The Four Stages of Friendship

Friendship is one of the themes in my memoir, At Home on the Kazakh Steppe.   And one I wanted to investigate a bit further. Hence, a blog post on it.




In preparing for this series on friendship, I read much and thought even more about the fact that — what we all already knew — friendships don’t burst out one day fully mature and ready to embrace you.  They go though phases.


Good friends, real friends, best friends take time, like simmering a good beef stew on the back burner.


No.  That metaphor doesn’t work for me either. But I could have a really good time with it if I wanted. Sigh. There I go again, off after that rabbit.  Back to work, Janet. Focus.

So, what are these “stages” of friendship?


  1.    I believe they always begin with curiosity.


You meet someone new and you want to know that person better or maybe just know more about her (or him). You may be baffled or impressed, but you’re definitely curious, wondering, eager to know more.


Using Facebook as an example: Perhaps they are in a forum you are also in and you begin to notice the type of Comments they make, the posts they Like or Share.  You perk up.  You are curious about what they might post on their own Timeline; you may even visit it. What else have they said that you might like? What else have they shared before you came on the scene? You hit the Add Friend button.


2.    At some point, hopefully sooner rather than later, you realize that the sense of curiosity about the other is mutual. So the second stage I’m calling mutuality.


Staying with our Facebook example, they have confirmed your Friend request.  Or, you have confirmed theirs.  In either case, you’ve both recognize something in the other that interests you. You are Facebook Friends.


But, while social media friends can get us into the third stage, they rarely get us beyond it.

And that’s OK.


3.     I’m calling the third stage Familiarity.  At this point you’ve spent time together, interacted, experienced each other in different settings and you can each predict how the other will react in certain situations; you know each other’s habits.


In our Facebook example, you notice what they Share and you find yourself sharing each other’s posts more and more. But, it is in this stage that (I think) the limitation of social media arises. For no matter which you use (Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, LinkedIn, or any of the myriad others), with all their strengths, they still bring people together in only one dimension — over the Internet.


Friendship, the kind that Emerson spoke of, the kind where you “can afford to be stupid,” needs to exist in multiple dimensions. For that to happen, you need different environments, varying situations, and many possible reactions.



Stage Three requires variety. Outings, parties, conversations, coffee, lunch, face-to-face comraderie is vital. Drinks at the bar, laughs, fun: these mark the essence of Stage Three relationships.

For your friendship to move to the next stage, you also need to experience heartbreaks, disappointments, and mistakes together. And then you need to survive them.


When you’ve found comfort in each other’s presence, you are ready for the fourth stage, the one I think Elbert Hubbard was thinking of (yes; I had to Google him too) when he wrote, “A friend is one who knows you and loves you just the same.”


4.     This is the stage that Best Friends fall into. I call it Vulnerability. I believe that it is only through vulnerability that we are able to truly connect to another human being. Let me say that again.


It is only by allowing ourselves to share our vulnerability
that we are able to fully connect with each other.


At this fourth stage you trust each other and yourself enough to let down your respective masks, share your failings and your fears, and be wrong. And you encourage your friend to do the same. You have an equally strong commitment to the relationship, which guides you both as you maneuver across the inevitably bumpy — sometimes mountainous — times, the hard times.


To be a best friend takes time, work, energy, and attention. Best friends let themselves be vulnerable with each other. They take the time needed, exert the energy necessary to keep the relationship going; they are willing, as many people tell it, to “go to the wall” for each other.


There is by definition a limit to the number of best friends one person can legitimately have. You need to guard that you don’t have too many for whom you are “off to the wall for” on any given afternoon.


I sometimes think the reason I don’t have more Best Friends is because the Best Friendship I have is with Woody, my husband, and takes all the friend energy and time I have. Of course, we live together, so he’s certainly my handiest friend. Still, our relationship is where I direct most of my “friend” energy.


The rest of the people in my life are in the mutuality and familiarity stages of friendship. Otherwise I’d call them Acquaintances.


More and more friends are coming from social media, and I’m content with that. I find ways to meet some of them face-to-face; I chat with them “off-line” often, I attend workshops and retreats with them, and I stay open to whatever each particular friendship is able to bring to the relationship. And I watch my expectations carefully.



Social media friends gather at my little log house in Virginia. Had I known this would become such a popular photo, I’d have combed my hair better.



