them.
I think some of it is that the expectations of friendship are changing too. People are more disappointed because their expectations are maybe higher than even they should be, so the disappointment is frequent; and they feel isolated and lonely. I think sometimes it’s a cocktail of all of those three things, and other factors.
Bob: Friendships that work well are life-giving. Some friendships can be life-draining.
Bob: Some relationships can be unhealthy relationships. How can somebody know what to pursue? You want a healthy relationship. How do you know how to put the right boundaries around it, and make sure you’re being the right kind of friend, and make sure that the friendship is growing into the right kind of relationship?
Kelly: I think, when we think about how our faith impacts friendship, that’s a big component; because when we’re talking about Christian friendships, part of what we’re discussing is friendships that we have with other people, where the one thing we can say we’re together on/we’re banking on is that: “Only knowing Jesus can satisfy my soul,” “Only being in right relationship with God am I whole/am I fulfilled—do I have significance and meaning.” When I look at my Christian sisters, we’re going, “Yes.” If everything else is different about you, but we share that, then we’re good.
What I found in interviewing a lot of people is that faith was very theoretical and intellectual, and not always lived out. Friendships were becoming a surrogate god/a surrogate life source for them, that really only our faith should be. The topic of conversation was Jesus/was what they’re learning in the Bible; but in a practical, lived-out way, I’m looking to my BFF for everything: they’re my savior from my hardship; when I’m experiencing something hard, I’m not praying; I’m calling them—we might talk about Jesus in that.
That is a clear boundary for me, as a Christian, that I know—when that starts happening/when I start looking to a friend for something that only God can give me—I need to back up a second. Sometimes my friends will do that for me and say, “Hey, I think you’re expecting me to be something only God can be”; but not every friend will do that. Sometimes, I have to see that and back up. That’s a real boundary that is in place for me—and should be in place for us, as Christians, with every relationship—our spouses included and our kids.
Ann: You’re saying that friendship could become an idol.
Ann: I’ve found that too.
I remember one group of friends that I had—we decided to make sure that, when something happens and your instinct is to call a friend—and we usually call a friend that will agree with us with whatever has happened—but we were saying, “Instead of calling a friend right away, you can’t call until you go to Jesus first.” It was really an eye-opening experience to see how that is our first reaction—is to go to somebody that will agree with us or commiserate with us instead of going to the Lord, because sometimes He is enough.
I think that that’s not easy to do—
Kelly: It’s not.
Ann: —because we don’t always want that.
Bob: The interesting dynamic here is that sometimes it is the friend who is the person God uses to point you back to truth. We are supposed to be agents of grace in each other’s lives.
Kelly: That’s right.
Bob: How can I differentiate between: “I should just deal with this with Jesus,” versus “I should take this to a friend,”—and it’s not co-dependent—“But I do need this friend to help point me in the right direction”? How do we process through all of that?
Kelly: Right; you do need people; we’ve talked about that. You need one another; and some things you can’t work out fully on your own, because those friends are going to help you see what you can’t see.
But I think when I start to feel terrified of losing that friend in some way, that’s usually a sign that I’ve staked my hope in one particular person instead of the people God places around me. I need people; I need a community, but I don’t need this one specific person. That, I think, is an easy way that we can see something’s off.
That may come up in jealousy: if you have a really close friend, and they befriend someone else, and you feel possessive of them—that’s not a good sign—that shouldn’t be happening in us. Or they move—they get a job/their husband gets a job—and they move across country; and you’re freaking out, thinking, “I’m not going to make it!” It’s like, “Well, something about that particular, specific friend has been a little too heightened.” You need people, but you don’t need a specific person.
Dave: Yes, it’s interesting—I don’t know if you’ve heard Tim Keller talk about—I don’t know if he has a concept for it, but he talks about making a person or a thing the ultimate—exactly what you’re saying.
Dave: If you lose a friendship and you think, “My life’s over,” that means it was the ultimate. It’s not the ultimate. Now, it’s going to be disappointing; it’s bad, but it’s not the end of the world. That’s what you’re talking about, right? It’s this whole idea that the friend becomes god in your life, not Jesus.
Kelly: That’s right.
Dave: That’s unhealthy.
Dave: So what do you do about that? How do you step out of that when you realize it?
Kelly: I think, depending on how far that’s gone, it maybe depends on what it looks like stepping out. But for me—I think we all face this, by the way, in different, varying degrees. When I notice that in me—an intense fear of losing a friend, or some jealousy when one of my friends is hanging out with somebody else, or building a new friendship or about to move away—that’s a sign for me not to pull away from that friendship, but to go talk to God about it—to go process with Him and just repent: “God, I feel like I need this friend more than You.”
