Generally, most people have their own understanding of friendship by adulthood. Perhaps you had great experiences with friendship in the past, perhaps you didn’t. Understanding how past experiences may shape current behaviors and beliefs can give insight into how you approach friendship now.
On this page, explore general understandings about friendship which are reinforced throughout this section. This page provides an overview of the framework while the rest of the section delves deeper into individual ideas with examples, exercises, and ideas.
The Definition of Friendship
a state of enduring affection, esteem, intimacy, and trust between two people. In all cultures, friendships are important relationships throughout a person’s life span.1
Friendship is a word we have all known since childhood, and we have all experienced it in some way. Yet asking five strangers to write a definition would yield five very different results.
One defining feature of friendships is that it’s voluntary. Without obligation, there is a freedom and subjectivity surrounding relationships with friends in our life, giving friendships the ability to have the most impact on our life. The downside of this freedom is that there are often no set rules for how to be a friend and friendship can easily be put on the back burner with everything else that goes on in life.
According to Encyclopedia Britannica:
Friendship is generally characterized by five defining features:1
- It is a dyadic relationship, meaning that it involves a series of interactions between two individuals known to each other.
- It is recognized by both members of the relationship and is characterized by a bond or tie of reciprocated affection.
- It is not obligatory; two individuals choose to form a friendship with each other. In Western societies, friendships are one of the least prescribed close relationships, with no formal duties or legal obligations to one another.
- It is typically egalitarian in nature. Unlike parent-child relationships, for instance, each individual in a friendship has about the same amount of power or authority in the relationship.
- It is almost always characterized by companionship and shared activities. In fact, one of the primary goals and motivations of friendship is companionship. In addition, adolescent and adult friendships often perform other functions, such as serving as sources of emotional support and providing opportunities for self-disclosure and intimacy.
Etymology of terms
The Germanic origin of the word friend dates back to the start of the English language. The Old English spelling, frēond, was used as a verb, meaning ‘to love.’ 2 For the most part, the meaning and context of the word has not changed since its origin. We can see tons of references to friends in Shakespeare, Plato, and the Bible, all describing relationships without romantic or familial love.
The term platonic is a newer term, usually referring to a relationship that is strictly non-sexual: Just friends. The term platonic comes from Plato, though Plato never actually used it. Through the 16th Century, platonic was used to describe Plato’s teachings or ideas–for example platonic dialogues. In the 17th Century, an Italian priest named Marsilio Ficino coined the term amor platonicus, or ‘platonic love’ in reference to a discussion of love and friendship3 by Plato. Basically, Ficino wanted to describe the love a man could feel for another man (or for God) without any reference to homosexuality.4 Today, platonic is used often in reference to non-sexual friendships between men and women.
Before you scroll down to explore the rest of the friendship section, take a moment to jot down your definition of friend. It will serve your learning process to be clear about what understanding you’re starting from. Use the following sentence frames for inspiration on where to start:
- A Friend is someone who….
- Friendship is…
- Without friendship, life would…
What Does Friendship Mean to You?
Friendship Circle of Montreal asks people to give their definition of friendship.
“Friendship is the hardest thing in the world to explain. It’s not something you learn in school. But if you haven’t learned the meaning of friendship, you really haven’t learned anything” – Muhammad Ali
“True friendship comes when the silence between two people is comfortable.” – David Tyson
Humans Need Intimacy
[Picture Via: I Like You by Sandol Stoddard]
I Like You — Read Aloud
I Like You is a children’s book written by Sandol Stoddard and illustrated by Jacqueline Chwast that explores how to measure liking and friendship through a sweet story.
The essence of intimacy is a high-quality, close connection with another person.5
When we ask “What is friendship,” we are not looking for the grade school definition of what makes a good friend. Instead, we need to dig deep to find out what makes a fulfilling and meaningful relationship.
Everyone has a need for intimacy. Intimate relationships allow for vulnerability, reciprocity, affirmation, and support that is not found in lower quality connections. Having a huge circle of friends is great, and if you are not close on an intimate level with one or two of those friends, you may feel a lack of intimacy. When we feel lonely, it may be due to a lack of intimacy in our existing friendships, even when surrounded by friends. Having close, quality friendships is one strategy that helps fill our intimacy bucket.
There are six types of intimacy, which are outlined in-depth on the Connection Reflection page.
Besides intimacy, friendship brings other benefits.
