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.)

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