How Friendships Evolve Over Time and the Quest for Platonic Intimacy

I've been thinking about friendship, how friendships evolve as people grow older, and platonic intimacy. Here's my developing theory, would love your feedback.

Most friendships start as either "personal" or "professional" and are substantially "emotional" or "intellectual."

Types of Friendships and Their Animating Forces

Personal — Personal friends tend to be childhood friends, school friends, family connections, neighbors, or a friend with whom you have little in common career-wise.

Professional — Professional friends you meet at your company, at a networking function, or elsewhere in your industry. A professional friend knows specifically what you do 9-5 and knows various key facts about your life and career.

Then there are two main animating forces:

Emotional — An emotional undercurrent involves…emotions! Feelings. Relationships. Someone you'd call on a weekend when you're extra happy or extra sad. Heart. Emotional connection usually requires significant amounts of time spent with the person.

Intellectual — Ideas are the order of the day. Philosophy. Analytic disagreements. Industry banter. Current affairs books. Brain. Frequency of contact with the person has little bearing on quality of intellectual dialogue.

Usually personal / emotional pair and professional / intellectual pair.

How These Dimensions Play Out As You Grow Up

Growing up, you have only personal, emotional friends. A 10 year-old isn't debating marketing strategy with a colleague from work. But over time, as you enter the workforce and mature, you develop specific intellectual interests (or not). You become intellectually curious. You take on professional interests and goals. For a broadly fulfilling friendship, you need more than pranks or playing sports together. You need to be able to have a stimulating conversation.

So I think around age 18-30 you face a question: Can my personal, emotional friendships develop a meaningful intellectual dimension? If yes, you probably have a life-long friendship that will be deeply rewarding and intimate. If not, you have a relationship worth maintaining but not destined for intimacy.

As you enter your late 20's and 30's, you're meeting people mostly in a professional context with intellectualism as the animating force. Work as a social place is an environment not as naturally conducive as school or a youth sports team to personal, emotional intimacy. More authentic "social" time must be scheduled in advance due to a busy schedule and perhaps a family of your own, which means it happens less often.

Hence the second, harder question asked a few years later and for rest of life: Can my professional, intellectual friendships develop a meaningful emotional dimension?

I think for most it's easier to add intellectual fulfillment to a long-standing emotional/personal friend than it is to add an element of emotional personalness to an intellectual/professional friend. For one, there aren't as many established protocols or traditions that facilitate building emotional closeness in a non-romantic setting. Also, if you're married, you can come to depend on your mate for the emotional closeness that you used to get from friends and thus your skills at cultivating it platonically deteriorate.

Men in particular struggle with this. The five-year old NY Times piece on the awkwardness of a "man date" nailed the issue. You see older men with plenty of intellectual conversations but no friend with whom they can open up / confess / be close.

Intimacy Blurs the Lines. The Best Friendships Are Intimate.

Not all or even most friendships need to fit all of the boxes (personal, professional, emotional, intellectual). But the best friendships — the intimate ones — do, especially both emotional and intellectual boxes.

What do I mean by "intimacy"? Intimacy is a concept not exclusive to romance. I think it's also a potential descriptor of high-wattage interactions, feelings, and trust between two platonic friends. In a romantic relationship intimacy can be conveyed via physical contact — just snuggle up with her/him. In a platonic friendship intimacy must be expressed mostly via words and body language. So it can be hard to pin down in a friendship.

Here's one possible sign of intimacy: When you're with this friend, does your best and most natural self come out? Does being the person you want to be become effortless?

Intimacy in friendships is one of those things that you can get along fine without but miss once you've experienced it. Most people I know who maintain deep, intimate friendships value these relationships more highly than their ever-growing list of weak ties. Peak human experiences seem to happen in conjunction with intimate, soul-nourishing relationships. Friendships of this variety blur the lines and categories altogether.

(thanks to Stephen Dodson for helping spark this theory and Chris Yeh for helping think it through.)

20 Responses to How Friendships Evolve Over Time and the Quest for Platonic Intimacy

  1. Two close friends of opposite genders who share a non-sexual intimate relationship are called “dialogical lovers” — I found this term in a book many years ago and have loved using it ever since.

    I’ve actually found it a lot harder to convert long-standing emotional relationships into intellectual/professional ones than vice versa. Interesting that you’ve had the opposite experience.

