Strong friendships can be forged in minutes; they can also take years to come to fruition. How fast you become really close to someone depends on many factors, some of which are under your control and some of which act as influencers. So, what are the four stages of friendship, and how are friendships categorized? Let’s deal with the first part of that question and then move on to the various types of friendship that we typically engage in.
The circumstances under which you meet a person usually determines the kind of friend they will eventually become. Some will remain mere acquaintances until the end; some relationships, especially the ones formed under stress, usually end up as lifelong and mature relationships. There’s no rule that says every friendship has to go through every stage in this particular sequence; however, every friendship will go through a majority of the experiences that make up these stages.
This is usually the first level of friendship. It might start with someone – like a mutual friend – introducing you, an accidental meeting, or even a planned one. At this stage, a deeper connection may be established that makes both of you want to take it to the next step, but most of the time, acquaintances remain so until the end – or until something brings you closer together.
During this stage, you know very little about each other – your names, maybe the city you’re from or the company you work for… trivia like that. There’s really no in-depth knowledge at this point. One thing to note is that we often make a deliberate attempt to keep people in this stage of a relationship. Our colleagues are a good example. We work with them but we don’t necessarily want to share our personal lives or any information that’s private to us. A few of these acquaintances do become friends; depending on how outgoing or introvert you are, they may be just one or two, or a lot more.
Sometimes, the other person wants to maintain their personal space, so you should also take that into consideration. Not everyone is eager to be your friend, to put it bluntly. For the most part, however, the impression that two people make on each other during the acquaintance stage is what sets them up for the next level.
By now, you both have a little more respect for each other. It could be because you value each other’s opinions, share the same interests, went to the same school, etc. These little commonalities are the foundations of the trust and confidence that you now place in the other person.
There are always early signs that an acquaintance is on the way to becoming a peer. First of all, you will have met the person on more than one occasion apart from your initial meeting. Second, your conversations might have gotten less superficial at each subsequent meeting. You start discussing your personal opinions; you may share a secret with them; you may even tell them one of your future goals.
As with acquaintances, not everyone gets past this stage. In fact, your internal screening and filtering process becomes even more rigid at this point. Your differences may be more pronounced at this point since you are aware of each other’s opinions and stances on important matters.
During this stage, you share a little more about your personal life – but not everything. This is essentially the circle of friends you socialize with, invite to parties, hook up with on social media, and so on. It’s not as superficial as an acquaintance-type friendship but not as deep as a close friendship. That would be the next stage.
You can usually count the number of close friends you have on your fingers – unless you’re massively popular or a die-hard extrovert. This is a very tight ‘clique’ that you move around with, party hard with, and aren’t worried to let your guard down in front of.
In fact, that’s a very important part – letting your guard down. Society has taught us to set up social perimeters around ourselves for our defense. It’s like the layers of defense in a walled city. Strangers are like the people outside the wall, with whom you speak from the safety of the parapet or the tower to see if they are a friend or a foe.
Once you let down the drawbridge, they’re inside the outer wall but still not inside the city itself – they have now become peers but you still don’t trust them fully. They are considered friends but are not close enough. Close friends are the ones you allow to enter past the gates of the inner city wall. These are the people you trust won’t burn your city down or harm your citizens – figuratively speaking, of course.
What this also means is that you’re willing to protect them from outsiders and have included them in your outer circle. That’s when you see jealously among friends when a new person enters the circle. If one of you starts to get too close to that person, others in your friend circle might start attacking them. That’s because they haven’t yet let them into their own main city gates. In other words, they feel you’ve jumped the gun without giving them a chance to weigh in on the matter. That’s where the jealousy and snide comments are coming from. They’re actually protecting you!
However, once the new friend is accepted into the general inner circle, the quips and the petty acts of jealousy will stop. This is the gauntlet the new person must cross before getting into any friend circle.
Of course, you can have them as close friends separate from your main circle of friends, but they will eventually overlap at some point. It’s better to be aware of this dynamic so you’re prepared for the inevitable.
