“He who walks with wise men will be wise, but the companion of fools will be destroyed….
You may learn his ways and get yourself ensnared.” (Proverbs 13:20; Proverbs 22:24-25)
“He was so sweet until he started playing with his new friends. Now, he won’t do anything I ask him to.”
“I used to be so strong until we began dating. I know we go too far when we’re alone, but I’m terrified of losing his approval.”
“I was close with God once. My friends are agnostic, though. Since I started talking to them, it’s hard for me to believe anything for certain.”
“When they’re doing good, she’s constantly texting him. But if they’re fighting, she gets so depressed she won’t talk to anyone. It’s like she’s forgotten who he was.”
There are parts of every person’s personality and behavior which are strong and fixed and those which are malleable and open to change. Some people may have more malleability, while others seem stronger and more certain of who they are. But all of us have known people who we thought were above the influence of their peers, only to discover the reverse to be true— a compliant, steady child who seems to be picking up the behaviors of their wild friend at school; a friend we were shocked to discover had fallen into a controlling, sexual relationship; a teenager who suddenly stopped caring about church and immersed himself into an unhealthy subculture; or a family member who’s lost her identity in an unhealthy, codependent relationship. No matter how independent and spiritually mature, no one is impervious to the influencing nature of the company they keep.
We are about to embark on the holiday seasons: the time of year when we usually examine our lives, give thanks for the gifts and blessings we have, and resolve ourselves to change the things which are unhealthy. Friendship is one of those gifts often emphasized during the holidays because of the significance placed on spending time with those we are close to and giving gifts to demonstrate our love. With the approach of the New Year, it is, perhaps, also a perfect time to examine the health of our children’s friendships, as well as our own, and determine if we are the companions of the wise or the foolish. Below are a few comparisons between healthy an unhealthy friendships. Of course, any relationship may have healthy and unhealthy aspects, so you should mainly be concerned about a particular friendship if there are more negative than positive characteristics. This is meant, therefore, to be merely a guide.
Healthy friends encourage independence. Usually both people have a strong sense of who they are, what they like, and what their goals are. As a result, the relationship has very few strings attached—it’s okay to disagree, spend time with other friends, enjoy different things, and have different priorities.
Unhealthy friends are too insecure to allow much freedom. There is usually a high degree of codependence and possessiveness: it’s not okay to hang out with your other friends, to disagree with their views, or spend much time apart. They will either begin liking the same things as you or you will feel an underlying pressure to always speak favorably about the things they enjoy. There is often a hovering fear of betrayal which lingers around unhealthy people, causing them to be grasping and controlling. This tendency can either be subtly manipulative or overtly demanding.
Healthy friends are supportive. They are there for you when circumstances are hard and are willing to listen. Because their own security isn’t dependent on your emotional happiness, your struggles don’t cause them to lose stability. As a result, they are able to lend you emotional and spiritual support without your problems overwhelming them.
Unhealthy friends tend to make difficult situations about themselves. Due to insecurity, seeing someone they feel emotionally dependent on go through something difficult causes them to lose equilibrium, and so they may attempt to make light of the problem, hurry you onto a premature resolution, temporarily abandon you, or become emotionally unstable themselves so that you suddenly find that you are attempting to reassure them in a time of personal crisis even though it is you who needs the support.
Healthy Friends encourage family connections and will often enter into your family interaction. They understand the importance of the family unit and usually have no problem opening up to parents and/or spouses. They sometimes even seem to enjoy being with your family as much as being with you alone.
Unhealthy friends tend to be isolating. This can be in the form of passive aggressive attempts such as a constant pressure for physical intimacy (for romantic relationships), persistently avoiding time with your family when around you while pressuring you to go out, or constantly talk about personal issues which can’t be discussed in front of others (platonic friends) and simply leaving when you aren’t available to be alone. In some controlling romantic relationships, certain people may even be more controlling, badgering you with your family’s faults and pressuring you strongly to pull away. When relationships begin developing in this direction, it is an indication that emotional abuse may ensue during engagement or marriage.
Healthy Friends encourage compliance with school and family rules. Healthy children and teens are able to adapt to the family rules of their friends and, more often than not, won’t intentionally encourage a pattern of disobedience in your children because they understand consequences and respect. When around healthy adult friends, you should sense that behavior glorifying to God is encouraged and expected.
Unhealthy Friends care primarily about their momentary impulses and gratification. When your children are around unhealthy children or teens, therefore, there will be a constant pressure to be more self-focused and self-seeking. Naturally, this results in disobedience to those in authority and a tendency toward amoral behavior where consequences or pain to others doesn’t seem to matter. With unhealthy adult friends, you may not feel overtly compelled toward worse behavior, but you may find that your ethics and morals are treated as quaint and outdated. As a result, you may have a persistent feeling that any moral choices you make will be on trial for their absurdity and that you are naïve for caring about such things, or smart for abandoning them.
Healthy Friends are supportive and encouraging spiritually. When spending time with them, you should discern a sense of camaraderie and sanctification. In terms of the former, healthy spiritual friends foster a quick and easy intimacy because of the Holy Spirit. With regards to the latter, the there should be a persistent exhortation toward God-dependence and growth, as well as a willingness to discuss weaknesses, acknowledge sin, and persistently move toward change.
Unhealthy Friends are either overtly not spiritual, or lack a sense of true spirituality. Overtly non-spiritual people are usually upfront about the fact and are therefore easily identified. Most of us understand the warnings related to being unequally yoked with unbelievers, so I won’t spend time on that subject. But intimacy with friends who give lip-service to spiritual matters while producing no true fruit is a recipe for stagnation, confusion, and discouragement. Intimacy with friends in this category may leave you feeling drained, uncertain of truth, and self-focused.
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Perhaps all of your relationships matched most closely with the healthy friendships. But if they didn’t, consider prayerfully limiting one-on-one time with that person for yourself or your child. Take the relationship to the Lord as well and request that He help you through the transition by bringing more godly people into your life. If you are concerned for your children, be willing to spend more time with them and their friends, and consider planning family activities so that your child will get used to you interacting with their friends. This will also allow you to more adequately gauge the negative or positive influence of their peers. Hopefully, this Christmas and New Years will be a time of closeness with family and friends whose influence ushers you to a closer walk with God. May the true implications of Emmanuel, God with us, spur us on to bear the hope of Christ to those we love.