Imagine this: you’re single. Forever. The end. End of thought experiment.
Yeah, that may be a sucky thing to think about. But it’s not exactly the end of the world. We’ve all been single before. And many of us in committed relationships will someday be single again. Besides, there are plenty of people who choose to remain single for the majority of their lives and don’t feel as though they’re missing out on much.
Now imagine something else. Imagine that tomorrow, you lose all of your friends and will never have any friends ever again. Let’s pretend they all coincidentally boarded the same flight that disappeared over the Russia/Ukraine border. Or maybe they all got together for a surprise pizza party in your honor and then the pizza oven exploded and immolated everyone you know and love for the rest of your life.
Single for the rest of your life? That could suck. But then again, you could still have a pretty bitchin’ life anyway. Plenty of people do.
Friendless for the rest of your life? Well, let’s just say that these are the things that suicides are made of.
Romantic relationships get the vast majority of our time and mental energy. This is because romantic relationships are more emotionally intense. Many analyze their romantic interactions half to death.
But few stop to think about the quality of their friendships and whether or not they’re really surrounded by assholes or not.
I’ve put together this article as a sort of primer about friendships. What they are, why we have them, what they’re worth, and why they go right/wrong at some point.
LEVEL 1: “HEY, IT’S THAT GUY”
A person whom you visually and/or theoretically recognize in some way, but can’t actually recall having any sort of interaction with. Examples include: security guards, people you see in elevators frequently, the mailman, people you see in your apartment building but never say ‘hi’ to.
LEVEL 2: “LET’S SMILE AND MAKE NOISES OF GENERAL APPROVAL TOWARD ONE ANOTHER”
This is someone with whom you share mutual recognition as well as the occasional idle chit-chat and bullshit smalltalk. Level 2 friendships are friendships of utility. They’re your coworkers, your boss’s wife, your next door neighbor, friends of friends, your cousin’s new boyfriend, the rare waiter or server some place you frequent — they’re people who you make pleasantries with because it makes both of your lives easier.
Level 2 friendships are an unfortunate life necessity. As much as we’d like to pretend it’s not, life is fairly political and it’s important that a large number of people in our social groups have generally favorably impressions of us. These favorable impressions can often be achieved with short, inane discussions of how crazy the weather is, recent sports scores, and celebrity gossip.
These are acquaintances. They are people that, if something important comes up, you can call in a favor, but you’re not exactly going over and having dinner together every Tuesday.
Actual friendship starts with…
LEVEL 3: “REMEMBER THAT THING WE BOTH LIKE? ME TOO!”
This is a person with whom you share some interest and see each other somewhat regularly. Level 3 friendships are generally pleasant and outwardly focused on whatever it is you both have in common, whether that’s working on cars, the fact your kids are starting kindergarten together, or some sports team you both follow. These are friendships of utility, although instead of simply a pleasant social environment (as in Level 2), on Level 3, you both enjoy each other’s company while focusing on some outside thing.
These are great friendships to have for the simple reason that they make everything else in our lives a little bit more enjoyable. If you care about something deeply, it’s nice to align yourself with other people who care about the same thing.
Level 3 friendships rarely get personal enough to incite serious drama. Level 3 friends will avoid touchy topics and stay out of each other’s business. If you’re friends because you both like racing bikes, then you don’t really have to care whether you think he’s a good husband or not. If you have a friend from college that you play fantasy football with online, you don’t have to care if he’s stuck in a dead-end job or not. It just doesn’t matter at this level.
For this reason, Level 3 friendships can be surprisingly durable or fragile depending on the situation. A major change in your life such as a divorce or a kid drowning in an exploding pizza-oven accident won’t necessarily change the dynamics of this friendship. It can withstand these major personal shifts.
What it can’t withstand is a loss off the interest itself. If you’re way into drugs and partying, then you stop, expect a number of your drug/party friends to lose contact. Same goes for quitting a sport, leaving a job, or moving to a different city.
LEVEL 4: “WE ARE THE SAME, YOU AND I.”
Level 4 relationships grow from Level 3 relationships where two people find that they not only share a hobby or interest, but they share many of the same values and life experiences as one another. These friendships always last for at least a few years, and sometimes can last for a lifetime.
Level 4 interactions are usually intimate, but in a relaxed way. Spending time with them feels as natural as it does to spend time alone. Jokes flow freely and you feel uninhibited, knowing that you can share most of your thoughts and life problems and not feel judged or looked down upon.
Without sounding too cheesy, these are the people we live for. As humans, we have a deep-felt need for intimacy and feeling accepted. We also have a deep-felt need for understanding and accepting others. These are the relationships in our life that fulfill these needs.
Level 4 Besties are rare. In fact, sociologists hypothesize that we’re actually only wired to be able to maintain a handful of these relationships at any given time. Because the depth of these relationships often takes years to achieve, they usually last for quite a long time. In fact, they’re only lost when some major events occurs in our lives and affects our values and goals on a deep level (getting married, having kids, mid-life crisis, etc.). And when we do lose these friendships, we often go through a minor period of grief, similar but milder than the same grief we go through after a romantic break up.
Then we meet somebody else, and the process starts again.
LEVEL 5: “WE’RE PRACTICALLY FAMILY.”
Brother from another mother. Sister from a different mister. Whatever you want to call it, something kicks in very rarely in our lives where we feel an affinity or loyalty to a person regardless of, well, pretty much anything else. Jobs, marriages, hairstyles, they all come and go. You may move cities a few times, spend a year abroad, come out of the closet, get back in the closet, come out a second time, this time with a wig — whatever happens, these few, unique friendships remain unscathed. The unconditional acceptance is to the point that few circumstances can actually change how you feel about one another.
Long distances or long periods with no contact can kill a Level 3 relationship. A major change in values or life goals can kill a Level 4 relationship. But none of these things kill a Level 5 friendship. These things are almost beyond our personal choice or control.
Level 5 friendships are not chosen or controlled. In fact, I’m skeptical that they can even be built in adulthood. That seemingly unbreakable bond between two people tends to only appear to people who grew up together.
Some people only have low-level friendships, not high-level. These people are what would generally be considered to be “Superficial.” They know everyone, say hello to everyone, but nobody actually knows them on a significantly deep level. There’s little to no emotional attachment or shared history. And definitely no vulnerability.
Some people only have high-level friendships. These people are probably shy and afraid of reaching out of their comfort zone. And while they have a few people who are very close to them in their lives, they are missing out by not exposing themselves to a wider array of people.
The truth is that we need all levels of friendships in our lives to be healthy. The question is just navigating where everyone fits.
Friendships naturally fall to the lowest level. So if we’re friends, and you see me as a Level 4, and I see you as a Level 3, we will never pass Level 3. That’s for the simple fact that I won’t engage you on a Level 4 level.