Are you my friend because I happened to be around at the right time, or because you would choose me over others if we were lined up in a row, because you prefer me to the others?

I suppose we hardly ever dare ask the question, but we should because the answer will tell us a lot about the nature of the friendship in question.

When I first moved back to my home county to work, after several years living elsewhere, I knew nobody my own age. If I was not to stay at home alone every evening, I needed to find people with whom to socialise. A friend introduced me to a University friend who was working at our local nuclear power station; another friend introduced me to some of her college friends; there were a couple of people my age working at the same office as me; there was one excrutiating evening with the son of one of my parents’ friends. Soon I had people to play badminton and squash with, to spend evenings with, to move my washing machine, to swap books with, to share meals with, even to go on holiday with. Need motivated me to find friends, but I am no longer friends with any of those people I first became friends with. They were friends of necessity, not preference, and gradually, my initial loneliness having been assuaged by those initial opportunity-friends, I began to make choices about my friendships, and those new friendships have endured since they were motivated by preference, not need. Brutally put, though I did not realise it at the time, I was using those early opportunity-friends, and I did not deserve them to survive.

Of course, we might be lucky: Opportunity-friends may turn out to be preference-friends. But the omens are not good.

At each stage of my life, at each move, there has been the same pattern of collecting opportunity-friends and then discarding them, sometimes keeping one or two who I’ve discovered are preference-friends. Those preference-friends are the ones I would pick out from the line-up, where affection and love count for more than superficial similarities of background, education, ethnicity or religion, which may even divide us.

It is a truism that those of us who are happily married trot out to those who are still seeking a partner, that the right partner will come along when they least expect it, when they are not looking, when they are happy by themselves. Perhaps this is because it is preference, not propinquity or opportunity that determines their choice.

Just as I have indulged in opportune friendships when I have needed them, so, equally, have I been the opportunity-friend, picked up because there was a need that needed filling, and then discarded when the need subsided and other preference-friends came along. It has never been a pleasant experience, especially where I saw a preference friend when they saw only an opportunity friend.

You never can see inside someone else’s head, never know where they’ve filed your friendship. Often time tells. Or distance. Or the extent to which self-disclosure takes place, and vulnerability is risked to allow intimacy in.

I haven’t moved for a long time now. I’ve stayed put and collected around me dear preference friends. I do not need opportunity friends any more, though I may do in the future. I hold out for preference friends for now.