Why people think they're your friend (when they aren't) cover image

Why people think they're your friend (when they aren't)

Dorian Minors • March 1, 2014

This is an archived article from our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology. The idea there was to take psychological scholarship and turn it into wisdom. The Armchair Collective tries to go a little further than just psychology. As such, these articles live here in archive form, until they're updated.

We've talked before about the four types of relationships we can have with other people (and we advise you to check that short post out before reading on). There are relationships that are based on communal need, exchange, worth and power. At least one of these describes every relationship you have with people. Obviously this is important because it forms the basis of the activities you do. But it also shapes the expectations you have of that person. Need someone to pick you up after a bad date? You'll probably call a communal friend, they won't need you to do anything in return. Need someone to cover your shift? Maybe you'll call that workmate who you exchange shift swaps every now and then.

In the article outlining those four types we gave you the theoretical structure for these relationships, but more than likely you already knew them and just didn't put them into words. This is because our brain will make these distinctions for us so that we know what to expect from people and use the right people for the right purposes in our lives. These expectations are called schemas (go here for a bit more information and some examples). We've also spoken about relationship RULES. We build schemas based on our expectations. These are built on our experiences of our relationships and the relationships around us. These particular schemas become rules that we expect our friends and partners to abide by (again, check out last weeks article for more information as well as how to figure them out in other people!). But these rules can go terribly wrong. Last week we put emphasis on how these rules are often invisible until they're broken (and then we're in trouble).

“Experiences become expectations, which in turn become rules.”

In our article on the four relationship types, we spoke about how exchange relationships are especially prone to transformation; when we start a relationship by trading something, it can quickly become a relationship based on more (or less) than that initial trade. For instance, a study buddy can quickly become a (communal) friend. A favour could turn into a job opportunity (authority ranking).  But other relationship types can change just as easily. People can also begin relationships thinking that it's based on different things (e.g. I think we're communal, you think we're exchange). This means that our expectations might not match and when people violate our expectations, it can cause a lot of problems.

Some of the more common examples are those in which parents ask their children to start paying board, or pay back their expenses for raising them. Maybe a boss you would go out for the odd beer with had to fire you. A friend you drive home with every day refuses an invitation to go to the beach. It can cause anything from embarrassment and distress to clinical anxiety and depression.

It may not seem like a big deal to you, but it's the devils' document to some. Image Courtesy of Chris Gooderham (Flickr) It may not seem like a big deal to you, but it's the devils' document to some. Image Courtesy of Chris Gooderham (Flickr)

One common situation that crops up for psychologists is that of the 'pre-nuptial' agreement. It's all well and good to say you love each other always and forever, but many people would rather be safe than sorry. However, this sort of a suggestion can lead to serious problems in a relationship because it can often be what's known as a 'taboo trade-off'. This idea is that a value that is considered 'sacred' and sacrosanct by one person (in this case, the commitment of marriage) is asked to trade it in or compromise on it for something more practical (the 'just-in-case pre-nup). This particular type of relationship violation is usually met with highly emotive responses that often become more irrational and inflexible when pressed. The result is often a trip to the counselor or even divorce.

In saying all this, it's important to note that most close relationships will draw on different relationship styles at different times. They might be based in a communal relationship, but will occasion cross into a trade (I'll do the dishes if you cook), an authority ranking (parents and older siblings) and even worth (it apparently happens, but I can't think of a single example). In cases such as these, one can often violate the others' expectations (e.g. not buy the second round of drinks) and our close relationships won't suffer too much (e.g. 'tight-ass'). Keep violating these occasional cross-overs though and you might find that relationship stretched thin (if you've ever moved out with a good friend, you might know exactly what I'm talking about here).

So, it is always extremely important to note what kind of relationship you have with others and what the major characteristics of it are so that expectations aren't violated. Make it clear what your expectations are to those around you and these sort of situations can be avoided before they escalate into something much worse.

For more, check out our article on how little love has to do with a relationship. Can you see how 'interconnections' might determine what kind of relationship we have? Or maybe you need one easy tip on how to deal with an annoying friend? Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and 'the good life' at The Dirt Psychology.

Turning scholarship into wisdom we can use at The Armchair Collective.

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Dorian Minors

I mostly do brain science. Sometimes I train honeybees. I promise they're related. I made this site because there's no reason why scholars should be the only ones to own knowledge. My special interests are interpersonal relationships, the science of community, spirituality and the brain, and the neural basis of complex behaviour. I hope this stuff is as interesting to you as it is to me. You can find out more about me here.