Next week I want to visit that aspect of friendship that we don’t hear much about: when friendships end. Perhaps that is the fifth stage of friendship; I won’t know until I get my thoughts down on paper.


Viki Noe has written much on “Friend Grief” — when a friend dies. I want to talk about those Friendship endings that happen not because one has moved or died, but because the friendship itself has died (Dare we say it has moved … back through the earlier stages of friendship?).  I’ve lost good friends, best friends, over the years and I’d like to take a look at that. I think I’m ready.



Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow.

Just walk beside me and be my friend.  Albert Camus


Curiosity, Mutuality, Familiarity, and Vulnerability.  Where are you with your friendships? Would you have a different set of stages? 



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  1. I have lost best friends both ways and they both hurt equally. The next thing is, as you get older, how do you make another best friend. In the group I am in I have meet several people that I really like but we live thousands of miles apart and the people that live around me so far just irritate me–none are in my group. With my best friend that died we were so different but it didn’t matter and we loved each other more than sisters. Am I to intolerant now?

    • Hi Susan, I couldn’t agree more. Loss is loss no matter how it’s packaged. And fully grieving that loss is vital if we are to find peace once again. Yes, I’ve been thinking about next week’s blog. I had an 11 hour drive yesterday, getting here to Ohio and had lots LOTS of time to think.

    • well, that popped off before I was ready. something about hitting the Return key too early. Poof, off it went.

      I wanted to add, Susan, that I appreciate your voice here. And I too am wondering if we form friendships differently at our age than we once did. My inclination is to say “of course.” You’ve given me something new to consider. Thanks. (are you still touring Europe? I’ve enjoyed your posts and pictures)

      • Yep, still travelling.m having dinner with Sue Clamp tonight after touring Cambridge. 4 days and we will be back in Sunny, warm Florida

  2. My first best friend as an adult was a guy I knew in college. We called each other brothers. But then, during the summer following our junior year, he decided to complete his education elsewhere — Europe in fact. But I didn’t know of the decision until I returned to college the following Fall. It was such a loss. I can still feel the sense of betrayal that I felt over 50 years ago. We did meet up ten years later, but by then we were different people, with families that were our first priority. After that visit, we lost touch until recently. And now, after more than 50 years, there is some healing.

    • Good morning, Wood. You’ve got me remembering friendships I’ve had that I assumed were mutual, but weren’t. Or maybe were, but for whatever reason, couldn’t be maintained. And we never talked about it. So then I jump to thinking there is a built-in default mode to communicate when one lives with one’s friend. (unless of course, one is 700 miles away at the moment) Don’t forget to feed the pigs.

