How Different is Too Different

A conversation emerged on this blog recently about friendships between people who have different belief systems or values. In one instance, the commenter considered herself a liberal while the friend was extremely conservative. In another, the commenter was Jewish but worried a new friend, a Christian, was trying to “save” her. Similar comments have come up about political opinions.

The question, of course, is simple: Can you be friends with someone who has different beliefs?

My response: Mostly.

Having different religious affiliations or political leanings, on their own, certainly shouldn’t make or break a relationship. I have plenty of friends who are not Jewish, and fewer–but still some–who don’t share my political leanings. The problems come when our differences start to delve deeper, shaping our moral code and informing our standards of conduct.

Here’s how I see it: Our value systems guide how we behave and how we treat others, while beliefs are more editorialized.  While having different beliefs might actually enhance a friendship (stimulating conversation!), values, well, not so much. If you and a PBFF have moral compasses that are out of sync, that will probably make friendship difficult.

If, for example, the idea that everyone deserves the same rights and equal treatment is fundamental to your values, and someone else feels differently, it will probably be hard for you to have a future together. That core value will just inform too much of your behavior and outlook.

The tricky part, I think, is being sure that it is indeed your core value system (not just religion or political party or some other surface trait) that’s different when you decide to give up on a budding friendship. Many of us have a tendency to assume a specific political affiliation, for example, corresponds with a specific value system, and those kinds of assumptions are the ones that can get in the way of potentially great relationships.

That said, if one writes off a friendship with someone who clearly has different values, it’s not always, necessarily, judgmental. It might just be that after years of friendships and of meeting new people, you know what works and what doesn’t. As reader wrote: “You are not judging this new friend as a person, but you are trying to discern whether or not there’s potential for a close friendship.”

Does she have a point? And what do you think, are some differences just too different, making friendship impossible?

11 Comments

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11 responses to “How Different is Too Different

  1. Suzannah

    I have found a differing religious beliefs has no bearings on a new friendships. But the standard of common decency does.
    I have recently made a new aquataince that I originally thought had potential to be a close friend. Not long after meeting the lady, she buys a very expensive tiny dog that requires lots of grooming, so after about 6 weeks decides the animal is not able to be house trained so she just never let’s it in the house again. So after a few weeks this 6lb dog looked HORRIBLE. I could hardly stand to see when I would work up to the front door. When I mentioned the situation she acted like as a friend you should not make me feel bad.
    I have chosen to not pursue this friendship.

    • Joanna

      That is awful! Should you call animal control on this woman? Tiny dogs should not be outside!

      • Suzannah

        Where I live, out in the county & very rural, if a dog is provided shelter, food & water then animal control will not get involved. I tried to have serious conversation with her regarding the animal, that is when it became apparent to me that we will not be able to have a friendship. She just took an attitude that I am judging her.
        I heard a person’s true character is determined by how we are act when no one is looking.

  2. Ana

    Agree 100%. Very good point about the difference between surface labels (religion, political party) vs. deeply-held values. If the core values are different, you can never expect that friend to support you or be there for you in the way that you feel is right; she just wouldn’t GET it. She may also engage in behavior that you cannot condone (i.e. Suzannah’s story about the dog; that broke my heart!), which puts a real strain on a relationship.

  3. Gretchen

    Thank you for this Rachel! You’ve definitely clarified the issue for me. My BFF in NY is a Catholic and a conservative Republican, but we still have similar core values and can laugh off our surface differences. Since moving, I think I’ve gotten a little “gun shy” because of several uncomfortable experiences. I’m going to try and get past the “church stuff” and get to know a PBFFs true values, and hopefully I’ll meet others who are willing to do the same.

  4. Amy

    I agree that sometimes there are too many differences to make a friendship work but it can happen. I happen to have some very close friends that are nothing like me in terms of political and religious values and I wouldn’t give these friends up for anything. Somewhere along the way we managed to find common ground and appreciate our differences and respect our own beliefs systems without being judgmental. Sadly, that doesn’t always happen.

  5. Anonymous

    I think as long as you’re aware of those differences and both parties try to “respect” the other one’s beliefs, there should be no problem.
    I have a whole bunch of friends that come from all different walks of life and have very different beliefs, but this only becomes a problem if you let it become a problem.

  6. San

    I think it only becomes a problem, if you let it become a problem. If you’re aware of your differences and can respect the other person’s beliefs and values, a friendship should still very well be possible.

  7. Megan

    Maybe I’m way off here but isn’t a person’s religion their core value system? I mean, that’s how most major religions work, right? They ARE moral codes, values and tenets to live by. Perhaps there are stricter/more serious ways to follow than others, but religion, by definition is a core value system. In other words, there’s no “just” religion (as opposed a core value system). It’s not to say that people who adhere to different faiths can’t be friends, but it does make it hard when one of the core commands of Christianity (and Islam, in fact) is to “go out and make disciples of all nations”…

  8. Beth

    Interesting topic, Rachel! I think woman especially need their BFFs to be similar much more than men (just look at your average groomsmen/bridesmaid line up and you’ll see the difference). I think respect is huge but there are friendship deal breakers just as in dating. I am catholic (not hard-core at all though) and had a friend in college who tried to repeatedly get me to read the bible with her. yeah, it just wasn’t going to happen, it ended up ending the friendship. I couldn’t understand how she didn’t understand that I wasn’t interested. And probably her me, ya know?

  9. Sometimes it’s hard though – sometimes, your own beliefs don’t respect those of others in their very nature. For example I am a pretty staunch atheist, and this does not, as some think, mean I “don’t believe in anything”. I actually believe, given the evidence, that there is no god. It’s actually hard to say that to a believer without sounding arrogant and like you’re looking for an argument. (Sometimes you get in them – I have one friend who loves to debate evolution with me and we both have a good laugh – everyone else gets uncomfortable for some reason). I’m also vegan, and I find so many meat eaters (and even vegetarians) get on the defensive before I even say anything about it. I actually disrespect their beliefs by nurturing my own. This isn’t a problem for current friendships, but it can really get in the way of a new friendship forming.

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