Leveling Up the Skill of Friendship: Deepening Friendship

A little less than a year ago, in the midst of the very depressing covid lockdown fall, I decided I would write about friendship.

It was a good topic. I had been lamenting about the state of my social life for a while, and writing on the topic seemed like it would be a good idea to improve that part of my life. You could see friendship not just as something that happens, but as a skill that can be practiced and improved. And so I wrote an essay arguing for the importance of developing the friendship skill.

The people who read it liked my essay, but they wanted to know how you could develop that skill. Well — why not write about that too? My single essay grew into a series of three or five essays, depending on how you count. It was going to be the Comprehensive Guide About How To Become Better at Friendship. It was going to cover everything: making friends, keeping them, getting close friends, and dealing with friendship problems.

Here’s some advice: Don’t do this.

Specifically, don’t commit on writing a Comprehensive Guide of any sort, unless you really know what you’re doing.

Writing the first part of my guide took two whole months. I published it on 30 December 2020 because I really wanted it to be done before the end of the year. Then it took me a while to write the second part, which I published in April 2021. In fact it was only half of the second part, because by then I realized it was too long and I had to split it. (Actually, the entire project was originally supposed to be contained in one post. Ah, the naïveté of thinking I could cover everything in a single blog post! I’m pretty sure that one post would have had the length of a book.)

Part 3 never happened until now. There was a draft, lingering from before I split Part 2. There’s some valuable stuff in there, so I’m publishing it today, although, to be honest, this introduction is probably the more interesting section of this post.

What happened? Mostly, I lost interest. Friendship did not turn out to be a topic I wanted to spend months thinking about. Also, I took too long to write it. The excitement waned. There were better topics to focus on.

Here’s some more advice: Write on what you’re interested right now, and don’t count on being still interested weeks, months or years from now.

We do have long (sometimes lifelong) obsessions. You probably already know what most of yours are. Write about those all you want, now, later, whenever. But don’t commit to writing multiple blog posts about a topic that you got into only a few days ago.

With this, here are the contents of Leveling Up the Skill of Friendship: Part 3. It is not comprehensive. Read at your own risk.

Part 4, which was going to be about the problems and the end of friendship, will not be written.

Deepening a friendship

The mark of perfect Friendship is not that help will be given when the pinch comes (of course it will) but that, having been given, it makes no difference at all.

C.S. Lewis

All right, you’ve got a bunch of friends. People you like and who like you. People who are kind and interesting, who are fun to hang out with. People you can rely on for help… to an extent.

But as we saw earlier, there’s a higher level after strangers, acquaintances, and friends. The elite caste: close friends.

Close friends are friends you can rely on for help to a (sometimes surprisingly) large extent. They’re the one you can tell your secrets to. They’re this nourishing presence that will make you feel lucky to be alive. They’re the friends of virtue Aristotle was talking about. The friends for whom the C.S. Lewis quote above is true.

Close friends are much rarer than casual friends, and require much more effort. But they’re incredibly important. And yet not everyone has them; some have only a few. Let’s figure out how to remedy this.

Is there an optimal number of close friends?

Is there an equivalent of Dunbar’s number for close friendships? Yes. In fact, Dunbar’s number should be seen as the size of only one of several concentric circles of relationships. 150 is the value for casual friends. According to Dunbar’s research, the other values are:

  • 50 for close friends that you would invite to a group dinner, for instance
  • 15 for friends you can turn to for help
  • 5 for your core support group (best friends, romantic partners, and family members)

We can immediately see that there are competing definitions of “close friend” here. So the precise number will depend on what exactly you mean.

For instance, the number could be 1. The French philosopher and essayist Michel de Montaigne, describing his relationship with his BFF Étienne de la Boétie, wrote in 1580 that

the perfect friendship I speak of is indivisible; each one gives himself so entirely to his friend, that he has nothing left to distribute to others.

I think we can agree that Montaigne describes a very special kind of friendship, one that approaches the strength and significance of a (fulfilling) romantic relationship. Perhaps indeed you can’t expect to have more than one such friendship in your life.

Most people define close friends differently, though. For instance, in a 2004 poll, Americans said they had, on average, 8 to 9 close friends. 2% had none; 27% had more than 10.

