Friendship is a close association between two people marked by feelings of care, respect, admiration, concern, or even love.
WHAT IS FRIENDSHIP?
The defining characteristic of friendship is a preference for a particular person. However, different people may have distinct definitions of and requirements for friendship. For example, very young children may refer to someone as their “best friend” two minutes after meeting, while very shy people or individuals from reserved cultures may report having only a handful of friends during their entire lives.
There’s no absolute definition of what does or does not constitute a friendship. However, some common traits of friendship include:
- Some degree of commitment, both to the friendship and to the other person’s well-being.
- A desire for “regular” contact with the other person. “Regular” contact could occur once every two days or once every two years.
- Mutual trust, concern, and compassion.
- Shared interests, opinions, beliefs, or hobbies.
- Shared knowledge about one another’s lives, emotions, fears, or interests.
- Feelings of love, respect, admiration, or appreciation.
Anthropologist Robin Dunbar theorized there was a limit to how many friendships an individual can have. In general, most humans have up to 150 friends, 50 good friends, 15 close friends, and 5 intimate friends. These numbers have shown to be consistent across time, from hunter-gather societies to the age of social media.
Friendship and Gender
Culture strongly affects people’s understanding of friendship. In the United States and many other industrialized wealthy nations, women tend to have more friendships than men and to invest more energy in those friendships. Romantic relationships are, for many men, a sole or primary source of friendship. So as children grow into adolescents and adolescents become adults, boys may have fewer and fewer friendships.
Cultural norms suggest that women are “better” at friendship, more communicative, or more in need of intimacy from friends. This can create a self-fulfilling prophecy in which women are more likely to have friends. Women also spend more time investing in their friendships. A man might only talk to his closest friend once every few months, while on average, women in the U.S. tend to talk longer and more frequently to their friends.
Among people in long-term relationships, women tend to do more work to sustain friendships and other close relationships. This might include sending Christmas cards, remembering birthdays, making phone calls, and updating friends on major life events.
Researchers are increasingly sounding alarm bells about an epidemic of loneliness. Loneliness can shorten a person’s life and erode their health. It may even pose greater public health risks than smoking. This suggests that gender norms about friendships may actually harm men’s health. As marriage rates decline, men without friendships may feel progressively more isolated.
Gender may also affect whom one chooses as a friend. A 2018 study found that gender discrimination can decrease the likelihood that a person will form friendships with members of a different gender. Cross-gender friendships can foster empathy, break down gender barriers, and undermine gender stereotypes. Gender norms that undermine these friendships may therefore perpetuate gender stereotypes and misogyny.
Friendship Across a Lifespan
Lifelong friendships can be immensely rewarding. People may draw inspiration from talking to those who knew them when they were young. Lifelong friends connect people to their history, offer insight on how a person has changed and evolved, and are often deeply connected to one another’s families. These friendships offer a sense of permanency and consistency that can be deeply reassuring at times of ambivalence, loss, or anxiety.
Sustaining a friendship across a lifespan, however, can be difficult. People’s interests and lifestyles change as they age. In childhood, a friendship might be based upon geographic closeness or a single shared interest. So a move or a change of interests can affect even long-term friendships.
Some barriers to sustaining lifelong friendships include:
- Changes in lifestyle. For example, if one friend has a child and a marriage and the other does not, the two may struggle to relate to one another.
- Geographic distance. Childhood friends often walk next door or hitch a ride from a parent to see one another. When time together requires a plane or long car ride, the friendship is harder to nurture.
- Time constraints. People’s lives tend to become more demanding as they get married, have children, become caregivers for aging parents, embark on challenging careers, and accrue more financial obligations. Finding time for friends can be difficult in adulthood, especially when friends have very different lifestyles or do not live near one another.
- Cultural values surrounding friendship. In the U.S. and in many other countries, romantic relationships are treated as the primary and most important relationship. This can cause some people to value their friendships less as they enter adult romantic relationships.
- Shifting understandings of friendship. There’s no “right” way to have a friendship. One of the challenges of sustaining a friendship is finding a shared understanding of what the friendship should look like—how frequently to talk, what to talk about, how openly to discuss disagreements, etc. As childhood friends grow up, their desires for their friendships may change. This can leave one friend feeling like the friendship doesn’t offer enough, while the other friend feels the friendship demands too much.
How to Make Friends
Making friends can be challenging for people of all interests, ages, and personalities. Children sometimes struggle with feeling like they don’t fit in at school or in extracurricular activities. This can prove especially challenging in small communities where children may feel trapped in a small peer group with which they have little in common.
In general, however, making friends tends to get more difficult with age. Childhood generally offers a ready-made peer group at school or in community organizations. Adults are less likely to be placed in large groups of same-age peers. While many adults make friends at work, some feel misunderstood by colleagues, or prefer not to form close relationships at their jobs.
For adults who do not work in traditional settings—those who work remotely, who work in very small businesses, who are retired, or who have devoted themselves to raising children—making friends can feel daunting. They may feel isolated. Moreover, social skills require practice. So isolated people may feel more anxious about talking to others.
Some strategies that may be helpful for making friends include:
- Find ways to spend more time around people who may share your interests or lifestyle. Clubs, volunteer organizations, activism, parenting groups, and other activities can provide fertile ground for sowing the seeds of friendship.
