Unpacking the four levels of friendship

by Kristin on January 11, 2010

in Love, family & community

Photo by Jolante

“When L moves away, I won’t have any true friends!”

As the move date for S’s best friend speeds toward us, the angst grows by leaps and bounds. My first instinct is to tell S “That’s not true! You have lots of friends,” and then start naming them. “What about so-and-so? And don’t forget about that one, you always have fun together. And that one—you just went to her birthday party and had a great time.”

But I know how important it is, as a parent, to acknowledge and respect how she feels, whether it makes sense to me or not. The way she’s experiencing her life in this moment is not up for debate. It just is what it is.

And anyway, I know what she’d say if I started listing all of her friends: “I know I have lots of friends, but I don’t have any other best friends. There’s no one else who understands me, and who likes to pretend, and who always wants to see me. We never get tired of each other.”

It’s not just a childhood experience

When it gets down to it, the biggest reason I can’t discount how she feeling, because I’m right there with her: I have loads of friends, yet most of the time I feel like I don’t have any friends. Being in that state leads to the most bizarre, circular arguments in my head, with one part of me playing the lonely child and the other playing the all-too-matter-of-fact mother.

Clearly, it’s not an argument that can be brought to a conclusion without a clear definition of “friend,” or at least a clear understanding of the different categories of friends.

For kids, it’s pretty simple: They have Category 4 friends they enjoy seeing and interacting with at school; Category 3 friends they have an occasional playdate with; a small handful of Category 2 friends that they would invite to their birthday party; and then one or maybe two Category 1 friends: True Friends. Best Friends. The sort of friend that fits the description S would use for L.

Breaking it down for grownups

How does it translate for adults? Pretty much the same way.

Category 4 friends are people you say hello to and maybe stop and chat for awhile if you run into them at the cafe or bar. They’re probably friends of yours on Facebook, but if it weren’t for Facebook, they would have almost no clue what’s going on in your day-to-day life.

Category 3 friends encompass a lot of people like co-workers, members of your broader church community, the parents of your kids’ friends, and others you see and talk to regularly but don’t necessarily go out of your way to get together with. Every once in a while, you might decide to call them up and see if they want to meet you for lunch, or you might invite them to a big party you’re having, but the expectations of your relationship are low and the interactions are casual.

Category 2 friends can get more complicated, because the relationship is deeper, but the expectations often aren’t clear. They’re your go-to friends when you feel like getting a group of people together on a Saturday night, or you want to go out to dinner to celebrate a birthday, or you feel like inviting someone over for dinner. These are the friends you spend time with once or twice a month, but I also think we keep ourselves (or hearts?) at a bit of a distance, to protect ourselves from feeling left out, hurt, or disappointed when they don’t come through.

And Category 1 friends? I think I would describe them exactly the way my nine-year-old daughter would: They understand you—they get who you are at your core, which means you can completely be yourself around them, without worrying what they will think. Category 1 friends like to spend time doing the things that you like doing best. And they always want to see you. Whenever you feel the urge to see them, they’re ready and waiting, thrilled to see you if they can possibly make it happen.

When I lay it out like that, it makes more sense to me that I can have SO many friends and yet feel like I don’t have any friends. My first-tier category is empty, at least when it comes to people who live in town that I can regularly spend time with. And that means my heart feels a little bit empty right now, just like my daughter’s.

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  • Trina

    Aaah the angst and comfort of friends, nice work on the categories.

  • http://www.essentialprose.com Zoe

    It’s funny how sometimes cut-and-dry systems can so simply reflect our feelings that feel utterly complex. I think of this theme often; living in Thailand, I’ve seen many close friends come and go — the expat community can be quite transient. It’s strange to get used to saying “see you later…sometime, somewhere…”, and it makes you think about relationships near and far. I must say, I’m exceptionally grateful for Skype, email, and web cameras that make it easy to feel closer to faraway loves.

    I definitely still need best friends. Do some people really “grow out of it”?

  • http://www.tjhirst.com/ TJ Hirst

    I’m rethinking my social relationships this month, too. My immediate family and extended family have grown to be the important bond of Category 1 friends currently in my life, but I’m realizing that I need all levels of friendship, even the category 2 and 3 which seem to be the least plentiful in my life right now.

  • http://etherealjoy.blogspot.com Joy

    How very true. One of my neighbors just moved away, and I feel that loss deeply. Yes, I have other neighbors I enjoy, yes I have friends I enjoy, but not one of them brings to my life the component that this particular person did. So I concur. Absolutely. Life can be rich and full, yet your heart can feel a bit empty.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    Trina, thanks! What I’m curious to find out, hopefully through the comments, is whether my experience with this is typical or very much dependent on my personality type, etc. Do other people feel an emptiness when they don’t have a “best friend?” Are the categories I made up from my own experience universal, or do they only work for certain people? It will be interesting to find out.

