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Monday, June 05, 2006

Is Friendship Essentially Dyadic?

I'm in the middle of researching and writing my paper on friendship and the law.  More details to follow in due course.

But here's a question for the day:  Is friendship a fundamentally dyadic relationship -- or are dyads merely the most common form of true friendship?  There was a time in college when the "group" friendship seemed to me to be the highest form.  As time has passed, many of the dyads of the group have remained intact -- but the group (one that recently convened for a wedding of a group member) has commanded much less resonance for the individual members.  In fact, as we all departed back to our respective homes after the recent reunion, many of us observed that the group interactions actually undermine the strong dyads that remain.  It was right after this observation that I came across C.S. Lewis on the subject (The Four Loves, p. 61):

[I]f, of three friends (A, B, and C), A should die, then B loses not only A but "A's part in C" while C loses not only A but "A's part in B."  In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out.  By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets.  Now that Charles is dead, I shall never again see Ronald's reaction to a specifically Caroline joke.  Far from having more of Ronald, having him "to myself" now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald. . . .  Two friends delight to be joined by a third, and three by a fourth, if only the newcomer is qualified to become a real friend.

I've always been more invested in group interaction than many others -- even though my dyads are quite strong.  Maybe C.S. Lewis is onto why.  So are we right?  Or is it just obvious to everyone else that friendship is essentially dyadic?

Posted by Ethan Leib on June 5, 2006 at 01:19 PM in Culture | Permalink


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"Charles" being Charles Williams, and "Ronald" being J.R.R. Tolkien. What conversations they must have had at the Bird and Baby . . . .

Posted by: Stuart Buck | Jun 5, 2006 11:23:00 PM

I am also wondering about your research on the following important subject: can a boy and a girl be best friends?

Come to think of it: is it ok to go out with your best friend’s ex?

Posted by: Kate Litvak | Jun 5, 2006 8:17:06 PM

Rather than comment on your textual reference, I would like to add something of my own personal observations. I am part of a group including 5 other friends. We have known each other as a group since highschool, which was about 10 years ago for most of us, and since that time, we have met as a group at least once a year for a gathering, usually involving some sort of outdoor adventure such as hiking or rafting but sometings involving one of the member's weddings. This summer will be our 11th of such gathering involving the same 6 friends.

During this time, and even back in our school years, there were certainly diatic relationships that formed out of the six, and you could say that each of us had a diatic relationship with each of the other members. Some of these relationships were stronger than others. Two of the group shared a house together for a while, while others of us never spoke outside of the group gathering. As time has gone on, however, I have noticed something about this group. There is a quality to our relationships as a group that happens only when the whole group is together. When all of those diadic relationships come together in time and space and are isolated in some remote corner of the desert where we usually find ourselves, the bond is to the group and the diadic relationships desolve into the whole dynamic. The strength of some bonds seems to spread and make us all closer, and the distance between some members is bridge between two individuals that would not exist without without the group. It has occured on a couple of occations where one member could not make the event and the group dynamic was certainly altered even though the other sets of diadic relationships were present.

I find your topic very fascinating and this is an area that I have though about often. Our group friendship has qualities that cannot be found in any diadic friendship and yet I would still put it into the catagory of friendship. Therefore, I do not believe that friendhip is exclusively dyadic, because in the specific example of my experience, the diadic relationships are absorbed into the group creating a secondary type of friendship that cannot be understood simply by trying to explain it as a type of expanded diadic freindship. This is an example where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Posted by: Hil Kaman | Jun 5, 2006 4:25:57 PM

By "essentially," do you mean to suggest that the question is to be explored with armchair rather than empirical work?

(Personally, most of my strong friendships are group friendships, not really dyadic...)

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Jun 5, 2006 4:20:47 PM

Perhaps I do not know what "dyadic" means, but I do not see how C.S. Lewis's account and a "dyadic" view of friendship are inconsistent. The dyadic view (I'm assuming) allows one to engage with a friend as that person is in the world, and being in the world includes interacting with (and reacting to) others and other things in the world. Sure Charles may have brought something out of Ronald that C.S. could not himself, but so might have his listening to Verdi or his eating a Oaxacan tamale. That doesn't mean that C.S. and Ronald have any less of a dyadic friendship.

I don't mean to be dismissive of the apparent dichotomy, but what would the alternative be? A view of friendship as two people interacting alone in a padded cell? A view of friendship independent of the other people---spouses, family members, or friends---in each person's life? Other relationships enrich, inform, and occasionally detract from pairwise relations. In fact, I'd say that it is the durability of friendships, in spite of such influences, that distguishes them from other relationships.

Posted by: Dan Levine | Jun 5, 2006 3:48:09 PM

Ethan, this is such a great project. Like you, I was intrigued by that passage from "The Four Loves." I guess I *don't* think that friendship, properly understood, is "essentially dyadic," maybe for the reasons Lewis mentions. Another image in that book that stuck with me was his suggestion that "eros" (another of the Four Loves) is a face-to-face relationship, while "friendship" is more side-by-side (i.e., people taking things -- other things -- in together, rather than two people taking each other in).

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Jun 5, 2006 2:14:12 PM

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