Stages of a Friendship

I’m trying to find vocabulary that increases our awareness of the stages of becoming friends.

Romance Stages and Friendship Stages

When it comes to marriage, we know that there is a lot of ground between being interested in someone and getting married to them.  We have terms like “going on a date” which we know is different than “dating.”  We implicitly acknowledge that it takes time before we can both simply assume that we’re hanging out this weekend without asking each other.

With female friendship we lack non-romantic language to articulate those stages.

Our expectations also seem to be a bit skewed of how fast we should progress. We appear to be at great risk of thinking we need to feel like BFF’s within the first couple of conversations, forgetting that there are stages. We neglect the evidence in our memory banks that show us repeatedly that most of our friends developed over consistent time together (i.e. work, school, weekly gatherings).

In romance we know that, on average, it takes 1-2 years from meeting to marriage, but there are always some couples who elope after knowing each other for 2 weeks and others who date for ten years before getting married. In friendship, it’s more-or-less the same.  There will always be exceptions due to personality, life timing, willingness, etc.  But more-or-less– we’d be wise to set our expectations for the journey, even if it means it may take a year before I get to where I want to be with someone.

5 Stages of Friendship.  In Rough Draft Form….  🙂

So here are five stages that I’ve identified so far.  I’d love your input on whether you think this helps capture the process?  What stage am I missing? What has been your experience, over the long-haul with your friendship development?

  1. Curiosity. This is where every friendship begins.  There has to be something that attracts you, gives you a sense of willingness and increases your desire to have more. It doesn’t have to be conscious or obvious to us, but at this stage we have to have reason to lean in, even a little, if the stranger we’re meeting is going to have a chance of becoming a friend.
  2. Exploratory. Every potential friendship requires time together.  For some of us, that time happens automatically (at a play group, a choir rehearsal, yoga class or work), but for many of us, we’ll have to initiate it and pursue it.  For it doesn’t matter how much attraction you may feel in that first stage– if you don’t show up for time together— a friendship it will never become.
  3. Familiarity. This is the stage we often want as stage one.  🙂  We frequently want to experience this comfort level with someone upon first meeting them, forgetting that it takes time to build.  In my experience, I find that it takes most women 6-8 times with someone before they reach this stage.  Of course that depends on what you’re doing during that time and how you’re sharing, but at some point you reach this familiarity.  A trust that you can assume she wants to talk with you when you call.  An ease where you’re okay just hanging out spontaneously together without it taking two weeks to schedule.  A sense that you are beginning to be able to predict how they will respond to different life events.
  4. Vulnerability. This stage is tricky since there is a ditch on either side: rushing to it too quickly or avoiding it all together.  Some women rush to this stage early on because they feel closer once they have shared their pain.  But healthy friendships need the commitment to grow in conjunction with the intimacy. We should not be emotionally vomiting on someone in order to feel closer.  It should not be our expectation that friends who are in the first couple of stages need to prove themselves and be there for us in extreme ways.
  5. On the other hand, at some point of consistent time together, if you’re not willing to share beyond your PR image, laugh at yourself and express insecurities– the friendship will stall or disintegrate.  This is where we earn the right to “cry on each others shoulder.”   This is where we are bonding in deeper ways, increasing our commitment to each other.

  6. Frientimacy. This last stage is for those who are your BFFs.  And notice that I made that plural.  🙂  Best doesn’t speak to quantity as much as quality. It’s like when a magazine says “Best moments of last year” and lists ten.  There is enough research out there to suggest we need between 3-7 people in this category. Don’t limit yourself.  On the other hand, not everyone you interact with needs to move into this last stage.
  7. This Friendship Intimacy stage is my category for the people I trust implicitly.  We trust each others boundaries, have proven to show up as emotionally healthy people for each other and are willing to go out of our way for their benefit.  We love them.  This stage takes time.  Lots of it. For most of us, while you may see the potential and some of the benefits of it 6-12 months into the relationship, it may take even longer than that to really build the required trust and intimacy.

While few of our relationships will ever have clear lines between these stages, does it help to visually see that friendship is indeed a progression?  Is it valuable to differentiate between seeing the potential of a BFF and putting in the time and vulnerability required to foster it?  In general, does this align with your experience? And, if this were true, how could you see it helping you as you start new friendships?


