Some years ago, I read a riviting post about friendship over the lifespan that I still use frequently to help clients with their social needs. Since I refer to it so I often, I thought I would share the parts of the original post I have found so helpful both in my own life and the lives of my clients. Please read the original post over at WaitButWhy.com and I hope my content adds to the perspective in some way.
In early childhood, we gather friends based primarily on proximity (school, neighborhood, family, family firends) and then shared interests in the elementary school ages. But in middle childhood, we start to form stronger, more complex friendships, especially of the same sex (source).
As we grow our friendship skills we develop strong bonds that can last a life time commonly called "best friends." In our teen years we also begin experimenting with romantic and sexual relationships, further complicating our relationship experiences and social needs.
In early adulthood, we continue to grow our network but start to "weed" out many middle tier friends based on a core set of friendship values we have developed. Then in later years, depending on the health of our mountain, we may revert back to proximity-based friends due to physical decline and poor mobility.
Clearly, we do not always have the same resources available to manage our changing developmental needs around connection. Resources we need to create and maintain friendships are TIME, ENERGY, and EQUALITY and we have limited amounts of these to give and receive based on where we are in our development, our traumas, and other environmental factors.
Research shows that time is the single most important resource required to build a close friendship: it takes about 50 hours of time to consider someone a casual friend, 90 hours before you become 'real' friends, and about 200 hours to become close friends and belong to your inner circle(source).
We have the most time to give to relationships in the early and late years of life, with time being our most limited resource in middle age due to our many commitments. But we have the most equality in friendships in the middle years when our development is stable and our values are sorted.
Our energy for friendship depends on complex factors like health, truama and recovery issues, boundaries, community, etc., which makes it the most unstable of all these rresources.
REFLECTION: How do you allocate your time and energy in relationships? Do your relationships feel reciprocal or equal in terms of resources given and received? Do you spend all your energy on working and ignore your relationships?
Now that you have a basic understanding of our friendship needs across time, a visual representation may help you see how you are doing with these complex developmental tasks.
1. BOTTOM TIER
The BOTTOM of our mountian is an onboarding area (aquaintances) with opportunities for friendship via our random encounters, coworkers, classmates, fellow patrons, or prior close friends, etc. In early childhood, our primary caregivers are our first relationships and they are the gateway (and template) to all our other friendship experiences since they control who we meet, how long we know them, and what kinds of stimulation we get socially.
Conversely, in adulthood we have access to all sorts of people through our own choices and ideas about who, how, when, and what we do to engage. But sometimes our committments, or prior attachment issues, limit our opportunites for social stimulation and the onboarding for new friends. which can cause us to become co-dependent on just our partner or a close friend to meet all our friendship needs.
This lowest level of the mountain does not require many resource in terms of time, energy, or equality, but there is variation in how populated our base may be because the resources needed here are access, opportunity for connection, and inclusivity in society.
REFLECTION: Evaluate the bottom of your mountian, are you experiencing enough opportunity and access to people in your life so that there is a refreshing pool of options for potential closeness? How, or how not? Are there any barriers you experience to having people at the base of your mountain? What might help you encounter more opportunity? OR be more satisfied with the opportunities you have?
2. MIDDLE TIER
The MIDDLE of our mountain is for our friendships that are in flux, this layer allows us to move people up or down from the top or bottom with relative ease. We do this primarily with how many resources we are giving and getting in a relationship.
The middle tier allows us retain friendships we value but do not have all the resources for, or when there is in an uneven resource allocation (they want more than you can give at the time or vice versa) a place to hold those relationships. It is the most fluid part of our mountain and where we have many of our 50 to 100 invested hours friendships.
These are people we catch up with periodically and enjoy spending time with but do not see or talk with as frequently as we might like and tend to keep it fairly light or topical. They may also include people we enjoy but don't want to be close with because we are on different life paths, or are just not as close as we once were due to different values, or grievances we are working through.
REFLECTION: do you have a middle teir of friends or do you have only "ride or die" friendships? How do you allocate your time and energy in relationships at this level? Do you have any uneven friendships?
3. TOP TIER
The TOP of our mountain is representative of those friendships in our "inner circle". These are our closest friendships and the ones we rely on for support in good and bad times. For many people, this will include some family, some school friends, work friends and some random aquaintances that worked their way to the top.