This highly prized position is only given to the best of the best. You officially become besties, BFFs, soulmates. Your very best friend in the world is there for you whenever you need them. They’re part of the good and the bad in your life. They often know you better than you know yourself. These are the people you let inside your home, your living space, and even your bedroom – the inner sanctum, if you will.
If you’re lucky, you’ll have this kind of relationship with your spouse or partner. There can be no real love without true friendship. And that’s not just an observation. It is an unassailable law. No real love exists without all the things that go into a best-friend relationship – trust, respect, loyalty, honesty… all that good stuff.
Can you have more than one best friend? Well, by definition, a best friend is a one-of-a-kind person with whom you share a deep connection. If you feel that you have more than one best friend, it’s probably time to evaluate your friendships with them to see which one the real deal is. It’s possible that you’re confusing a close friend with a best friend, and that’s natural because they share a lot of qualities. However, your best friend will be the first person you think of in a crisis.
According to Aristotle, friendship is born out of one of three things: utility, pleasure, or for good – or some combination of the three. What do these terms mean? Of course, we know what the words mean, but how are they related to friendships?
Before we get on with it, it’s good to understand that any of these types of friendships can turn into a bestie relationship. There’s no guideline for that; nor are there rules to say who can and who cannot become your best friend. That said, some types of friendships are more likely to turn into close friendships than others. Once we cover the different types, you’ll know why.
This type of friendship is based on how useful you are to each other. For instance, it could be a neighbor who you can depend on to walk your dogs or water your houseplants when you’re out of town; in turn, they depend on you to fix the fuse or do odds jobs that they’d otherwise have to pay someone to do.
Such friendships are usually two-way streets. You are of mutual use to each other in different ways. There are also situations where one person is overly reliant on the other, but that can hardly be described as a friendship. That would be more of a parasitic relationship, to call a spade a spade.
This type of relationship is essentially based on enjoying each other’s company. Pure entertainment value, and usually no more than that. These are usually the people you party with but don’t consider close. Friendships of pleasure are usually formed in groups, and the activities you engage in are usually joint ones. It might be a group of friends you meet for a game of poker every Friday night or your bowling team.
It’s definitely possible that deeper friendships can form within these circles but the purpose of this type of social unit is to be a group that has fun – no commitments and no guilt about not wanting to hang out individually.
This friendship type is rooted in a common cause or a shared set of beliefs, and it is typically the strongest kind of friendship there is. It’s not unusual to have such friendships from your time at college or your first job. You may have shared some life goals or had the same dream job in mind, for instance.
While friendships of this type usually form in the early years of a person’s life, it’s not a given. People often find a friend for good during their middle years or even in their old age. If the values you share are powerful ones that identify you as being different from others, you’ll connect more deeply with anyone who shares those same values.
We can often see such friendships forged in special-interest groups or self-help groups such as AA or NA. They also tend to form in oppressive societies and may give rise to resistance movements (in the extreme, of course.) There’s a pattern here, and it is that a heightened level of emotion surrounding a particular subject or cause – good or bad – usually results in this type of friendship.
All this talk of friendship brings us to a very basic question: why do we need friends in the first place? Wouldn’t we be better off on our own?
We can only assume how friendships originated and evolved through prehistoric times. Perhaps it began with providing mutual security to each other. At first, it will have been about protecting each other from the elements of nature – keeping close for warmth, finding the best caves to sleep in, I bring the meat and you cook it, etc. These were most likely friendships of utility stimulated by the need to survive.
The next level of evolution might have been friendships for good – forming a group to keep other groups from attacking your food store, protection from wild animals, to help hunt larger animals, as protectors of women and children when others are out hunting, and so on. These ‘friends for good’ are likely to have had shared objectives, like the protection of their territory, the safety of their people, the guarantee of food on the table even if someone is ill, and so on. It is quite possibly the basis of the social groups we’ve formed in modern times – people with shared interests and beliefs. Could that be why this is one of the strongest and most long-lived types of friendship? It’s certainly not out of the question.
The final level of evolution will have been friendships of pleasure – mingling with people they liked being around but who weren’t necessarily part of their inner circle or core group. This is likely to have been a higher form of social interaction that our ancestors engaged in once their basic needs for safety, food, clothing, and shelter had been met.