According to Bronnie Ware, author of The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, not maintaining friendships is among people’s biggest regrets at the end of their life.6
The Science of Friendship:
In the 6th episode of ‘Next Level Living,” explore the scientific benefits of friendship, how we’re hardwired to make connections, and how humans benefit from having friends.
Did you know…
- Being social can help you live a longer life.
- You are more likely to break bad habits or start new habits if done with friends.
- The #1 ingredient for overall well-being is having positive relationships.
- When around friends, our brain produces less cortisol (stress hormones).
- Chronic loneliness has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease.
Good social relationships are one of the best predictors we have for a person’s well-being.27, 28 Concordantly, loneliness takes a huge toll on one’s well-being. It can even be detrimental to physical health: some research has shown it’s worse for you than smoking or obesity, and a 30-year study found that loneliness was the greatest risk factor for depression in elderly people with excessive loneliness causing brain damage in some cases.29There is good evidence that keeping vibrant social groups as you age actually boosts your cognitive abilities and slows cognitive decline.30
“Husband, Wife, Partner, Friend, Co-worker, Child, Mother, Father, Sibling, Brother, Sister . . . these are the one-word descriptions that tell the stories of our lives. When we come together as family, as friends, as lovers, we become more than the sum of our parts. We’re the most successful of all the animals on the planet, because we’re the most social. And that’s why each of us is inextricably bound to others. In the end, those social connections, those bonds, are what it is all about. When they are strong, we’re happy. When they are threatened, we worry. When they disappear, we suffer. In many ways, navigating the social world is more complicated than a voyage to the moon. It’s a journey we have to take, because whether we like it or not, our happiness is in each other’s hands.…”
– Dr. Daniel Gilbert, Harvard Psychologist, Author of Stumbling on Happiness
There is something more deadly than smoking and obesity that no one is talking about: Loneliness.
Research shows 1 in 5 American adults report being lonely, and 21% of adults surveyed said they did not have anyone close enough (besides family) whom they would call in an emergency.7 While chronic loneliness is an extreme end of the spectrum, having friends we can rely on and call in an emergency is vitally important.
Read more about the benefits of friendship and the detriments of loneliness:
Benefits of Friendship
So, how do we get these friendship benefits and avoid loneliness?
Build Friendships with Positivity, Consistency, and Vulnerability.
We don’t need more or better friends, we need better friendships.8
Today, there are TONS of models used for defining friendship.
One of the main models used in this section comes from Shasta Nelson’s book Frientimacy.
Nelson advises that healthy friendships start with a base of positivity, then consistency and vulnerability grow at relative rates. As positivity, consistency, and vulnerability grow, the relationship becomes stronger and more intimate.
The base of every relationship. Gratitude, empathy, laughter, play, validation, and affirmation. We want our friendships to feel good and be satisfying.
Spending time together, consistent communication, and having a long lasting relationship means we develop patterns and rituals and have a certain predictability. Patterns allow trust to develop. Building up trust and reliability also build up feelings of safety in the relationship.
As consistency increases, we get to know each other better and the level of vulnerability also increases. Friendships without vulnerability tend to be very surface level (think colleagues or neighbors). Sharing dreams, successes, failures, and expressing feelings and needs, and then reciprocating empathy to our friends. Being seen.
Shasta Nelson TEDx – Frientimacy: The 3 Requirements of All Healthy Friendships
Our world is getting better at connecting us, and yet we report feeling more disconnected than ever. The issue is loneliness. The solution is understanding the three requirements of a relationship that lead to belonging and intimacy. Shasta Nelson is passionate about all things friendship. As founder and CEO of GirlFriendCircles.com, a female-friendship learning community, she speaks and writes regularly on this important topic. More videos from Shasta Nelson: https://www.shastanelson.com/videos
We have a whole section on the ins and outs of vulnerability. Go check it out!
Friendships Need Care and Nurturing
The goal is not to achieve some description of a perfect friendship and then stop because you got it, the goal is to continue growing, learning, and finding fulfillment through connection and intimacy.
Think of friendships like plants. You can read books about them and you can think about them and hope they thrive, but if you don’t actually do anything to it, the plant will die. Friendships need to be nurtured and maintained to have deep and meaningful connections. If you gave every plant the same amount of light and water and the same sized pot, not all of them would survive. Friendships are similar. Social networks are made up of several different types of friends, each needing a different level of maintenance or nurturing.