  3. Your article provoked rigorous thinking, resulting in some interesting realisations. Firstly, you appear to have grown your categories solely out of the social media origin of friendships. Fair enough, but this immediately limits the scope of those friendships and their nature because from that origin they begin only in remoteness.
    What about friendships which begin with a face to face encounter? In these cases the doorway is open to that magical chemistry which occurs in all intimate relationships. Absent from social media contacts, this immediately changes both the pattern of friendship development and its dynamics.
    In thinking about the phases my friendships have all gone through, I believe there are seven discreet steps through which friendship grows. This factor alone is interesting because so many human developments seem to operate in sequences of seven. Erikson’s theory of development sees us going through seven life stages as we grow from infancy to adulthood. Maslow originally wrote his hierarchy of needs in five stages, but two of these are often broken into two components each – the emotional and belonging layer, and the self actualisation layer – and so we have seven. Shakespeare, through the soliloquy by Jacques in As You Like It, offers us the seven stages of man, and we often refer to people who are supremely happy about something as being ‘in Seventh Heaven’.
    So it is with the growth of friendship: there are seven stages, and they go like this:
    ENCOUNTER is the first contact. In days gone by encounters were generally face to face. One had the chance to eyeball the other person, to evaluate their behaviour, demeanour and openness and, with what one determined from this, decide on one’s own openness to further interaction. This is the stage when that all important chemistry first operates. It acts as the catalyst to furtherance of a possible relationship, or not as the case may be. It uses all our subconscious sensors, as well as intellectually derived information and that offered by the other party.
    In the modern era, where many first contacts are made remotely through such mechanisms as social media and the internet, there is almost no opportunity for the information exchange direct encounter enables. Therefore the potential for friendship is constrained in its initial development. This is not to say a full and valuable friendship won’t emerge, but its development will take a modified path and its eventual nature may be different.
    The second stage which grows out of the first, is RECOGNITION. Some of this comes from the chemistry and from direct observation, some from what is said during the first or early encounters. Instinct plays a part here, as one assesses the core values of the person through their behaviour, voice, appearance, mannerisms, and so on. The initial assessment comes out of the instinctive psychological need to assess the risks or benefits of interacting with this person. Where these appear comfortable or familiar there is a stronger urge to pay attention and accept, because they match one’s own perspective and offer reassurance. Any friendship needs that vital element of safety, and the more that is recognised the greater is the potential for a deep and lasting friendship.
    From Recognition emerges stage three: Interest. This component is the engine room of development for the friendship. If there is no interest, even in the absence of threat or risk factors, it is unlikely that any real friendship will develop. The relationship will remain at best one of acquaintanceship. With Interest the doorway opens to all sorts of possibilities, and the more it exists and is mutual, the more inclusive and comprehensive the friendship may become.
    With strong interest comes the fourth stage, EXCHANGE. This is the opening of personal doorways, letting one another see something of the person within. Depending on how the previous stages have gone, this may either proceed apace, or tentatively. Each small factor disclosed to the other party represents a risk, a vulnerability, or a threat, depending on how it is presented, and whether that factor has personal meaning to the recipient. In one who is sure of themselves, tolerance will be higher, and in any event Exchange increases with each successful experience. It provides the material from which a friendship is built as well as the glue that holds it together.
    As Exchange increases, so it opens the doorway to the fifth stage, EXPLORATION. This is when one is able to develop a more detailed awareness and understanding of the other party. Exploring the limits of shared or separate interests, discovering congruencies, and revealing the factors which give both parties the most enjoyment and satisfaction is what gives breadth and depth to the friendship by giving the participants knowledge of one another.
    As Exploration proceeds it provides the surety on which the sixth stage is founded: RESPECT AND TRUST. This is the stage which locks in longevity to the friendship. Respect for the others views, values and perspectives in life, even if they do not exactly mirror one’s own is important. It provided the basis of tolerance that allows minor events to pass by without destabilising the friendship. It denotes acceptance of the other as an equal participant in the relationship, and it is wholly based on Trust.
    Only when Respect and Trust have been established can the seventh stage of friendship ripen: CONSOLIDATION AND RELIENCE. With the friendship now fully grown, one understands the other party sufficiently well to know how they will react in different circumstances, to predict how initiatives or actions will be received, and to know that they will still be your friend whatever. This is the stage of maturity only fully achieved with a very select group of lifelong friends; people in whom one can place absolute confidence, people with whom you could face a charging lion (because if your shot missed theirs would not and you’d still be safe), people you could talk to freely when face with a major life problem.
    Just as Erikson required each developmental stage to be completed before the next could be secured, each of these seven stages is necessary for a friendship to grow fully. That is their only similarity. In the friendship process the weighting of each stage may vary from case to case, because every individual is different. But the process will still be there, and each stage must be used (some more than others) for a successful friendship to develop. Unlike Erikson’s stages, where failure to complete a stage generates problems later in life, gaps or incomplete use in the friendship stages merely limits the quality and depth of the final relationship and those where the stages have been less fully used tend to have little longevity.
    Even for those relationships which have their origins in the intangible world of social media and electronic encounters, valid relationships can emerge. But they still follow these same seven stages. Some are more lightly treated and the nature of the eventual friendship may be somewhat different from ones growing out of direct encounters. The potential for intimacy is also constrained by remoteness. Valuable associations can still be achieved, however, and contact improved through the wonders of technology enabling quasi face to face encounters through such mechanisms and Skype and Google Hangouts.

    • I’m glad I got you thinking, Ian. That’s one of my goals for this blog. Get us thinking and talking about things we often take for granted. And I’m glad to see other stages identified. I think the various categorization schemes may be endless. Certainly Facebook was used only as an example. Someday I might revisit this and use “the local bar” as my example. … You see someone across the crowded room; eyes meet; one raises an eyebrow; one nods a head. Drinks are bought; the two move closer … And we’re off.

      • That’s the Direct Encounter scenario…..and to pick up one of your other comments, i don’t think the structure of the prcess changes as we age its just that with more experience we are more adept at some of the processes and the seven stages can concertina into one another more easily because we are more fluent. We still use the same seven stages or phases.

