What Makes Friendships Work? One Theory.

Since graduating from adolescent strange person to twenty-something strange person, I’ve been lucky enough to befriend various humans. I say this with gratitude and awe; if you’d been present during my earliest social flailings, you’d know it’s a miracle I have friends, let alone any kind of assortment.

My adventures in friendship have baffled me in many ways, but particularly in this: Why is it with some people, there’s this deep connection that stays strong despite the passage of time, the turbulence of arguments and misunderstandings, and the struggles of being very far apart? (Because life inevitably moves these friends all over the freaking place.)

Meanwhile, with other people, I can really enjoy them when they’re there, but not really miss them when they’re gone?

What binds people together? Why do we attach to some people and not others?

Maybe this sounds naive — why would you expect to connect deeply with everyone? — but I’m honestly curious about the mechanics behind social chemistry.

I thought about this, and I think I figured it out. At least for me.

Being really attached to someone takes two things: surface-level fun stuff and deep, skeleton-in-the-closet stuff. Not one without the other, and definitely not neither, but both.

Let me explain, despite the fact that this was probably obvious to those of you who didn’t spend their teenage years teaching themselves to juggle.

Possibility #1: The Friendship Where There’s Just Fun Stuff But No Skeletons

This friend is great! Made of fun! What laughy times you’ve had with them!

But you don’t tend to miss them, despite having known them for a while, and despite having hung out with them one-on-one. What the heck is going on?!

When I thought about it, the people I have this relationship with never bring their skeletons into the light — the stuff they’re struggling with now or have gone through in the past. And it’s mutual; I don’t bring out my struggles, either. When our personalities collide, it just doesn’t create that level of comfort and safety, for mysterious reasons that possibly aren’t our fault.

So we like each other, but we don’t need each other, and this friend can move across the country without my having to spend a few months rocking in a corner.

Possibility #2: The Friendship That’s All Skeletons and No Fun Stuff

Then there’s this friend. Possibly you don’t laugh at all when you’re together. Possibly an entire hangout session is spent making serious faces, asking each other questions and listening carefully while stories are shared and personal issues explained.

This is a good friendship. I say heck yes to this friendship. But when this friend decides to move to Spain, I’m sad but I might not get lip-quivery. And this was confusing to me for the longest time — like why not?! How I could I not be super attached to this friend I’ve shared deep things with?

The answer is simple. We need the junk food just as much as we need the broccoli. More specifically, if my sense of fun and another person’s aren’t the same brand, there’s a good chance we won’t form a lasting connection — even if I’ve tearfully told them about my life’s various trashfires.

Possibility #3: The Friendship with Both!!!

Finally, there’s that rare unicorn friendship where you’re laughter machines 70% of the time and the other 30% you’re talking about hard things and/or ugly-crying. They know about your Deep, Personality-Defining Crappy Stuff but also send you the BEST pictures of Internet dogs.

I’ve had this with, max, like seven people in my entire life.

What really amazes me about this thought progression, and probably the reason I found it interesting enough to write about, is it’s not the deep stuff that usually keeps me from connecting with someone in a lasting way. I find I can have meaningful conversations with lots of people.

Actually, the rarer person is the one who will take my bad impression of a Russian spy and counter it with a worse one. Or who makes subtle jokes with their eyebrows. As it turns out, taking that vulnerable step into goofiness might actually be harder than being serious.

Using This Whole Thing To Deepen Friendships

Sometimes, I feel weirdly disconnected from someone, and I’m not really sure why.

At times like that, it helps me to assess which of the two factors is missing. Are we only fun and never serious? Maybe I should take a shot at unveiling some deep stuff.

Only serious and never fun? This is actually the harder predicament, in my experience. Like I was saying, most people are capable of deep conversation, but devolving into unabashed goofiness is so rare and wonderful. Given my generation’s tendency to image-craft without cease, it makes sense to me that being boldly, embarrassingly playful is so hard for us.

That being said, in friendships where laughter is a struggle, I’ve found some loopholes! Okay, bear with me a second. Think about laughter: It’s more or less an involuntary response, something your body does without your telling it to. In a sense, laughter is a few blessed moments when you surrender control of yourself.

You can share this sort of experience in ways other than laughing! Aside from the obvious (…alcohol…), you could try:

  • A nature journey that’s really exhausting, causing you and your friend(s) to descend into delirious hunger
  • Singing together, if you’re some kind of social wizard and can make this happen
  • Watching horror movies so you’re both screaming and terrified!
  • Suffering together physically in some way, though that’s kind of hard to plan. (I once bonded with a very serious friend because our house got infested with fleas…….)

I’m sure you get the idea.

Anyway, I’ll stop rambling now. I love all my friends, whether or not we’ve turned out to be Important People to each other. Plus, spending time with someone I don’t totally connect with is usually a challenge to see life from an alternative perspective. Insert statement about the importance of curiosity/humility.

Thanks for reading this weird thing. I’d love to hear about other people’s friendship experiences/insights.