    Zoe, yes! I often feel overwhelmed by a situation, but when I take the time to outline it or diagram it, much of the perceived complexity isn’t really there. (You’re a pro at that!) I can also relate to living in a transient community, although it’s a very different type than what you’re experiencing. I live in a university town, so an unusually large percentage of people here don’t intend to stay for more than a few years. To make matters worse, it’s in the Midwest, which means many people are going out of their way to find a reason to move to either coast. (I, however, am a fan of the Midwest.) Anyway, it’s hard to meet new friends and already know their time here is limited. I find myself holding back so I won’t get too attached.

    TJ, you are lucky to have an immediate and extended family you feel so bonded to. My husband is definitely my number one best friend, and I feel very grateful for that. If I lived in the same town as my brother and/or my husband’s sister, they would easily fit in that category, too. Unfortunately, though, people have a way of moving around and making their homes in new places, so it’s hard to count on family ties for day-to-day friendship.

    Joy, that’s absolutely right—each friend brings a unique component to your life. I guess that suggests that even a new “category 1″ friend can’t quite replace an old one. My daughter will have another “best friend” some day, but she won’t fill the same hole L will leave. And this is so true: “Life can be rich and full, yet your heart can feel a bit empty.”

  • suzi w.

    yes, my bff, (or category 1) friend moved this summer. So did one of my category 2 friends that I saw once a week. ’nuff said.

    thanks for writing this post.

    feeling bereft.

  • http://www.ordinarymer.com Meredith

    I can understand this post exactly, albeit from a slightly different perspective. I would say I have three close “category 1″ friends, but even though we’ve been friends for nearly 15 years, it’s obvious (at least to me) that we’re growing apart simply due to our lives moving in different directions. They’re all married/engaged whereas I am not and even when I’m with them, I can still feel lonely. So, like you, I have friends, but I also sense the growing divide.

    One of the things I think is important is to consider the kinds of interactions you’re having with your friends, category 1 or otherwise. My three “category 1″ friends know me best, but I also interact with a lot of people online (via Twitter, blogs, etc.) in ways that I would never think of with my in real life friends. I’d much rather have a wide variety of friends because the different types of friendships and relationships are going to give me the different things I need from a friend. I may not find it all in one person, but I can find it in a bunch of people.

  • http://www.thesandwichlife.com The Sandwich Life

    oh yes….this really resonates with me. I had a friendship end last year…..a long term category 1 and it’s an incredible loss. Thanks for articulating this….

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    suzi w., oh, that’s really hard! I’m so sorry, and hope you are surprised by something new and wonderful soon.

    Meredith, that’s a really interesting take on this issue, and a difficult thing to see happening in your life. The distance is growing, yet you feel like there’s nothing you can do to stop it. You make a great point, too, about the different ways we interact with different friends, and how the variety is important. I still think, though, that all the variety is fun and interesting, sort of like traveling to lots of different places, but it’s also exhausting. In contrast, those one or two really close friends always feel like being back *home.*

    The Sandwich Life, I think it’s extra difficult when you’ve had a wonderful friendship and then lost it, because you’re forever comparing all the other friends and relationships to that ideal. I went through a similar loss almost two years ago, and I’m still trying to come to terms with it.

  • http://www.magpie-girl.com Rachelle Mee-Chapman

    My Category 1 tier is empty locally too … and has been since last Spring. Before that there was just one lovely soul in there. So really it’s been empty for 2 years.

    We have two friendly couples in Denmark who we see less than once a month. All my other connections are virtual, and mostly in Category 4. And I am a people-person who’s known for building communities.

    Mayhaps it is time to STOP living in Denmark.

    Thanks for these categories K, it will help me talk to the girls about friends in our next transition.

  • Nicola


    This was an interesting post and made me think of my friends in the categories you outlined, which was a useful exercise! Having moved across the country almost 3 years ago from PA to OR, it has definitely taken a toll on our friendships.

    I feel fortunate to have a Category 1 friend here in my sister, but I miss my 2 closest Category 1′s from PA. We also have 4 couples that are category 2 friends now, so I think we’re doing pretty well. We don’t have many category 4 friends, which is fine because that’s the least useful group for me.

    I am a very social person, but not one who instinctively gathers a large group around me. I have had to make an effort to reach out since moving here and it has been worthwhile! In fact, I may be slowly turning into a friend gatherer…someone who pulls people in and mixes different groups. I’ve always aspired to that!

  • http://themoderngal.blogspot.com The Modern Gal

    I feel like I’ve put less of an emphasis on Category 1 since graduating college and “becoming an adult,” and I’ve suffered for it. I’m trying to make more time to talk to my Category 1 friends — none of whom live close. Fortunately my boyfriend plays a good Category 1 role where my ex-boyfriend did not, but I do still hunger for a female Category 1 companion who lives near me!