  4. There you go – training your analytical eye on a heart-warming, universal topic. Great post!

    I think it’s significant that this post elicited commentary from two men so far. I know one is your husband, but still. Women don’t have a corner on this friendship thing, and I think men are more amenable to the idea of friendship later in life when they have time and inclination to develop their more “feminine” side.

    Your hair looks fine, Janet. I never scrutinized it until now – ha!I just used this photo in a presentation entitled “Blog to Book: Exploring Memoir” at my college last weekend.

    • Hi Marian,
      Thanks. You know, I never combed it that morning. Just forgot!

      I think the friendships I have with women are of a very different sort than are the friendships I have had with men. I’m thinking first of all about giggling. I don’t usually giggle with my male friends. Never have. Unless they are gay. Yes, then I giggled big time.

      I thought of making this distinction in the post, but thought it long enough. Perhaps a later one, part of one on “unlikely friends” we’ve had. I don’t think friendships across gender (for straight folks) is as common as I’d like to think. Or age; or religion (now that one used to be big; I’m thinking it’s almost a non-issue at all any more.). I must stop or I’ll have the post written. Thanks for popping in.

      • Does this mean you have different categories for your friends, Janet?
        Pals, phoning friends, coffee chat friends, girl friends, giggling friends, male friends, intellectual friends, Facebook friends, writing friends, and so on?

        That’s a whole new blog topic right there: “How do you group or categorise your friends?” 🙂

    • What has developing our’feminine side’ got to do with thinking about and developing friendships, Marian? And why should this only happen later in life ‘when we have time and the inclination’?
      I’ve thought about things like this since long before I ever trained as a psychologist, over 30 years ago. It’s not something new that has come on now that I’m retired and have time. Actually I have less time now that I’m retired as I seem to have more projects and work on the go than ever I did during my ‘working’ years!
      Whilst there are no hard and fast rules, I think many men are incline to look at subjects like this from and initial analytical point of view, only addressing the emotional issues second. A quick survey of half a dozen female friends suggests the way women are socialised leads more of them to start the other way round, doing the analysis bit second.
      Janet has raised a fascinating topic and I hope we’ll see a lot more views added to the discussion from both men and women.

    • That was a fascinating article in The Atlantic, Marian. Thanks. It got me thinking about how important my sons’ friends are to them still. Both are in contact with their high school buddies. They live all over the country, but they get together and they stay in touch. Mostly men, but a few women too.

      I didn’t have that. In my high school days, pairing up was the norm. Not in my kids. I noticed even back then (20 ++ years ago) that GROUP level gatherings seemed more the norm.

  5. That’s a great question, Ian. How do I categorize my friends? Let’s see, thers’s the one who makes me laugh, the one who reads my early drafts, the one who I just feel heard when I’m with — oh wait, that’s all of them. Once upon a time there were “my church friends vs. my school friends.” But I don’t have that any more. I could say I have my “singing friends” and my “farm friends” and my “social media friends” and …. Right now I’m focused on “my Cleveland Friends” and trying to get them out to my talk tomorrow night. Did that answer your question? You, of course, would fall into the category of “social media friend who grew up in Africa, penned a series of fascinating memoirs that highlight cultural differences, and now lives back in the UK.” That makes you one of a kind. 🙂

  6. This is such a fascinating topic–your post, Janet, and the comments. There is so much to discuss that I don’t even know where to start.

    First–I love the photo, and I did not notice anything about your hair. I thought what lovely women (intelligent, thoughtful, and kind) and I am getting to know some of them.

    As you said, we could probably come up with many ways to categorize friends and friendship. Friendships can be intense and intimate even when the people are far away geographically. In earlier eras, people communicated through letters. I met one of my good friends through an e-mail exchange. She had contributed an article for one of my books, and we started exchanging long emails. We got to know about each other’s families, hopes, and dreams. We’ve now met in person a few times, and she and her husband attended my older daughter’s wedding. Recently we caught up by phone because her eyesight is no longer very good.

    I had a very good friend when my girls were young and her daughters were about the same age. Our girls were best friends for a few years as toddlers and preschoolers. We were always over each other’s houses. Then when her kids went to another school and became more involved in sports, it became difficult to get together, and our friendship just kind of disappeared. I did miss her and that friendship, and I was kind of hurt, but it was just one of those things that happened.

