The conventional wisdom is that we choose friends because of who they are. But it turns out that we actually love them because of the way they support who we are.
When people are asked, "What gives meaning to your life?" friendship figures at the top of the list. Yet the dynamics of friendship have remained mysterious and unquantifiable. Like romantic love, friendships were thought to "just happen." New research shows that the dance of friendship is nuanced—far more complex than commonly thought. With intriguing accuracy, sociologists and psychologists have delineated the forces that attract and bind friends to each other, beginning with the transition from acquaintanceship to friendship. They've traced the patterns of intimacy that emerge between friends and deduced the once ineffable "something" that elevates a friend to the vaunted status of "best." These interactions are minute but profound; they are the dark matter of friendship.
Entering The Friendship Zone
Years ago researchers conducted a study in which they followed the friendships in a single two-story apartment building. People tended to be friends with the neighbors on their respective floors, although those on the ground floor near the mailboxes and the stairway had friends on both floors. Friendship was least likely between someone on the first floor and someone on the second. As the study suggests, friends are often those who cross paths with regularity; our friends tend to be coworkers, classmates, and people we run into at the gym.
It's no surprise that bonds form between those who interact. Yet the process is more complex: Why do we wind up chatting with one person in our yoga class and not another? The answer might seem self-evident—our friend-in-the-making likes to garden, as do we, or shares our passion for NASCAR or Tex-Mex cooking. She laughs at our jokes, and we laugh at hers. In short, we have things in common.
But there's more: Self-disclosure characterizes the moment when a pair leaves the realm of buddyhood for the rarefied zone of true friendship. "Can I talk to you for a minute?" may well be the very words you say to someone who is about to become a friend.
"The transition from acquaintanceship to friendship is typically characterized by an increase in both the breadth and depth of self-disclosure," asserts University of Winnipeg sociologist Beverley Fehr, author of Friendship Processes. "In the early stages of friendship, this tends to be a gradual, reciprocal process. One person takes the risk of disclosing personal information and then 'tests' whether the other reciprocates."
Reciprocity is key. Years ago, fresh out of film school, I landed my first job, at a literary agency. I became what I thought was friends with another assistant, who worked, as I did, for an infamously bad-tempered agent. We ate lunch together almost every day. Our camaraderie was fierce, like that of soldiers during wartime. Then she found a new job working for a publicist down the street. We still met for lunch once a week. In lieu of complaining about our bosses, I told her about my concerns that I wasn't ready to move in with my boyfriend. She listened politely, but she never divulged anything personal about her own life. Eventually our lunches petered out to once a month, before she drifted out of my life for good. I was eager to tell her my problems, but she wasn't eager to tell me hers. The necessary reciprocity was missing, so our acquaintanceship never tipped over into friendship.
Why Some (And Only Some) Friends Stick
Once a friendship is established through self-disclosure and reciprocity, the glue that binds is intimacy. According to Fehr's research,