Sometimes, it’s just because we can see them, and touch them, and they can respond audibly to us; and I don’t want to wait for that to be flourished in my relationship with God sometimes. I need to own that and say, “Lord, I’m sorry,” and reconcile with Him where I need that.
Then, I’ve found for me, sometimes I need to go to someone else—my husband, sometimes, or a mentor—and say: “I’ve elevated a friend a little too high, and I just need to tell someone else that; and so will you pray for me? Pray that the Lord will give me a right view of this friendship, and help me to not want to just take from that friend, but be generous to them.”
One of my good friends moved from about five minutes away from me to the north side of Dallas. If you live in the DFW area, north and south side of Dallas, because of traffic, you could be a state away; I mean, it’s not nearby. That was where the Lord was leading them. It was hard, because we had formed a really tight friendship; we were five minutes down the road. As moms, that was gold; and I was losing that. I needed to grieve that; but I also needed to be generous to her and send her away, and not demand from her. I knew she was going to need time to make new friendships, and so I had to be willing to sacrifice that for her sake. We’re called to that as Christians, to not just love the Lord with all our heart, but to love one another.
Bob: Let me ask both of you ladies this question: “Do you have things that happen in your life and you think, ‘Oh, I need to share this with someone,’ and the first person you think of sharing it with is not your husband, but it’s your good friend?”
I’m asking that in the context of: I would imagine Mary Ann would have those things in her life that her first instinct is, “I’m going to share this with my girlfriends, not with Bob.” Is that okay? How do you differentiate between what’s right to share with your friends or what you should share—do you understand the question?
Bob: What are your thoughts on that?
Kelly: I have a really great relationship with my husband, and I’m thankful for that; and I do want to share with him first if I can.
Bob: —your whole life.
Kelly: As much as I can. I think that’s how it should be.
I’ve talked to a lot of women, who—there is tension in their marriage—so it’s easier to share with a friend. I’ve seen a few friendships become really devastating to a marriage because that friend was becoming that intimacy that wife was missing with her husband; but there was so much pain in their history that she had current needs, but couldn’t voice them, because of past hurts that were unresolved. What she needed from that other friend was to say: “I can’t be this for you. I’m going to push you back toward your marriage.”
I’ve seen it go both ways. I’ve seen friends, who are willing to do that and say: “I’m not okay with being this type of friend for you. I’m going to push you toward your husband”; but I’ve also seen someone step in and fill that role, and it was not good; it was unhealthy.
There are things that I find that I need to share with another woman, and I’ll tell my husband about it: “Hey, I’m going to process this with So-and-so. I just think her insight, as a female, is what I need.” I think it’s okay that we have women—and for men, too, to share with other men—stuff that they need to process, maybe, outside of the marriage; but let it be known in the marriage. That’s okay; but as soon as that friendship is becoming the intimacy you desire more than the intimacy you desire in your marriage, it’s not a good sign.
One of the counterfeits in my book that I tried to identify and put some language around is marriage-mimicking friendships. I think we’re seeing friendships pop up that mimic the covenant of marriage; they’re not healthy. That’s not how God intended friendships to be.
Ann: What do you mean by that? What does it look like?
Kelly: When you have two friends—it’s usually; you know, the same way—what is a marriage?—a marriage is two people becoming one unit. When you see two friends becoming one unit—that: “We have something exclusive that no one else is allowed into,”—that’s not good. A friendship is always willing to welcome another friend; but as soon as you become exclusive—“I don’t want someone else in this. I’m going to create things that only we share. We’re going to operate like a unit,”—that’s not okay.
Bob: You start to get jealous when you see your friend laughing over in the corner, talking to somebody else, and you go, “Wait; they’re experiencing something that I thought was between us.” That’s a level of jealousy that ought to be a red flag to you: “Something unhealthy is going on here.”
Kelly: I agree.
Ann: Kelly, what about friends of the opposite sex?
Kelly: I think what’s hard is—I walk with a lot of single women. I do think there is a level of difference that they have than I have as a married woman. A lot of what I encourage my young women toward is—when someone is married, you interact with that person in the mindset that they’re one flesh. So when I see one of the pastors at our church, that I would say I’m glad to see—when I interact with him, I’m also interacting with his wife—that frames the tone in which I interact with him, and when and when I won’t interact with him.