One might assume that answering this question is harder than explaining love at first sight! However, there have been several studies conducted over the years that can give us a clue to how long a typical friendship takes to form initially, and then how long it takes to go through the four stages. One set of studies, in particular, gives us some hard numbers, and it’s interesting to note that the study was done on college students as well as older adults – and the results were markedly different.
Acquaintances, of course, are generally made at the first or second meeting. Usually the second because the number of people we meet just once and never see again will inevitably be much higher. From there on out, there are some surprisingly clear timelines for progression. Remember that these are just observations based on studying typical friendships formed by the subjects by these studies so they’re not set in stone.
The study shows that it takes students an average of 43 hours of time spent together within a period of a few weeks to reach the acquaintance stage; for adults, that figure more than doubles to 94 hours.
The actual timeline is much longer, obviously, because there’s little chance of spending that many hours together at a stretch. Assuming two people spend about 10 hours together per week, on average, it would take around a month for such a relationship to form.
We can also assume that the timeline would be shorter for students because of the proximity – attending classes together, being in the same dorm, etc.
For adults, it might take longer because of the lower frequency of interactions. The same 43 hours might take three months or more, which means 94 hours will be stretched across a six-month period, give or take.
In a generic social situation where the frequency of interactions is weekly or twice a week, that sounds about right.
So, if it takes that long to go from being a stranger to becoming casual friends or acquaintances, it stands to reason that going from there to becoming friends would happen much faster. After all, you already know quite a bit about each other, having spent anywhere from 40 to 100 hours in each other’s company, right?
Surprisingly, that’s not the case at all.
The study showed that students took an average of 57 hours of interaction time to go from being casual friends to becoming proper friends; for adults, that figure jumps to 164 hours or nearly three times. Why is that?
If you remember our walled city analogy, an acquaintance or casual friend is one whom you’ve let through your main city gates but is still outside the inner wall. The time you’ll take to “vet” this potential friend or potential close friend is naturally much longer because your inner-city zone contains what’s most valuable to you – things that make you vulnerable to outside influence. Isn’t that the whole point of having multiple lines of defense? As someone progresses through to your inner-most zone, the defenses will usually become increasingly stronger. That’s why it takes longer to get there.
From a realistic timeline viewpoint, that 57 hours might stretch over a month to two months. It could take less time because, as friends, you may start spending more time with each other on a regular basis. For adults, that 164 hours might be closer to three or four months for the same reason. It could be longer, depending on your schedules, locations, etc.
The studies showed that it took students an average of 119 additional hours to go from a normal friendship to becoming close or best friends. That validates our assumption about our defenses getting increasingly stronger as someone approaches our inner sanctum. Surprisingly, though, it took adults only 100 hours to go from friend to close friend or best friend.
Why are adults more open about letting people past this final bastion of security we’ve built around ourselves – especially when they take much longer than students for all the other stages? One takeaway from the study was that students tend to overestimate how deep their friendships are. They might go fast during the early stages but they’re cautious when it comes to forging close friendships.
Another interesting takeaway from the study was that friendships tend to form faster based on what topics are discussed and what activities are shared. Not all types of talking or activity-sharing reduced the time taken for a friendship to evolve but many – such as talking about private matters or watching movies together – did.
One final observation from the studies was that time is like an investment. The more time we invest in certain friendships, the less time we have to nurture others. Often, many potential friendships fall by the wayside because we concentrate on others. That could be why, as children, our parents, role models, and mentors always told us to choose our friends carefully. That makes a lot of sense in this context because once you choose who to invest time in, you’re automatically sacrificing the time you have to spend with others in your life.
Therefore, be careful who you decide to become friends with because your investment of time can never be recovered. You’re either all in or not in at all. As you progress through the various stages of friendship, keep re-evaluating them to see which ones are most likely to be long-lasting and beneficial to you. Your future is highly dependant on the friends you choose. But if you strike gold, the friendships you forge today will serve you well until the day you die – and long after.