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21 Responses to Stages of a Friendship

  1. Kelly says:

    I really love this.

    One stage I find that I generally hit with a new friendship is “disillusionment”. When you realise that you’ve been treating your new friend like a lifelong friend – only one of you does something that accidentally hurts the other and you realise that you don’t know each other that well after all.

    If it’s a true friendship, you recover from this stage, but sometimes you don’t. Anyway, I would compare it to “being in love” and suddenly learning about a nasty habit.

    • Diane says:

      I just went through this with someone I thought was a BFF. Turns out she wasn’t able to accept and love me in spite of my character defects, (and we are talking minor things here folks) which, in my opinion, is what dear friends are supposed to do. So we ended our friendship after five years. I was deeply hurt by things she said to me, but now that a little time has give me the benefit of hindsight, I can see that she is the one with the problem, not me, and I am able to forgive her. She is very critical of everyone, not just me. But I have learned from this experience not to share so much of myself so soon and be so trusting.

    • ShastaGFC says:

      Good point… disillusionment can probably happen at any of those stages, huh? I wonder if it’s its own stage or is it simply the thing that can stop or bond you in any of the stages? Something to definitely think about!

  2. Rachel says:

    I really appreciate the view that we can have multiple BFFs AND that not all friendships need to become BFFs… it took me awhile to realise this myself, and having someone else reinforce it makes me feel a whole lot less guilty for the friendships I have that really are in those earlier stages and I don’t currently see ever moving into the last one. That’s ok.

    I often find myself actually using the romantic terms to describe my friends with other women, just because it can convey the right degree of commitment to the relationship or the outing. For example I tell my husband all the time I have a date night scheduled with one of my girlfriends, or that I feel like so-and-so wants to get married and I’m just not there yet. I like the idea of creating terms that mean the same thing in a non-romantic way so I can use those in front of “normal” people :o)

    • ShastaGFC says:

      LOL! Love the descriptions you have of stages. That’s the worst when they want more than what you can/want to give, huh? At least in romantic relationships there is the expectation that we can have those kind of conversations: “Where so you see this going? Do you consider me your girlfriend? Are we exclusive?” In platonic friendships we don’t engage in those type of talks as much so it can be a bit more confusing!

      Thanks for sharing!

  3. lisa says:

    Love this! Going to pass it on!

  4. Jennie says:

    “BFF’s” is not plural, it is singular possessive. Is it too much to expect professional writers to know the basic rules of grammar?

    • ShastaGFC says:

      I wish I were a professional writer! 🙂 Until then, I’m super appreciative of any help I can get in editing any of my writing to make it more effective. I know how important it is to have correct grammar. Sorry for any frustration!

    • Sara says:

      BFFs works as a plural in this article; however, the BFF’s as written in the comment above is a singular possessive.

  5. Debbie says:

    There was a woman named Amanda that I had met at a mom’s group I once belonged to. She was like me,-a single parent. We hit it off real well! We did silly things as talking on the phone for hours at a time discussing noting! We went to events together such as dinners out and catching movies. We arranged elaborate playdates with each others kids, taking them to the park and other family friendly events! I was feeling deep emotions about her, almost as if she was a “boyfriend” of sorts! She even said that she felt for me, too! I really believed that Amanda and I would become the best BFFs one could have, even having thoughts of the two of us seeing our grown kids go through the stages of younger life such as graduating from school and getting married!

    To make a longer story short, Amanda was getting second thoughts over me. She wasn’t interested in seeing me anymore, and never gave me a real reason why! I was emotionally hurt, down to a point where I wanted to beg her to come back! I was a wreck, thinking that I had done something terrible to kill a wonderful friendship!

    It’s been eleven years since I had last heard from her. I know that she had since remarried, and lives in a big homestead in the Arizona desert. However, I still think of her, wondering if she even remembers me! But it was hard to move onwards. I hope that one day, I will see Amanda to thank her for those wonderful times we had when I was more aloof! Maybe she wishes for the same thing–a notion that I never find out about!


