Review: Steve Duck’s “Friends, For Life”

by Miles Raymer

Friends for Life

When I told a dear friend that I was preparing to write an essay on the concept of friendship, he recommended Steve Duck’s Friends, for Life. I was intrigued by this obscure text, which was originally published in 1983 but then revised and released as a second edition in 1991. In this slim handbook for readers interested in understanding and improving their personal relationships, Duck wades into the psychological research that was available during the latter part of the 20th century.

Friends, for Life is an intelligent but dry book––one that helped fill some small gaps in my research on friendship but failed to add anything particularly groundbreaking. Duck rightly views relating to others as an active, dynamic process rather than a series of static states. He uses the awkward but serviceable term “relationshipping” to describe his approach:

Relationships do not just happen; they have to be made––made to start, made to work, made to develop, kept in good working order and preserved from going sour. To do all this we need to be active, thoughtful, and skilled…Because it is a skill, relationshipping…is something that can be improved, refined, polished (even coached and practised) like any other skill, trained like any other, and made more fluent…I am not saying that friendship is all mechanical, any more than making a beautiful piece of furniture or playing an enchanting piano rhapsody or winning a sports championship is simply a mechanical exercise. But each of these activities has some mechanical elements that must be mastered before the higher level aspects of skill can be attempted. (3-4)

This is a useful and pragmatic way to frame the project of pursuing positive social relationships. The highlights include Duck’s explication of how friendships can support and improve our personalities. For example:

Each of us needs to be assured regularly that our thought-worlds or symbolic spaces are sound and reliable. A friend can help us see that we are wrong and how we can change, or that we are right about some part of our thinking…The more of these ‘thought-ways’ that we share with someone, the easier it is to communicate with that person: we can assume that our words and presumptions will be understood more easily by someone who is ‘our type’ than by someone who is not––we shall not have the repetitious discomfort of perpetually explaining ourselves, our meanings and our jokes. (24-5)

As someone who has spent countless hours hashing out common “thought-ways” with those closest to me, I found this passage useful. Duck identifies why it’s worth our time and effort to hammer out a common language with our friends: Because we achieve greater levels of ease, both in terms of our emotional comfort and expedience of communication. It is within this cocoon of ease that people relax enough to reveal their deepest thoughts and feelings––to become vulnerable in the fashion that engenders true intimacy.

Once these habits are established between individuals and/or groups, the participants begin to experience a positive feedback loop in which friendly feelings cause friendly actions, and vice versa: “We usually think of feelings causing behaviour, but in some cases behaviour causes feelings” (115). Friendships that reach this level bring about not just social flourishing, but better physical health as well: “We all knew that the mind could affect the body, but…we have only just realized the ways in which personal relationships affect the mind and thereby the body” (165).

Another strength is Duck’s talent for describing the critical but oft-ignored influence of nonverbal behavior on relationships:

A careful attention to the nonverbal signs of facial expression and tone of voice permits a person to learn more than is actually said in words. We can deduce people’s strength of feeling about a particular issue from careful observation of their posture, their hand movements and their breathing rate or facial colouring as they talk about it…All this information is over and above the information conveyed directly in words, but it helps us see whether they are like us, and whether they offer the kind of personality style or support that we need and enjoy. (68)

Smiles, nods and eye movements in appropriate places do not serve only to show general interest, nor just to stress important points in conversation, nor even to keep the conversation going. They have a fourth, separate function––they indicate aspects of our personality…Our use of such nonverbal behaviours, then, also shows that we know the proper rules of polite conversation, and that we are not abnormal or deranged. The system of such nonverbal cues relates closely to the content of speech and it is the mark of a competent communicator that he or she works the two systems closely together. (78, emphasis his)

For a person such as myself who has been fairly accused of putting too much emphasis on the raw content of language and not enough on the subtler aspects of communication, these are salutary insights.

Despite containing some good qualities, Friends, for Life is restrained by Duck’s failure to fully flesh out the promise of his own theories. Much of the book is devoted to romantic relationships, which are certainly interesting and have significant elements in common with friendships, but which ultimately constitute a different subject matter that demands its own treatment. These sections distract Duck from delving more deeply into the nuanced nature of friendship. Additionally, surprisingly little time is spent exploring the ways in which friendships can be successfully maintained over an entire lifetime, or on the features of friendship in old age. These conspicuous omissions render Duck’s project incomplete and undeserving of its title.

Finally, it bears noting that much of Duck’s research is understandably outdated. While in general I didn’t find much to quibble with, Duck occasionally slides too far in the direction of gender essentialism. The book also contains a baffling passage where Duck may be fairly accused of laying the blame for child abuse at the feet of victims rather than their abusers:

In hovering, the child lurks on the edge of a group, shows indecision about entering and joining in, decides to join in too late when the others are moving on to something else, and adopts a pleading, whining style of talking. Hoverers also show lower ability to concentrate, higher rates of daydreaming, and more frequent episodes of staring out into space. Such children are clearly disturbed. Furthermore, the behaviour is typical of some abused children and may indicate that such children ‘invite’ abuse in this way (perhaps partly explaining why often only one child in a family is abused). It has even been shown in some cases that when such an abused child is removed to a ‘safe’ foster home, the foster parents may also abuse the child, or request that it be removed because they cannot cope. (151)

There are a couple glaring problems with this analysis. First, these so-called “hovering” behaviors don’t seem any worse than the normal social awkwardness that many young people experience, and certainly should not cause a child to be thought of as “disturbed”. Second, the fact that there are “some cases” where a child experiences abuse in multiple home environments should not lead anyone to conclude that the abuse is definitively the result of the child’s behavior. I do believe that some children are little monsters who probably can’t become healthy adults, but that doesn’t mean their difficult natures are a comprehensive explanation for abuse, nor does it justify any abuse that may befall them. I also think such children are extremely rare––certainly less plentiful than the droves of children who suffer repeated abuse around the globe.

Rating: 4/10