We all know what a platonic friendship is, right? A nonsexual relationship. What about an Aristotelian friendship? What is that? Although you’ve likely never heard this term before, we believe it’s a concept everyone interested in romantic relationships should know about. So let’s dig into it now.
Aristotle holds that love is the greatest external good, and he says we tend to love three different kinds of things: those that are useful, those that are pleasurable, and those that are good. He claims, furthermore, that there is a kind of friendship that corresponds to each of these categories. Let’s take a look at each, in turn.
Friendship type No. 1: Friends who find each other useful.
In this scenario, people may see in their relationship an opportunity for profit, often focusing on financial gain. They may, for example, decide to create a mutually beneficial business partnership. This kind of relationship, indeed, may be very profitable, Aristotle says, but he also points out problems that tend to arise with it. Since the whole basis of the friendship is what each person can get out of it, it is self-oriented and can quickly lead to quarrels if one or the other partner feels he or she is being shortchanged. And such quarrels often spell the end of friendships like these. If either partner feels the relationship is no longer useful to them, they will likely simply cut off the relationship and move on.
Friendship type No. 2: People who find it pleasurable to be together.
This type of friendship is higher than the first, Aristotle says, because friends who come together for profit may not actually enjoy spending time with each other. But friends who come together for pleasure are often witty and do actually enjoy each other’s company. They may, for example, like to get together on the weekends and go out for a good time on the town. Aristotle notes that these friendships can, indeed, be very pleasant, but he also observes that problems can quickly arise in these kinds of relationships, as well. As with friendships of utility, friendships of pleasure are also self-oriented, with the goal for each person being the pleasure they can get from it. And if the friendship somehow stops leading to pleasure, the friends will likely quickly part, with the relationship coming to an end. Both of these types of friendships, Aristotle says, are instrumental. We enter into them because of something we can get out of them. And when we stop getting what we want from them—profit or pleasure—we see no value in the relationship, and it simply dies.
Friendship type No. 3: People who are attracted to each other because of the good they see in the other person.
This kind of friendship, Aristotle says, is based on the good. Two people are attracted to each other because of the good they see in the other person. They value the other person’s character and want to help it continue to grow and develop in healthy directions. The good they see in the other person may also inspire them to want to become better themselves. This type of friendship, Aristotle argues, is not self-oriented or instrumental. Each person is focused not on him- or herself but on the other person. The partners love each other for who they are and not for what they can get out of the relationship.
Aristotle holds that this type of friendship will probably be much more enduring than the first two since it is likely to be brought to an end only if one of the persons involved becomes corrupt and stops being good. Aristotle contends that friendship based on goodness is the truest kind, superior to the other two. Additionally, he says, these kinds of friendships, although they are not motivated by the quest for profit or pleasure, often do turn out to be useful and pleasurable, as well as good.
After getting married, I asked James why Aristotle’s observations need to be limited to just friendships. "What if we apply his philosophy to romantic relationships, as well? What if we see ourselves not just as lovers but as Aristotelian lovers, focusing on appreciating the good in the other person and supporting each other’s growth and development?" James embraced this idea wholeheartedly. And that’s how Aristotle became part of the foundation of our marriage—and of the framework for applying positive psychology research to romantic relationships.
Think about your relationship from the standpoint of Aristotle’s analysis of friendship. To what degree have you and your partner been drawn together by utility, pleasure, or goodness? Relationships of utility focus on how each partner can profit (e.g., financially, socially, etc.) from the relationship. Relationships of pleasure focus on how each partner can find enjoyment (e.g., shared hobbies, interests, sexual relations, etc.) in the relationship. Relationships of goodness are focused on the other person. They are not motivated by what each person can get from the relationship but rather by the goodness each person sees in the other.
This piece is co-written by Suzann Pileggi Pawelski and James O. Pawleski.
Excerpted from Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts, by Suzann Pileggi Pawelski and James O. Pawelski with the permission of TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2018.
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