For single men and women, though, who are in their 20s, there is a level of friendship that I think is okay for them to have. In some ways, that’s how those relationships are forming; but they’re not yet married, so there are some boundaries that have to exist in there. There’s a different way they interact with a married man versus a single man.
For women, I have to remind them, your closest confidants need to be women; they do not need to be men—and vice versa. It’s okay to have a level of comradery with your brothers; we’re called to do this life together as brothers and sisters in Christ. We should be praying for one another in a way that is not segregated; but those people that are there, when you’re on the floor in tears, should not be a brother.
Bob: I’m wondering about relationships that feel draining—relationships where the other person seems to not be contributing—but just is sucking the life out of you. What do you do with those? You care about this person; you want to help this person, but there can be some people who are just a bottomless well of neediness; they’re wanting time with you.
Kelly: Yes, we tend to do, I think, one of two things with needy friends: we either meet the need—because it feels good to be needed; and it feels good to be somebody’s savior; and it makes us feel important—or we run away—far, far away. [Laughter] We see them in the lobby, and we turn the corner, and go the other direction.
I think there’s a third option for us. I think that we become a signpost to Christ, the only one who can meet those needs. That may mean difficult conversations, where we have to tell that person, “Hey, you are sucking the life out of me.” We have to be honest and risk that moment of contention and conflict and say: “I can’t be what you want me to be. I would like to be friends, because I value you as a person; but this is draining, and it makes me not want to see you; and it makes me not want to be around you; and I would like that to change. This is what I can offer…” You have to leave the ball in their court. They may get mad, and talk bad about you behind your back; and you can’t control that.
Or you can say: “Hey, the things that you’re seeing in me that you want and that you’re drawn to in me, it’s because of Christ in me. He’s accessible to you. You need to go directly to Him yourself. I want to be a part of that for you, and cheer you on in that, and pray for you; but I can’t be your go-between with Christ.”
I think all of those moments are things that we can do to be signposts to point to the Fountain of Living Waters; I think that’s some of our job as Christians. The Fount of Living Waters satisfies; we’re all prone to wander away from it. In our friendships, we need to come alongside, arm in arm, and go, “Come back with me to the Fountain of Living Waters.”
Sometimes, people want to camp outside of that Fountain and find it in each other; and that’s where I think needy people fall into place. They’re looking at us to be that fountain; and we go: “It’s not me; it’s Christ. Come with me.” We don’t avoid; we don’t meet the need; we point them to Christ.
Ann: Is there any way, as we want that for each other—we want that for our husbands/for our wives—I’ve talked to so many wives that have said, “My husband has no one.” Is there anything we should do as wives? I’m talking to all of you here, because we see the loneliness in our husband—and we want that for them—we want fellowship for them. Is there any way we can help that? Should we say nothing? Should we say, “Hey, maybe you could…”—you know, do we introduce them to people?
What do you guys think? Would that be a total turnoff for you guys?
Dave: That’s a great question for Bob Lepine. [Laughter]
Bob: No, I’m not taking that one! We’re throwing that to Kelly; that’s what we bring in the expert for! [Laughter]
Dave: —somebody that wrote a book on friendship.
Kelly: Yes, you know, there’s a way to approach our husbands, I think, that is honorable to them—and not like a finger pointing: “You don’t have friends!”—but, you know, like: “I want that for you. Is there anything I can do to help facilitate that?” or “Is there anything I’m doing that’s not facilitating that?”
Sometimes, I’ve found that my—either desire to process and talk with Jimmy actually drains him—and he doesn’t have the energy to want to hang out with other guys; or I’ve filled our schedule too full with all sorts of things, and he’s tired from working a full job, being in ministry, parenting our kids. Those are things I’ve had to learn—to create space for him to have the energy and the time to go out with friends—and then to not make him feel bad for doing that when I’m left with cleaning up the dinner dishes and putting the kids to bed by myself because he’s going out to see a movie with a guys.
I need to remember that’s good for him. It’s good in theory, again; but sometimes in the reality, we go: “Wait a minute! I have more work now than you do!” But we’re called to sacrifice for one another.
I have, at least, for our marriage, I’ve had to ask him, “What do I do that’s not helping this, and what can I do to foster that?”
Dave: I think that’s what you’ve [Ann] done. I mean, that’s a great answer, Kelly; because I think Ann has done that for me—has taken away the guilt factor—like: “I want you to go out with the guys. I encourage you to play golf every day of the week, four or five hours a day.” [Laughter] That’s not true.