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    Rachelle, that geographic aspect makes a real difference, doesn’t it? I can think of several friends that would fit into that tier-1 category if they were more geographically available. The added complexity of living overseas would be really difficult for me to handle, when it comes to issues of community and loneliness. Sending hugs your way.

    Nicola, yes, once again the issue of geography and transience is at play. But making a real effort makes a difference. I love how you put this: “I may be slowly turning into a friend gatherer…someone who pulls people in and mixes different groups.” Beautiful.

    The Modern Gal, a really solid boyfriend/husband/partner relationship can make a huge difference. I can attest to that! But I also agree, there’s still something about a female Category 1 friend who lives close by. I’m beginning to think it’s something we’ll never outgrow.

  • http://www.greenandchic.com/blog carla

    All my live, I’ve only had ‘category 4′ friends and its pretty lonely when you think about it. Though I’ve always gotten along with people, I can never upgrade, LOL.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    Carla, yes, the “upgrade” can be tricky. It often seems like friends fit into a certain category from the start, and it can be hard to shift them to the next level. Maybe we can just tell, from the start, how well we will fit—when I meet a category 1 friend, I usually know right away. I hope a closer friendship makes its way into your life soon!

  • Rena

    I really enjoyed reading this article. I have many friends and often am frustrated that I have expectations that don’t fit the particular friendship. Reading the four levels helps to understand what the expectations should be, of myself and the particular friendship that I am having a problem with. Thank you.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    Rena, I’m glad this helped! Just writing it helped me. You mentioned expectations you have with friends, and I really think that’s key to enjoying friendships for what they are, without stress. It’s good to put it in perspective, too, and realize a category 2 friend for you might see you as a category 3 friend. It doesn’t necessarily solve all the problems, but it helps me think about it differently.

  • The Cat’s Meow

    I have read two blogs and one article this evening on levels and characteristics of friendship. And I have to say that the blog posts and ensuing comments have been so incredibly sincere — and very, very interesting, too. One thing I mentioned in my comment to the article I read was about the importance of the relationship we have with ourselves. I remember when I worked in an acute behavioral health setting and tried to impress upon the patients the importance of developing a kind and loving relationship with themselves as well as with others. Often people will be very considerate of others while ripping themselves apart with harsh criticisms. One quality I cherish in really good friends (and this includes my sister) is the ability to really listen with interest and a nonjudgmental attitude. Friends like that are worth their weight in gold!! And it makes me feel good when my friends thank me for listening to them; it is my pleasure to do so. Hugs all around!

  • http://www.jr-williams.com Nina

    I really love this. I used the info you posted about each level and put all of my friends into one of the categories. I found that the only people in category one are family. I have one person in category two, several in the third and the most in the forth. I think it’s good to write out who fits where because sometimes we place people in higher categories and they don’t belong there. When they don’t live up to our expectations, we are disappointed. It’s easier to come to terms with this when you know where everybody stands. Thanks for posting!

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  • http://barefooton45th.com Lesley

    Somehow I missed this post last year. I’m so glad you linked to it because it’s great. Thanks, Kristin!

    Often I feel guilty that we don’t invite category 3 and 4 friends over more often but there simply isn’t enough time. I want to make sure I invest time in my family first, then really good friends, and then the others. Sometimes I run out of time for the “others.” It’s good to be reminded that it’s okay to not try and make everyone a lifelong friend. They can’t be for many reasons– I don’t connect with everyone on a deeper level and I simply don’t have time.

    I don’t feel as guilty anymore! :)

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  • Gilbert

    It seems like I am the only guy that has responded here, but I guess its a good thing; it let’s everyone know that guys have feelings, are human, and have the same thoughts about the importance of friendships and their design.

    I totally agree with what you wrote. It was quite simplified, but unnervingly accurate. What brought me here was the question of defining levels of friendships because I recently began to question myself on the subject matter. I guess I have been feeling like “my heart feels a little bit empty right now” as you stated–and that is what drove me to question the levels of my friendships, trying to explain why I was feeling like that.

    I think that where I am at is that I have people in my Category 1 tier that probably…more than likely have me in their Category 2 tier or maybe even 3 tier. This imbalance causes me to be frustrated and rethink my expectations a bit. Furthermore, there exists the possibility that both side considered our friendship Category 1 at some point, but for reasons unbeknownst to me, I may have dropped off in their list somehow even though they remained Cat1 for me. Again, this causes some hurt and frustration, especially when there is no obvious reason for it or that neither side has offended or hurt the other—somehow people drop you off their Cat1 list and it makes you wonder if you were ever there to begin with. I guess friendships just fluctuate like that for some people, just not for me.

    Once you are in my Cat1, you will more than likely be there forever unless something drastic happens to change that. I guess it is a more impacting Category, as far as feelings are concerned, than the others because it is the one that is most important and may only have like 1 to 3 people in it.

    A year after you have posted this, it is still a good topic. Thank you.

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