    As far as men, my husband has tons of casual friends. I don’t know if he has anyone he regularly confides in, but we both have “old friends” who we could call if we needed to. My dad always had close male friends–men he had known since he was a very young man. My younger daughter says she and her husband don’t have “couple friends” like my husband and I do, but she wishes they did.

  7. Wow, Janet, there’s a lot to chew on here, both in the post and in the comments. Friends are part of my 3 F’s ..the main things that get me through life..Faith, Family, Friends. I suppose I could categorize them based upon the phase of my life where we connected. As our needs change , so do our friends. Common interests and circumstances certainly impact the selection. One thing is for sure. I have learned through life experiences to be selective with who shares my space and energy. Thanks for another thought-provoking and interesting post. I’m thoroughly enjoying your series.


    • Yes indeed Kathy. We do become more selective as we get smarter about valuing our own worth. We do not need to be anyone’s doormat AND we can be compassionate as we make our choices.

      I’m grinning at Ian’s addition to your Three Fs. If he added Food,then I’ll add Fun. And we could go on and on. Reminds me of a talk I gave at a 12-Step meeting decades ago. I listed all my “character defects” and they all began with R. Eleven of them. Then, someone in the group shared back that I could add a few others, more character assets, that also began with R. And so we were off on an R quest. That was fun. But at some point, we do need to identify those that are most important. And I know you’ve done that with your top three. Thanks for sharing them.

  8. Wow! What a great conversation. And so much to think about. I like your categories of friendship and I think they are the same whether they’re face to face or on Facebook.

    Friendships do change over time depending on where we are in our lives and our needs. There are those I was very close to that are no longer in my life. I’m sure that everyone has seen that in their relationships. We come together as friends to love and support each other, and because we have so much in common. When interests change we go looking for others who are interested in the same things we’re interested in and find new friends.

    Like your best friend, Janet, my bestie is Bill, my sweet husband. Though our interests are often different, that doesn’t get in the way. He loves playing the Ukulele and I have not interest in it at all. But when push comes to shove we’re there for each other and feel each other’s hurt, sorrow, and happiness and share what live brings us.

    There’s so much more to think about here. I think this conversation could go on for days.

    • When thinking of best friends I don’t include my family members whom I love all dearly and as you can tell travel with my sister often. But the person outside of your family that you can tell anything to and won’t be judged but still loved when you don’t have to (as in family)

      • Who was it said, “Family are the folks who have to take you in, when there’s no one else around.” ?? Anyway, that came to mind in reading your comment here, Susan. I have sometimes wondered if I’d be friends with xxx if he/she weren’t family, which has provided some interesting ponderings.

        I also like to think of being my own best friend. — enjoying my company, supporting & encouraging me when needed, etc. Where does that fit into your family/friends distinction?

    • Hi Joan, I’m so gratified by the activity here. Yes, Thanks. Your comments about best friends over the years reminded me of that quote from Melody Beattie, “Friends are a reflection of the issues we’re working on.” And, I recall Kahlil Gibron writing, “Your friend is your needs answered.”

      I think of it as paths in the wood; some years they merge and other times they go their separate ways. More on that next week (I’m wondering when I’ll actually be writing it; I leave this morning for my other son’s house and a visit there). Such is the life of a weekly blogger who doesn’t have her cache made ahead of time. 🙂

  9. Insightful and compelling. Thank you, Janet. I’m grateful you didn’t leave out the stage of conflict which you put between 3 and 4. I think it’s essential to go through bumps together, scrape egos, feel disappointed, or just experience the other person’s inability to meet your ideal of perfection. You said it this way: For your friendship to move to the next stage, you also need to experience heartbreaks, disappointments, and mistakes together. And then you need to survive them.”

    When you get to the other side of that place–and it can end a relationship on occasion–the bond is unbreakable. I have only a few friends like that. Three live far away so I spend intense periods with them infrequently. The magic survives.

    • Hello Elaine. I love that you picked up on this. We who have been there know the importance. Takes courage, trust, and the belief (or faith) that in working through the problem, we will come out the other side better. I believe we do; even if the relationship doesn’t survive. It is one of life’s transformative experiences. I’m so glad you brought it up. I did give it short shrift, given how important it is.