Dave: No, obviously not true; but when the kids were little, there was a real tension. I never thought it was a rightful thing to do to be away from her and the boys with other guys: “I should be doing something more purposeful.” But that’s purposeful, and it’s not every day; but there’s a rhythm that she encouraged.
I remember she said this: “You’re really a good friend to guys.” I’m like, “Really?” That encouraged me, because real easy—you say it in your book—it’s real easy to say, “Where are my friends?” rather than “What kind of a friend am I?” Why don’t we look in the mirror and say, “What kind of a friend am I?” If I’m good, I’m not going to have a problem finding friends; because they’re going to want to come to me because I’m a good friend.
Ann: I think it was impactful for me when I read Emerson Eggerich’s book, Love and Respect; because in it, he talks about how men bond through shoulder-to-shoulder friendships or relationships; and women bond through communication. I think I was judging Dave, like, “What’d you guys talk about when you were together with your friends?” He’s like, “We were just playing basketball.” I think I realized, “Oh, so men bond, a lot of times, through doing something together.”
I was judging the fact that they went deep or didn’t go deep; whereas, you guys—really, you would go deep—but a lot of times it was just doing something together. So even encouraging our husbands to do a sport, to do an activity, to do something with another guy, could be encouraging a friendship, rather than always saying: “Well, what’s going on? How deep did you go?” and judging that.
Kelly: I think we have to take the pressure off. We tend to do that as wives: “How’d it go? Tell me all about it!”
Kelly: It’s like they’re not going to want to come home/he’s not going to want to come home and tell me about his time if I’m going to nitpick it to death and figure out how meaningful it really was, and who shared what, and “Is your soul refreshed now?” [Laughter] I need to just encourage you to go out and make those suggestions, you know.
Ann: Right; well, I remember Dave coming home from golf, saying, “Oh my goodness, you guys were together for hours. How’s John doing?”
Dave: I’m like, “He got a new driver.” [Laughter]
But I’ll close with this, because one of the things we did with our guys—again, this has been decades together—is we would read books together. And “Here’s a book to read,”—I’m not kidding.
Ann: And we’ve done the same [with women friends].
Dave: Men can read this book and say, “Let’s talk about it.” We’re doing a task, so it’s sort of shoulder to shoulder; but then, every once in awhile, we’ll turn to each other and go, “What’d you learn?” And we have a great book for you!
Bob: We do! It’s the book Kelly’s written called Friend-ish.
Kelly, thanks for being on FamilyLife Today and for talking about all of this with us. This has been really helpful.
Kelly: Well, thank you so much, guys, for having me.
Bob: Let’s hope that a lot of listeners will take the plunge and read the book with a highlighter—maybe with some friends—and maybe we can see some of the loneliness, that many people are experiencing in our culture today, maybe some of that can evaporate as people learn how to be better friends with one another.
Go to our website, FamilyLifeToday.com, for more information about Kelly’s book, Friend-ish. You can order it from us online. Again, the website is FamilyLifeToday.com; or call to order. Our number is 1-800-FL-TODAY. So again, the book is called Friend-ish. Order online at FamilyLifeToday.com, or call to order at 1-800-358-6329—1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
You know, all of us have had to think differently about friendships in these days because of the coronavirus and trying to maintain those friendships and relationships using screens and texts and phones and social media but staying connected to one another because that really is important. How we think and how we live out our lives in this moment is critical. This is a strategic moment for us as followers of Christ. To be able to declare the goodness of God when people are afraid and they are wondering and have questions.
We’re so grateful that our friend, Dr. John Piper, has written a book that addresses this subject. The book is called Coronavirus and Christ. The print addition of the book is supposed to be out in a week or two but we have the audio book and the e-book available now and it’s available from us for a free download. All you have to do is go to FamilyLife Today.com and you can download either the e-book or the audio book of John Piper’s new Coronavirus and Christ book. We want to thank the folks at Desiring God for making this possible. If you missed our conversation with John Piper earlier this week that’s available as a podcast online at FamilyLife Today.com as well.
Our team is working regularly to put out new resources to help your family know how to make the most of these days. Activities you can do together and ways you can keep your sanity in the midst of this social distancing. So, look for that when you go to our website as well. That’s FamilyLife Today.com.
And thanks to those of you who support this ministry and make all this work possible. We are grateful for you and we’re praying for you in the midst of this time.
We hope you have a great weekend! Hope you and your family are able to worship together this weekend. And hope you can join us back on Monday when we’re going to talk about the importance of commitment in marriage.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. Have a great weekend. We’ll see you Monday for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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