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.
Friendships go through 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?
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 social media as an example: Perhaps they are in a forum you are in and you begin to notice the Comments they make and the posts they Like. You perk up, curious about what they might post on their own Timeline; you 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 social media example, they have confirmed your Friend request. Or, you have confirmed theirs. Or they are now Following you. In any case, you both recognize something in the other that interests you. You are Facebook Friends, Instagram buddies, Pinterest something or other.
But, while social media friends can get us into the third stage, they rarely get us beyond it. And that’s OK.
Consider the old days when we’d meet new friends in a bar, in a classroom, in a club. Is it much different? Curiosity and Mutuality. Let’s move on to my third phase:
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 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 — across a screen.
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, board games, fun: these mark the essence of Stage Three relationships.
There’s an important caveat I must emphasize here. How many of us stay in friendships at this level? For so many, this level is enough. We don’t want to go deeper. Fun, familiarity, comfort are the hallmarks of this stage. BUT, I recommend one more level, at least for two or three of your Level 3 friends.
For you to move to this next stage, you 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.
Vulnerability can be terrifying, I know. Trust is essential and trust, as we all know by now is earned. Trust takes time, it takes reliability, and it takes, for lack of a better work, predictability.
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. Let me say that again.
With best friends, we can afford to be wrong. And you encourage your friend to do the same.
You both have an equally strong commitment to the relationship, guiding 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 allow themselves be vulnerable with each other, indeed, I think the friendship flourishes as a result. Best friends take the time needed and exert the energy necessary to keep the relationship going. In the end 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 (the fun) stages of friendship. Otherwise I’d call them Acquaintances.
More and more friends are coming from social media, and I’m content with that. Still, I find ways to meet some of them face-to-face. Others, I chat with “offline” often. I attend workshops and retreats with a few of them. The most important part, I think, is that I stay open to whatever each particular friendship is able to bring to the relationship. And I watch my expectations carefully.
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?