The top tier friendships require the most resources but they should also be providing the most resources. We connect over our shared values, enjoyment of each other's personalities, and have bonds that run deep. When we lose a friendship at this level of connection, it hurts. While we can move the relationship up and down the mountain, losses of close friends and the intimacy they created are not simply replaceable with new close friends, the grief remains a part of the experience and may temporarily deplete our internal resources.
REFLECTION: who is at the top of your mountain? who used to be there that is no longer there? and who would you like to be there that isn't? Do your close relationships feel reciprocal or equal in terms of resources given and recieved? Do you know how to grieve losses? I someone can't be at the top, where might they belong on your mountain?
1. CUTOFFS: If you have a pattern of "Cutoff" relationships in which you have no contact with previous top-teir friends, consider developing some middle boundaries that can help prevent the experience of "lots of dead bodies at the foot of the mountain." You might also explore your friendship values, maybe they are too rigid or cause you to project your judgments onto others' behaviors too easily. Maybe that is a trauma response from being victimized or hurt in some formative ways in the past.
2. DEALBREAKERS: But what if someone needs to be cutout of your life? Then use your deal breaker (should only have a few of these) or basic boundaries to establish that instead of an reactive shove off the top into no man's land--not everyone that you have a falling out with needs to leave your mountain entirely, you can just demote them and reconfigure your resources distribution to other relationships.
REFLECTION: do I have healthy middle boundaries as well as deal breakers, or just deal breakers?
3. OVEREXTENDED: Conversely you may have too many people at the top of your mountain. If so, you may find yourself exausted, feel like you are being unappreciated, and lack deep connections with people due to being spread too thin. Consider some boundaries around your time and energy, dedicate more time to those relationships that are reciprocal in effort, and go deeper into those friendships. Learn to say No and deprioritize some relationships to better balance your resource exchanges.
REFLECTION: do I give too much of myself and then feel like I am not getting back what I put in? do I avoid deep conversations about feelings? can I say no if I need to spend my resources in a different way than is being asked of me? Do I wait until a relationship is toxic to have boundaries?
4. DEVELOPMENTAL GAP: What if you get off to a "bad start " on developing your freindship mountain? This occurs when children are moved often, they are isolated from others due to some sort of high demand group their parents have them in (home school, church, cults, etc), or their are health issues that impede to slow development of the bottom and middle teirs. We have to grieve this loss as you can't really "catch up" in terms of those life long friendships many people have scattered across their mountain. We must accept the loss and work with what we have but not try to make up for llost resources through asking too muchof our friedships now.
REFLECTION: did I experience any turbulances in childhood development that has impaired the health of my friendship mountain? how have I tried to compensate for that? have I grieved that properly or does it staill haunt me?
GOOD NEWS! We can improve our freindship mountain and increase our social wellness through some adjustments in our thinking and behavior patterns.
1. BE BRAVE: If you are struggling to feel connected throuh friendship, develop social bravery-- be willing to try new things, to initiate conversations, reach out to past friends, mend fences with healthy people, get some hobbies, and mingle with aquaintance level freinds in spite of the anxiety or boredom that can show up.
REFLECTION: do I resist connecting at the superficial level and seek only deep connection? do I have any connections I can repair even if they are less close than before? do I have hobbies that allow me to connect to others? can I manage the discomforts of trying something new?
2. BOUNDARIES: You will need some boundaries to manage your resources. time isnt the only resource needed to build a friendship, turns our we also need energy to be exchanged between parties in the form of fun and support. Obviously energy is a valuable resource and we tend to have the most of it in childhood, another reason those early friendships may linger even if our lives have gone in different directions.
In addition to TIME and ENERGY, we need RECIPROSITY. At the top where our closest friends (besties, partners, and some family) are, we can fit the fewest people because we have limited time and energy to give to relationship. Therefore we cannot maintain wellness if we have a lack of reciprocity in our top-o-the-mountain relationships, we need to be giving and taking in generally balanced ways or they drain our resources.
3. BECAUSE: Why bother? Research has shown friendship to be one of the most important predictors of longevity and wellness across the life span. This is likely because we get the most joy, the most encouragement from, and the most resonance with our friends.
"It's not what we have in life, but who we have in our life that matters." Unknown