The takeaway from this section is that (again) the numerical value doesn’t matter much. What matter is that you’re satisfied with what you have. If you have fewer close friends that you think is ideal, go ahead and make some.

No threshold, no ceiling

Regardless of how exactly you define a “close friend,” there is no clear-cut point at which a casual friend reaches that level. Friendship exists on a spectrum. This is why I titled the section “Deepening a friendship” rather than “Making close friends.”

There also isn’t a maximum. You can always get to know a friend better and get closer to them. In practice, to get really close to someone, you’ll have to share a significant part of your life with them. That happens mostly in romantic relationships, as well as in familial ones, for instance when growing up with siblings. Or in rare intense bromance situations like with Montaigne and de la Boétie.

So there’s no threshold or ceiling, but is there an optimal level of friendship for any given pair of people? I think so. It seems plausible that two people may do great as casual friends but not make excellent close friends. Or that a pair will be only lukewarm acquaintances until some event brings them close together, at which point they realize how important they are for each other.

I’m not sure, however, that there’s any way to know this optimal level until you reach it — and try to go beyond.

How to create close friendship

To make a close friend, you’ll need time, proximity, repeated interactions, and so on. They’re the basic ingredients — but you’ll need a lot of them. Since the list includes time, you’ll most likely require a lot of patience. The formation of a close friendship generally can’t be rushed.

My friend Daniel Golliher writes that this is accompanied by a feeling of frustration. When you meet someone who’s a lot like you, you wish you could speed through the phase of getting to know each other. It’s like watching a friend discover a book or TV series you love: you can’t wait until they’re done with it so you can discuss it. Daniel continues:

This might otherwise be called the frustration with acquiring old friends. You can’t just make an old friend who’s known you for a while, and consequently understands you more than others might (and vice versa). If you want more friends like this, you have to start today and let them mature over the course of years.

I think this is generally true, but there are some steps we can take to at least make sure we don’t stall the process.

First, as a prerequisite for the rest, let’s mention spending some 1-on-1 time with your friend. That may sound obvious, but you’ll never get very close to anyone if you only ever see them in company of other people.

Be kind, and be kind at a higher level than before. This means providing help at critical moments, especially if their other friends aren’t doing that. Offer your help, and be there when the need arises. Be trustworthy. Don’t be judgmental, except when you need to.

Be interesting. At this level, be interesting in a way that you aren’t with others. Share your weirdness. Share your dreams and ambitions. Become intimate with your friend; show your vulnerability. Trust them, and let strong bonds forge themselves out of your shared secrets.

Create memories between the two of you. Having a history of common experiences allows you to build a solid foundation on which to add the new. It also gives you more conversation options! Sometimes, you might even have not much in common with an old friend, because your interests diverged over time — but the common foundation is sufficient to keep the friendship going and fulfilling.

Catalyzing the process

Is it truly impossible to speed up the deepening of a friendship?

Well, not quite. There are some ways; they boil down to compressing the required time into a shorter period.

The best example might be traveling. Spend a week or two planning day trips, sitting next to each other in a train, maybe even sharing a bedroom with a friend, and you’ll get close, very fast. In such a setting, you have no choice but to become intimate. Plus you create tons of shared memories.

Co-living is another way to set up a life of spending time together. Yet another is to start a collective project — a music band, a startup, whatever.

You may have noticed something in common with all these examples. In each of them, there’s a risk that it will make your relationship worse. Maybe you’ll find that your friend is not reliable when you ask them to plan your travel itinerary. Maybe you’ll find them unbelievably annoying to spend pre-coffee mornings with. Maybe your startup or band will fail and you’ll be certain it’s their fault, and fall out, and that’ll be the end of it.

I think that the idea of risk is inherent to a close friendship. You build trust by showing vulnerability — and that can backfire!

Just like it’s possible to lose a friend by attempting to become a lover, it’s possible to lose a friend by trying to become too close. When that happens, it’s probably best to think that the intimate friendship was never meant to be anyway.

But they1no idea who, this was in my draft with no source lol say that if you’re friends with someone for 7 years, you will probably remain lifelong friends. So if you can’t catalyze the process, don’t worry. Things will get clearer with time.