  2. Dan Erwin says:

    Profoundly important subject, Ben. From my perspective, you’ve got all the issues nailed. However, your categories are far too clean for me. My experience is much more blurred. I can’t be intimate without both chemistry and intellect. I don’t sort work versus personal. Almost without exception, my intimates have grown out of a work connection.

    Years ago, a colleague who has been an intimate for years–we touch base yearly, and talk like there has no time between our visits–gave me these lines from George Eliot:
    Friendship is the comfort, the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person, having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but pouring all right out just as they are, chaff and grain together, certain that a faithful friendly hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and with a breath of comfort, blow the rest away.

  3. Ben Casnocha says:

    Yes interesting that you’ve found the opposite.

    BTW, I don’t believe it’s possible to have a friendship with someone of the opposite gender and have the relationship completely devoid of sexual tension.

    • Alysha says:

      My experience confirms to me that friendships of opposite sex partners cannot exsist without sexual tension. I have had an opposite sex friend I’ve known for years and have in the last five months became extremely close to. I’ve moved beyond my level of intimacy with him than I have with anyone else ever, and the feeling is at times euphoric, and generally comforting and supportive. This is someone I’ve always cared for but never thought I would be sexually attracted to him. However as our bond has grown so deep through trust, mutual understanding and caring for each other, I have become more sexually aroused than I have ever felt towards anyone before.
      I don’t feel any differently about the relationship or him though as I did before the sexual feelings (acts) except continually more emotionally connected. The sexual part seems to me to be a natural part of the progression of intimacy. As I’ve gotten more comfortable and safe, and see he’s experiencing the same, I feel them and am able to act on them more. I was struggling with some sort of perceived decision about who my “partner” would be and feeling like I knew “it” wasn’t him and basically trying to escape the label game and enjoy what I’m experiencing. (his trouble with this was do I love this person or am I in love with this person?)
      I don’t desire to posses him and call him mine or restrict the love he can give or feel for others, is this what marks the difference between a modern ‘romantic relationship’ and This real true form of love I’m experiencing?

  4. Lisa L says:

    A really great book broaching this topic in an intellectual manner (and not the “evolutionary biology” “intellectual” manner) is Allan Bloom’s “Love and Friendship.” Examples from literature and philosophy through-out the ages. I’m really enjoying it.

  5. Krishna says:

    That quote used by Dan in his comment is from the novel “A Life for a Life” by Dinah Craik and not by George Eliot. Perhaps the confusion arose because Eliot’s “Adam Bede” and Craik’s novel were the two that reportedly were the most in demand in the libraries way back in 1859.

    I think it is risky trying to convert one category (from personal to intellectual and vice versa) to the other unless the characters share the trait. If not, it could strain the ties. A happy go lucky long time personal friend will be shocked if you suddenly discuss marketing strategies to him. He might be put off by that sudden heaviness of the banter and will begin to wonder whether you’re the same guy he knew. The one that always used to gather him up and hand it back to him in fine order, the one that always used to whistle the song on his mind. He may have liked you for your casual attitude and the lightness of your going about life. Similarly a serious professional acquaintance could mark you down if you suddenly cut loose and over engage him outside of business. Worse, he might get extra cautious when he has to deal with you in future :-)

    When the transition works, it’s cheaper than therapy – I agree. But why hit the switch at all? Isn’t it better to grow separately without growing apart?

  6. Dan Erwin says:

    Krishna: Thanks for the sourcing information.

    Re friendships: My friendship building experiences have been slow–very slow–an evolution, not hitting a switch. When an intriguing client gives me personal input along the way, input that resonates with my life and world, then I hitchhike. We dance back and forth–a little at a time. But over time, all of my intimate friendships have developed that way. It’s through a series of conversations–often over a long time period.

    Then too, and this may be explanatory–over the years, I’ve lived and worked in four different sections of the country–and that’s true for some of my intimates. But when I’ve moved I’ve kept a number of those intimates.

    I can’t help but believe that Gen Y like the other generations will be highly mobile and have experiences like mine.

    Again–for me, it’s always been a blurred, evolving experience, crossing work and personal life. And that’s also true for many of my intimates with their other friends.

  7. Naturally, I’m going to focus on the awkwardness of a “man date” as nailed in that NY Times piece, which I notice was written by a woman.

