It’s Far Too Easy to Confuse One Type of Friendship With Another

Two rocks that have sunglasses, hands, and feet drawn on them to make them into stick people. They are holding hands.
Image by Pixabay / CC 0

In a recent post, I talked about how confusing the conversations we have around love can be. As I wrote then, part of this confusion is because what we call “love” and what another person calls “love” may very well not be the same thing. And it certainly doesn’t help that one person can talk about many different kinds of love, all the while using the same word to describe things that are not at all the same.

A person can say that they love their favorite TV show and that they love their parents and speak the truth both times but mean completely different things.

In that post, I covered the Triangular Theory of Love, a framework developed by researcher Dr. Robert Sternberg. While it’s not the only possible way to categorize or classify types of loving dynamics, it’s a model that can help add some clarity and context to the conversations we have around love.

Well, not just around love.

It can also add some clarity and context to the way that we talk about friendship.

The Triangular Theory of Love Has Two Different Types That Relate to Friendship

As I wrote in my earlier post, Sternberg’s Triangular Theory of Love describes love dynamics as being made up of various combinations of three elements:

  • Intimacy. Emotional bonding, a sense of closeness to another person, having shared experiences.
  • Passion. The realm of romance, physical attraction, engaging in sexual acts, and/or anything partners relate to erotic and/or romantic love.
  • Commitment. Sternberg was careful to specify that this can include either short-term, long-term commitment, or both. A person can commit extensive present resources to a relationship without making future promises that a relationship will continue indefinitely, and conversely a person can make formal promises surrounding future commitment without demonstrating significant present investment. (And obviously a person can do both.) Further, he was clear that there’s a difference between private and public commitment and that a person can commit privately, publicly, neither, or both.

The model has two types of love that specifically pertain to friendship (please see that post for more information about how the model is constructed and works, as well as the other six in the model).

The first is, quite appropriately called, “liking/friendship.” This type of love is intimacy without passion or commitment. Most friendships and friendly acquaintances fall in this category.

The second category related to friendship is one called “companionate love.” This is what happens when you take “liking/friendship” and add commitment to it. This form of love has intimacy and commitment but no passion. Extremely close friends can fall into this category — including best friends and long-term friends who have been there for one another through thick and thin. Instead of just a casual connection, that friend can feel almost like a spouse or a family member. In fact, certain married relationships where the passion is no longer present (either temporarily or permanently) and close family members also are included in this part of Sternberg’s model for a reason.

Liking and Companionate Love Are Very Different, But We Often Use the Word “Friend” to Describe Either

Friendships in which you like each other and friendships in which you experience companionate love are incredibly different beasts.

Unfortunately, most of us use the word friend or friendship interchangeably to describe either. Occasionally, we might use other words to help us make the distinction, saying something like “well, she’s more of an acquaintance,” or “this is my really good friend, my best friend.”

But there are many times when we’re talking about friendship that we don’t take those pains. And things can get confusing.

“I Thought They Were My Friend! Is That the Way a Friend Acts?”

I’ve definitely encountered situations where a person has been disappointed in a friend not for anything atrocious they did but because it simply seemed like one of them considered their friendship a case of liking/friendship and the other person expected them to behave as though they had companionate love.

For example, not canceling prior plans in order to be available to help them with a project on short notice. This happened at the periphery of one of my social circles, and immediately the jaded party was up in arms complaining about the one no-show. “I thought they were my friend! Is that that the way a friend acts?’

“I feel for her, but my hands were tied this time. I do what I can, but if I were expected to drop everything the moment one of my friends needed help, my life would be a mess,” the no-show-er said.

They then went on to say that others had noted that this particular friend also seemed to take other friends’ requests as a kind of order or burden, even when the people making them posed them as optional. She’d rearrange her own life at the drop of a hat for someone she barely knew.

“Do I have people in my life like that, that I’d drop everything to help?” another of her friends told me. “Sure. But every friend? It’s just not reasonable.”

It was hard to watch, even from my safe distance, the amount of conflict that occurred because of the way this person tried to force every liking/friends relationship into a form of companionate love. It looked pretty exhausting and frustrating (on all sides).

And at the end of the day, she had a really hard time keeping friends (of any kind).

“All You Have Is Friends. Don’t You Have Anyone Special In Your Life?”

Amatonormativity: (noun) the assumption that a central, exclusive, amorous relationship is normal for humans, in that it is a universally shared goal, and that such a relationship is normative, in the sense that it should be aimed at in preference to other relationship types

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The other error that people tend to make when they mix up these two types of friendship is by undervaluing companionate love.

Oftentimes, people tend to diminish the importance and value of friendships, placing them as always inferior and less deep than romantic partnerships. It’s all too common for us to say things like, “Oh, we’re just friends.” Or to talk about being “more than friends.”

When in reality, there are some friendships that are as deep as marriages — and some that are even deeper (for example, marriages like Sternberg’s “empty love,” commitment without passion or intimacy). Friendships in which both friends are very committed to each other and quite bonded and emotionally intimate (if not physically intimate).

It’s all too common for people to ask of someone, “Don’t you have anyone special in your life?” when they mean, “Are you seeing anyone romantically?”

But for some folks, certain friends are their someone special. Certain friends are their everything.

And when liking/friends and companionate love are all lumped together into one group, that important distinction is lost.

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Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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1 Comment

  1. This speaks to my heart!
    When my spouse was deployed my best friends filled sooo many of my emotional needs, she was my “other half” During that time she co-parented with me, was my sounding board and kept me emotionally safe. It’s hard to describe her other than my best friend.
    We need more words in the English language to describe

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