Friendships are based on many of the same building blocks of intimacy as romance. In fact, up to a point, friends travel the same cognitive road as our lovers do. Attraction is simply what draws people together. So attraction as a concept is often applicable as much to our friends as those we want something more from.
The differences between friendship and romance happen at a far more abstract level. According to Ellen Berscheid and her colleagues, the most agreeable description of a friend is the 'closest, deepest, most involved and most intimate’ current relationship. In fact, according to a highly influential study carried out by Reed Larson and Nancy Bradney, time spent with friends is more enjoyable that that spent with family or even spouses. But that begs the question, what the hell is a friend and why are they so awesome? Well, to answer that, let's sum up the literature as something of a checklist.
What do friends do?Friendships have three themes:
- Affective - the sharing of thoughts and feelings
- Communality - similarity and doing things together
- Social - a source of fun, amusement and recreation
- Close friends (we typically have 4-6);
- Best friends (we typically have one of these); and
- Casual friends (all the rest).
What are they for?Well, we can sort of whittle these down also to three things:
- Responsiveness - attentive and supportive recognition of our needs;
- Capitalization - good friends enhance, rather than diminish our delight, when we share good news or events with them (and this might be the most important thing friends do for us); and
- Social support - assistance in three major ways, advice, material (like helping you move), and emotional (which is linked strongly to better health).
Yeah, but what do all these threes mean for me?Well, it means that our social circles need to comprise of a few people who are similar to us, who do things with us, who amuse us and with whom we can share our thoughts and feelings. But more than that, they need to respond to our needs (as opposed to being told), to provide support when we need it and to capitalise (celebrate) our achievements. If the people in your life aren't doing that, then there's a good chance that you don't really have any friends at all. And if you can't check those things off as things you do, then you might want to think about how close you really are to the people you care about.
And how does THAT differ from love?
Friendship is less complex than romantic love because love goes a little further. While they're both all about warmth and intimacy, love includes elements of fascination, sexual desire and exclusivity according to the delightfully named Zick Rubin. Interestingly as well, friendships have far less restrictive social norms than romances do and so are easier to dissolve. Which makes sense, since we all have secret expectations about relationships. But despite these differences, friendships can still have all the components of rewarding intimacy that romances do.
You see, friends are the lovers we had that never quite made it and they're made all the better for that.