    • Mia says:

      I think sometimes this attraction we can feel to a close friend can be terrifying. Vulnerability is is a scary thing. When so few people experience frientimacy at first it can feel somewhat romantic which might trigger someone to wonder if they are romantically attracted to the person. This might cause them to question their sexual identity, wonder if it is a potential threat to their marriage. For people feeling these strong, somewhat romantic emotions for a close friend, it can feel threatening if not processed. I suspect she felt herself falling for you and it scared her to an extent she had to break up. If only she’d been able to process through it and realize that although we can be in love with our BFF and it can feel quite romantic, it’s not a sexual attraction and in fact can strengthen our families and marriage rather than destroy them.

      I love how Rachel makes jokes about it. That’s how I process through it too. I make it clear and open that my love for her is deep but we do make light of the closeness to others. My husband calls her my ‘girlfriend’ and we schedule ‘date nights’ all the time too.

      I’d love to hear more posts on the deeper stages of friendships. Great article.

  6. Suzanne B says:

    I really enjoy your friendship observations. You’re a woman wise beyond your years.
    But on this point…in my humble opinion…you’re over anaylising. Friendships are like souls…they’re mysterious and essential part of who we are.
    When i meet someone I know immediately if they will become a part of my life or just be an aquaintance. My best lifelong friends are people I had an instant connection with. As if we had known each other forever. I never question this…I listen to my instincts and go with it. Any relationship is a gamble. I feel that if you know who YOU are…then you’ll be able to recognise kindred spirits.
    And as in any long lasting romance…friendship requires committment…acceptance of flaws…honesty…compassion and forgivness.

    • ShastaGFC says:

      Suzanne– thanks for writing in– and I think we’re actually in agreement. 🙂 Much like how some couples know right away (we all have different ways of making decisions and listening to ourselves)– so can two women in a platonic friendship. But that doesn’t mean they don’t still need to put in the time together. So while I’ve had many friends that I had a n instant attraction to that doesn’t mean they all turned into frientimacy. My guess is that you trust your ability to feel the POTENTIAL immediately– but all I’m saying is that doesn’t guarantee that you two will always become BFF’s, only that it made you want to journey there and you were willing/able to increase the commitment as the other person was also willing? I love that you can trust your instincts, take the gamble and embrace commitment, compassion, forgiveness, etc. Love, love it!

  7. Afshan says:

    Hey Shasta,

    Really interesting posts about friendship. I have had my share of experiences in making friends and maintaining friendships. In the process even I have realized that I take things too quickly, try to feel like BFF’s in the first few meetings. However, I am confused..even after taking my time with friends, sometimes these friends come across as disinterested in me or not willing to put in the effort into friendship, some friends come across as they have been using me for their time-killing as opposed to having/looking for a connection as a friend. I have recently been very disappointed in people dealing with friendships as a matter of “spare time activity”. Can you throw some light on this.

    Case and point – My husband and I am in a circle of friends for the last three years, I have made attempts to build one-on-one relationships with each of these couples, especially with the ladies. One turned out to be a total jerk and there was no point pursuing that friendship. One other also happened to be a neighbor who only wanted my company when she had nothing else going on in her life. A third one, I have tried to call her casually several times, check on her but she just doesn’t reply to calls.. but when all of these people meet in a gathering they behave like these were the best friends you could have.. Having met more than my share of such people, I am beginning to lose faith in the idea of true friends and was reading somewhere that these its just faux friendships where the so called friendship exists only for mutual time pass…and not much else

    • ShastaGFC says:

      Afshan– you bring up a great comment that I’ve heard echoed many times over from different women… thanks for the great idea for an upcoming blog! I’m sorry that it has been confusing and hard on you- sometimes it’s an issue of them not feeling the same level of commitment (different types of friendships) but indeed every relationship has two people that have to put in the work and it often feels like we are the ones doing the most. (I’ve written on that theme of imbalance in friendships for Huffington Post if you’re interested?) And maybe others will have some wisdom to share too! Courage to you as you continue to build toward something meaningful to you!

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  10. Interesting to know the different stages of friendships, it has been described very nicely. Thanks Shasta for sharing this.

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