- Show interest in other people. Most people like talking about themselves and their interests. So ask lots of questions. Listen and provide positive feedback. Making people feel heard, admired, or understood can break down walls of awkwardness.
- Make friends online. Shy introverts, people with demanding schedules, and others who don’t want to invest in a new activity can often nurture friendships online. A local parent or activist group is a great way to talk to lots of people online, and to then meet or talk on the phone with people who seem like good candidates.
- Be friendly to new people. It’s tempting to judge a person based on their appearance or the first thing they say. But by being kind and open to new people, you may discover that a person you initially disliked becomes an exceptional friend.
- Get help for shyness or weak social skills. If you worry that people don’t like you, clam up when you talk to strangers, or fear that your social skills are rusty, the right therapist can help.
When to End a Friendship
Ending a friendship can be difficult. There’s no widely accepted cultural ritual for doing so, and no mandate that there must be a formal breakup. Some people simply stop talking to their friends, or drift away from them over time.
Because there is no accepted cultural standard for ending a friendship, there’s also no “right” reason to end a friendship. Some people invest lots of time even in friendships that cause a lot of emotional pain. Others are uninterested in friendships that present any challenges at all. Consider ending a friendship when the friendship becomes a barrier to your happiness or in some way undermines your values or self-worth. Some examples of reasons to end a friendship include:
- A disparity in investment. One friend is willing to invest lots of time and effort in the friendship, while the other is not willing to do much at all.
- Lack of emotional support. If a friend does not offer the sort of support you want from the friendship, consider discussing this with them. If it does not change, it might be time to end the friendship.
- Abuse. If a friend constantly insults or mocks you, attempts to sabotage your other relationships, or physically harms you, you may need to end the friendship. Even if a friend is nice to you most of the time, threats and other abuse are never appropriate behavior.
The great thing about friendship is that there is no single way to have or be a friend. So if a friendship is no longer working in its current form, consider changing the friendship rather than ending it. If your best friend isn’t as supportive as you’d like, you might share less with them and slowly transition them to an acquaintance, without ending the friendship or removing them from your life.
For help managing friendship issues, deciding when and how to end a friendship, or advice about making or keeping friends, consider talking to a therapist. As experts on human behavior and relationships, therapists can offer helpful feedback, gentle nudges, and compassionate support. A therapist may even be able to help you and a beloved friend hash out long-standing issues.
- Andrews, N. C., Santos, C. E., Cook, R. E., & Martin, C. L. (2018). Gender discrimination hinders other-gender friendship formation in diverse youth. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 59, 16-25. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S019339731730237X
- Blatterer, H. (2015). Intimacy as freedom: Friendship, gender and everyday life. Thesis Eleven, 132(1), 62-76. Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0725513615619503
- Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T., & Layton, J. B. (2010). Social relationships and mortality risk: A meta-analytic review. PLOS Medicine. Retrieved from https://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316
- Holt-Lunstad, J. (2017). So lonely I could die. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2017/08/lonely-die
- Threat to health. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.campaigntoendloneliness.org/threat-to-health
- Woodward, A. (2017, May 1). With a little help from my friends. Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/with-a-little-help-from-my-friends
Last Updated: 03-6-2019
Please fill out all required fields to submit your message.
Invalid Email Address.
Please confirm that you are human.
Tarkaa DMarch 15th, 2017 at 3:37 PM
it is so interesting.
VANESSAMay 18th, 2017 at 1:26 PM
thats not true
VANESSAMay 18th, 2017 at 1:26 PM
THIS IS NOT INTERESTING IN MY PERSPECTIVE I THINK IT DOESNT DEIFINE “FRIENDSHIP”
ChelseyJuly 1st, 2017 at 4:36 AM
This didn’t really define the definition of friendship for me, I was hoping this would help me with one of my GCSE speeches but it didn’t, not helpful sorry
ummeJuly 24th, 2017 at 7:05 AM
hi chelsey, how about defining it by how and what you feel what friendship means to you? soemtimes this can help us look more deeply at our own understanding of it..and can create more meaningful and insightful truths that touch directly on our lives… Good luck though on your paper.. :)
mohaamadJuly 17th, 2017 at 11:39 PM
“Peace and friendship with all mankind is our wisest policy, and I wish we may be permitted to pursue it.”
PETER OJuly 21st, 2017 at 5:01 AM
thank you, i have learn some thing about friendship. sent more.
PETER OJuly 21st, 2017 at 5:26 AM
sent in detail. thank you
TIM TAMJune 17th, 2018 at 11:59 PM
THIS WAS NOT HELPFUL AT ALL I WAS TRYING TO USE THIS FOR HOMEWORK SPEECH!!!!!
A. UserSeptember 27th, 2018 at 3:13 AM
It helped me revise for discursive writing
gurbirMarch 13th, 2019 at 12:42 AM
Simply amazing. Everybody should read this article,
CherrieApril 4th, 2019 at 6:51 AM
Well, this was a decent overview. But there obviously a lot more to friendships. I’ve been reading Deborah Olson’s book The Healing Power of Girlfriends. She looks at friendships from all aspects among all ages. She has compiled amazing research into all the things that friendships to for the well being of those in them. She also tackles the Social Media aspect and how that has changed friendships. It’s a really good read.
Leave a Comment
By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of GoodTherapy.org's Terms and Conditions of Use.