The 5 Stages of Female Friendship

When it comes to dating, we implicitly acknowledge that it takes time before we can both simply assume that we're hanging out this weekend without asking each other. With female friendship, we lack language to articulate those stages.
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Women friends laughing and enjoying their tea outdoors
Women friends laughing and enjoying their tea outdoors

by Shasta Nelson for

I'm trying to find vocabulary that increases our awareness of the stages of friendship.

Romance Stages and Friendship Stages

When it comes to dating, we know that there is a lot of ground between being interested in someone and getting married to them. We have terms like "going on a date," which we know is different than "dating." We implicitly acknowledge that it takes time before we can both simply assume that we're hanging out this weekend without asking each other.

With female friendship, we lack language to articulate those stages.

Our expectations also seem to be a bit skewed regarding how fast we should progress. We appear to be at great risk of thinking we need to feel like BFFs within the first couple of conversations, forgetting that there are stages. We neglect the evidence in our memory banks that show us repeatedly that most of our friendships developed after spending consistent time together (i.e. work, school, weekly gatherings).

In romance we know that, on average, it takes one to two years from meeting to marriage, but there are always some couples who elope after knowing each other for two weeks and others who date for ten years before getting married. In friendship, it's more or less the same. There will always be exceptions due to personality, life timing, willingness, etc. We'd be wise to set our expectations for the journey, even if it means it may take a year before I get to where I want to be with someone.

5 Stages of Friendship
So here are five stages that I've identified so far. What has been your experience, over the long-haul, with your friendship development?

1. Curiosity

This is where every friendship begins. There has to be something that attracts you, gives you a sense of willingness and increases your desire to know the person more. It doesn't have to be conscious or obvious to us, but at this stage, we have to have reason to lean in, even a little, if the stranger we're meeting is going to have a chance of becoming a friend.

2. Exploratory

Every potential friendship requires time together. For some of us, that time happens automatically (at a play group, a choir rehearsal, yoga class or work), but for many of us, we'll have to initiate it and pursue it. For it doesn't matter how much attraction you may feel in that first stage if you don't show up for time together.

3. Familiarity

This is the stage we often want as stage one. We frequently want to experience this comfort level with someone upon first meeting them, forgetting that it takes time to build. In my experience, I find that it takes most women six-eight "session" with someone before they reach this stage. Of course, that depends on what you're doing during that time and how you're sharing, but at some point, you reach this familiarity. A trust that you can assume she wants to talk with you when you call. An ease where you're OK just hanging out spontaneously together without it taking two weeks to schedule. A sense that you are beginning to be able to predict how they will respond to different life events.

4. Vulnerability

This stage is tricky, since there is a ditch on either side: rushing to it too quickly or avoiding it all together. Some women rush to this stage early-on because they feel closer once they have shared their pain. But healthy friendships need the commitment to grow in conjunction with the intimacy. We should not be emotionally vomiting on someone in order to feel closer. It should not be our expectation that friends who are in the first couple of stages need to prove themselves and be there for us in extreme ways.

On the other hand, at some point of consistent time together, if you're not willing to share beyond your PR image, laugh at yourself and express insecurities, the friendship will stall or disintegrate. This is where we earn the right to "cry on each other's shoulder." This is where we are bonding in deeper ways, increasing our commitment to each other.

5. Frientimacy

This last stage is for those who are your BFFs. And notice that I made that plural. "Best" doesn't speak to quantity as much as quality. It's like when a magazine says the "best moments of last year" and includes ten of them. There is enough research out there to suggest we need several people in this category. Don't limit yourself. On the other hand, not everyone you interact with needs to move into this last stage.

This friendship intimacy stage is my category for the people I trust implicitly. We trust each other's boundaries, have proven to show up as emotionally healthy people for each other and are willing to go out of our way for their benefit. We love them. This stage takes time. Lots of it. For most of us, while you may see the potential and some of the benefits of it 6-12 months into the relationship, it may take even longer than that to really build the required trust and intimacy.

While few of our relationships will ever have clear lines between these stages, does it help to visually see that friendship is indeed a progression? Is it valuable to differentiate between seeing the potential of a BFF and putting in the time and vulnerability required to foster it? In general, does this align with your experience? And, if this were true, how could you see it helping you as you start new friendships?

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