    ‘Straight’ men in the US generally are more insecure about their sexuality than men in Europe, and the contortions they go through on a ‘date’ with a male friend are laughable. As a gay guy, I’m acutely conscious of these social ‘perils’– like sharing a bottle of wine at dinner, and have often played off them to my advantage, just for my own entertainment.

    You straight hypocrites (you know who you are) deserve it for all the indignities you’ve visited upon your gay brethren, even the masculine ones like me.

    As Jennifer Lee (what’s that ‘8’ about?) was perceptive enough to see, big chunks of meat and beer or liquor are the essential props for two men to dine in comfort together publicly. Even down here in the fundamentalist heartland you see two straight men having lunch together in a barbecue joint all the time, with no reproach attached.

    It’s all about set and setting, and any homosexualist with the barest understanding of Freudian psychology can manipulate their fragile egos, under the right circumstances. As every gay guy knows, the drunker these macho goofs get, the easier they are to seduce, if he has any game at all.

    My club days are over, but the house ‘rules’ still apply. I promise you that the handsomer a ‘straight’ guy is, the more likely he is to end up in bed with the ‘queer’ he’ll despise in the morning.

    And apropos of Ms. Lee’s inviolable rule: “if a woman enters the picture, a man can drop his buddy, last minute, no questions asked”– let me tell you, they don’t take it nearly so well if it’s a guy taking their ‘buddy’ away.

  8. My definition is intimacy is to allow one’s true self to be known by another, and for that other to also allow their true self to be known by you. For some of us, this is the hardest thing in the world.

    Sex is a quasi-intimate act and so can take on huge importance to people who have a hard time being intimate. It’s halfway there, but not quite.

    Intimacy avoidance is intensely fear-driven. I find that as I let go of fear in all areas of my life, I find it much easier to let myself be known to others. I can use discretion and good judgment as to whom I make myself vulnerable in this way, but in the end the consequences are largely out of my control. Playing out the worst case scenario (the person will think I’m bad/weird/annoying), it’s really not as bad as the fear would suggest.

  9. Ben,

    I love how this excellent post on the intellectual and (and/or?) emotional aspects of friendship, particularly with regards to platonic male friendships and their ensuing man-date awkwardness, was based on a conversation at our very own (un-awkward) lunch man date.

    Like your point about “peak human experiences,” most of the fulfilling experiences in my life have been centered around what I like to call “epic friendships,” which uncompromisingly are based on true intellectual and emotional connections. It can be disappointing when one is met and the other’s not, but downright frustrating when friendships that once met both wane as people change intellectually (more often) and emotionally (less often). Personal evolution is crucial to a rewarding life, but not all friendships can evolve in the same direction. It’s just plain hard to intellectualize an intimate relationship or develop an emotional connection with a cerebral relationship, but when it happens, it’s one of the most rewarding things around, epic if you will.

    Thank you for putting this part of our conversation into words and structure, and most importantly, furthering it eloquently.

  10. John Brennan says:

    I’ve been wanting to write something similar myself.. more to try and organize my thoughts, but you did a great job!

    I agree with the notion of the “man date” being frowned upon in our society. I have a few intimate friendships with guys that are purely platonic. Intimate in the sense that we speak and interact openly, from the heart, on a one-on-one basis. Some of my friends often joke around about it, and I laugh as well.. but I really wonder what about the connection that I am having makes them say what they say?

    Is it that I’m butting up against their beliefs (which ultimately usually becomes their identity)? Or do they just think it’s not the time or place for real conversation (e.g. a bar with a group of friends)?

    My belief has been to live in the moment and let my heart dictate my actions (as much as possible). While this may through off some, it has ultimately lead me to lead a more fulfilling life of joy and happiness.

    well my mind is now saying i need to get back to work :(

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  12. nancy says:

    It is absolutely possible to be close friends with the opposite gender and have no sexual tension. Just as it is possible for men to have man dates and women to have girlfriends w/o tension. People are more complex than you may realize, even yourself! It may be something you’re yet learning? Is it worth the effort to try to overcome? Potentially, it depends on the opportunities… you may find yourself one day with the opportunity for a close friendship with the opposite gender and it might bee in your best interest not to dismiss it summarily based on biology. The idea of composite best friend points to the need for several sources of connection, that need might not be fulfilled by a single gender ultimately either. Why limit yourself? Good luck in all you do.

  13. Ravi Agarwal says:

    i think overtime evolution of your personality, your intellectual capacities, your emotions and actions is also very essential. Also found a very interesting article in this context: link to

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