The quality, depth, and impact of friendships can always be worked on and improved.
When we leave quality time up to chance, we risk missing out.
Sometimes, nurturing your friendships and making new friends means taking the lead, making plans happen, taking risks, and saying YES!
Vulnerability is key for a deep friendship
“Ultimately the bond of all companionship, whether in marriage or in friendship, is conversation.” – Oscar Wilde
You may start to notice a theme: Vulnerability shows up on nearly every page of the friendship section. It’s that important! Vulnerability lets people in to see our true authentic selves. While this may be scary, it is important in making genuine, deep connections with other people.
The Importance of Vulnerability in Friendship
The School of Life Youtube channel explains the importance of sharing vulnerability in friendship.
- There are moments when the revelation of weakness is the only possible route to connection and respect.
- These revelations may serve to endear us to companions, humanizing us in their eyes and letting them feel their own vulnerabilities have echoes in the lives of others.
- Vulnerability can be a bedrock of friendship.
- Good vulnerability doesn’t expect another person to solve all our difficulties.
- It is upon the sharing of vulnerability that true friendship and love can arise.
When intimacy is lacking in a relationship, we may experience an intimacy gap.
Usually if vulnerability is lacking, so is intimacy. When what we want from a relationship isn’t the same as our experience, there is a gap. The impact of a gap is different for each person, and the width of the gap doesn’t necessarily correlate to more or less discomfort. Sometimes intimacy gas can lead to feeling lonely because we are not content with the quality of our friendships.
A gap that causes a small amount of discomfort or discontent may not seem like a big deal.
Say, you go into a deli and order a turkey sandwich, but the worker accidentally puts ham on your sandwich instead. When you bite into your sandwich, you realize what you were wanting/expecting wasn’t what you got, and are mildly annoyed or experience a small amount of discomfort, and you move on with your day. Next time you go to the deli, you make sure they put turkey on instead of ham.
In small doses, intimacy gaps and loneliness are like the ham sandwich. In the moment of perceiving a gap, you experience mild discomfort, and you move on. You call up a friend or make plans to go out. Loneliness in small doses can actually be beneficial because it reminds us to be social. Loneliness in large doses however has been shown to pose serious threats to well-being and long-term physical health9.
Throughout the friendship section, you can explore how to connect with yourself and with others in order to close any gaps and find belonging, fulfillment, and intimacy in your friendships.
Summary and Quick Fix Guide
- Friendship is defined as two people who share a state of enduring affection, esteem, intimacy, and trust.1
- Everyone has a need for intimacy.
- Loneliness is detrimental to our health and holds us back from experiencing the benefits of being social.
- Friendships need positivity, consistency, and vulnerability to grow in terms of depth, intimacy, and quality.
- Friendship: you get out of it what you put in. Friendships need care and nurturing.
- When we leave quality time to chance, we risk missing out on these things. Take charge, make plans, and take risks by going out and finding people to connect with.
- Vulnerability is key for a deep friendship.
- Intimacy gaps can leave us feeling unfulfilled within a relationship and can be filled by building up vulnerability.
- Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. (n.d.). Friendship. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved October 25, 2021, from https://www.britannica.com/topic/friendship.
- Friend: Definition of Friend by Oxford Dictionary on Lexico.com. Retrieved October 13, 2020, from https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/friend
- Reeve, C. D. C. (2016). Plato on Friendship and Eros. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2016 Edition). Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Retrieved October 13, 2020 from https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2016/entries/plato-friendship/
- Encyclopædia Britannica, inc (Ed.). (2020). Platonic love. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved October 26, 2021, from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Platonic-love.
- Kaufman, S. B. (2020). Transcend: The new science of self-actualization. New York, NY: TarcherPerigee. Print.
- Ware, B. (2012). The top five regrets of dying: A life transformed by the dearly departing. Australia: Hay House.
- Who Are the Lonely in America? Barna Group (2017). Retrieved November 03, 2020, from https://www.barna.com/research/who-are-the-lonely-in-america/
- Nelson, S. (2016). Frientimacy: How to deepen friendships for lifelong health and happiness. Berkeley, CA: Seal Press.
- Murthy, V. H., Ph.D. (2020). Together: The healing power of human connection in a sometimes lonely world. New York, NY: Harper Wave, an imprint of HarperCollins.