It’s hard to make friends as an adult.
All too often, it feels a bit like dating—you scope out friends who share common interests, who are close in proximity or age, and whom you genuinely enjoy. You hem and haw over whether it’s “too soon” to invite someone to coffee, dinner, or a playdate with your kids, and cringe over any awkward statements you inevitably made. And if all goes well, the relationship finds a more comfortable rhythm.
Recently, though, I’ve struggled with more than just my own awkwardness in seeking out adult friends: I’ve found myself wondering whether it matters if our friends share our fundamental values.
A few weeks ago, I shared my concern with my aunt. As someone who seems to have many friends from diverse backgrounds and walks of life (not to mention, who seems to make new friends at every turn), I figured she would offer sound advice. I told her that I wished I had more friends who shared my values. I also admitted that sometimes, it bothered me that so many of my friends had such different and seemingly foreign worldviews. Then, she asked me a showstopping question:
“Do you enjoy spending time with them?”
The answer was yes, I did. Very much. I have friends who make me laugh and with whom I share lively debates about everything from our jobs to the best postpartum granny panties. Even though we wouldn’t dare touch politics with a ten-foot pole, these friends genuinely bring joy into my life—and, given that our friendships have endured, I’d hazard a guess that they feel the same way.
This really got me thinking. Do all of our friends need to share our values? If we enjoy spending time together, is that enough? And, to take it a step further, can those friends enrich our lives even more than those who agree with us on every fundamental issue?
We are more than the sum of our values
Recently, a therapist friend helped me understand the concept of “values.” Some values, she said, can change throughout our lives. What we value as thirty-somethings will differ from what we valued as college students, for instance: a college student may value freedom and autonomy, while a young professional may instead value financial stability and predictability of schedule.
Other values, like deeply held religious or moral convictions, often remain constant through our lives. These are close to our hearts. They are personal. But, as my therapist friend helped me understand, even they are not the sum total of who we are.
As highly complex individuals, we are more than simply an amalgamation of our many beliefs, opinions, motivations, and worldviews. As such, when we automatically eliminate the possibility of friendships with those whose values differ, we lose out on a great amount of personality and depth. I can describe myself, for instance, not just as a woman with a certain set of religious, political, and moral beliefs, but also a classic Myers-Briggs INFJ, recovering perfectionist, wife, mother, infrequent-but-enthusiastic traveler, and aspiring (and completely untalented) hobby painter—to name just a few of what could, for every individual, be a very long list.
Shared values are not a hallmark of a solid friendship
We all have different ideas of what makes for a lasting friendship, and reasonable minds can differ as to the purpose of sharing our lives with our friends.
As I’ve explained before:
The philosopher Aristotle distinguishes three kinds of friendships: friendships of utility, friendships of pleasure, and perfect friendship. All three friendships are a kind of reciprocated goodwill. It is the source of this goodwill, however, that separates a pure, perfect friendship from the two imperfect ones. True friendship, he explains, is one in which friends value each other for their own sake and will the good of the other.
However, a perfect friendship need not involve two people who are simpatico on every political, sociopolitical, theological, and moral issue. Rather, a perfect friendship is simply one in which the friends fully, perfectly will the good of the other.
Since Aristotle’s time, the subject of friendship has been extensively studied and researched. Licensed counselor and professor Suzanne Degges-White notes that enduring friendship requires elements like pleasure in each other’s company, reciprocity, and mutual respect—but notably absent from her list are shared values.
It seems both in the Aristotelian construct and the modern take on the anatomy of friendship that shared values are not essential to a “perfect” friendship that wills the good of the other. Rather, mutual respect, support, reciprocity, and pleasure in each other’s company are bulwarks of any platonic relationship.
A cursory glance at some of history’s most adored friendships is enough to shed light on this concept. Famous writers C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein vehemently disagreed on a panoply of theological issues, but remained close friends throughout their lives. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was known for her close bond with Justice Antonin Scalia, with whom she rarely concurred in her judicial opinions on controversial cases. These bonds show that a unique synergy between persons does not depend upon the absence of discord on important issues.
Unearthing unshared values can be an exercise in charity and in positive growth
Research suggests that a little discord within friendships may actually be healthy and good.
Certified Gottman therapist and former Verily contributor Zach Brittle shares that it is perfectly healthy for friends to express their differences, so long as it is done graciously. “Being right doesn’t mean that you have to be righteous,” he told Verily in 2016. “And if you are right, you’d rather your friend know that you have her back no matter what than have her expect you to say, ‘I told you so.’”
Not to mention, while friendships should feel pleasurable and fun, that does not mean they should leave us unchallenged. In fact, all of us are more likely to grow and thrive when pushed, in a healthy way, to confront our own beliefs. When we welcome diverse friends into our circles, we also welcome the opportunity to explore innovative, uncharted ideas that can help us either crystallize our own beliefs or develop new ones.
And according to a recent study, a diverse friendscape can also help us grow in empathy. Degges-White explains that this type of situation is akin to “reading about people different from you—by hearing others’ stories, we have a greater understanding of both the diversity of the human experience and the way in which we are all more alike, at heart, than different.”
Disagreements are not the death of friendship
Brittles notes that the adage, “let’s just agree to disagree” is often a different way of saying, “let’s never talk about this again.” But he explains that “agreeing to disagree” does not necessarily mean avoiding certain topics of discussion. Rather, it involves a tacit agreement to prioritize the relationship over the issue. “The fact that we disagree doesn’t mean we have a problem,” he explains. “It means that we have an opportunity to learn and grow but only if we’re curious and willing to suspend judgment.”
The best way to let our friends know that we value their friendship more than our differences is simply to be a good friend. Express it to them either by showing up when they need you, dropping them a thoughtful or encouraging note, or saying it outright. Even a heated discussion need not erode the foundation of your relationship—so long as you value each other as whole people.
I have many different friends who hold different values. There are a few with whom I agree on very little, in fact. But incidentally, many of the friends with whom I share the least common ground are the ones who’ve showed up the most for my family when I needed them. They are also the ones I think of first when something funny happens to me, and the ones I immediately dial when I have big news to share.
Of course, this isn’t to say that there is anything wrong with nurturing friendships based on shared values; these are the ones we can turn to to affirm, strengthen, and sharpen our own views. The key is to remember that no matter what they hold dear, people are not the sum of their views. And when they come into our lives, if we inspire and uplift each other, we can and should embrace them wholeheartedly.