Last week I started reading Friendships Don’t Just Happen: A Guide to Creating a Meaningful Circle of Girlfriends by Shasta Nelson. I don’t think I need to explain why.
I’ve only just started the book. This weekend I finished reading about Nelson’s Circles of Connectedness, where she identifies five different kind of friendships and explains what each one entails. She diagrams her Circles of Connectedness on a continuum of closeness that increases from left to right, while explaining how and why each kind of friend is important and what roles they play in our lives.
Nelson introduces the “Left-Side Friends” first. Farthest to the left are “Contact Friends” which Nelson describes as women “we are friendly [with] when we see them in our shared context, but we have limited consistency and limited intimacy.” These are the kinds of friends we gravitate to at yoga class or maybe during our lunch break at work. They give us a “sense of belonging” in our shared context but there isn’t any expectation that we will remember details about their life outside of the context in which we know them.
Next are “Common Friends,” which are described in relation to Contact Friends as “increasing either in consistency or intimacy… getting to know them better largely in the area we have in common.” Contract Friends are like Common Friends except that “we spend time with these women in more intentional and personal ways, developing friendships that feel more substantial.” We probably see these women more frequently than we’d see Common Friends and talk about things that are more important to us. For the woman I sit with at lunch to move from the Contact to Common Friends category, I’d have to start spending some time with her after school–maybe getting a coffee before heading home some days–even if we still talked primarily about work.
Next Nelson jumps to the two farthest right circles: “Community” and “Committed Friends.” Community Friends are women with whom “we spend consistent time together growing the intimacy or our relationship” while Committed Friends are women we “intimately and consistently share our lives with.” Community friends are generally referred to as “good friends” and Committed Friends are the heralded BFFs.
The middle circle, or fulcrum as Nelson refers to it, is reserved for “Confirmed Friends.” They are the women with whom we have a shared past, but that we no longer see consistently, usually because one or both of us has moved (but maybe because of a large transition in one woman’s life).
The few negative reviews of the book (on Am.azon) disparaged the categorizing and inventorying of friendship, but I have found it very useful. I always knew I had different kinds of friends, but I appreciate someone clearly defining the different types of friendships. I find it helps me to understand what I can expect from people, and more importantly it helps me articulate why I can have so many friends and still feel like important friendships are missing.
At the end of the discussion on the different Circles of Connectedness, Nelson urges the reader to do a kind of friendship inventory, to see which circles are impacted and which could use a boost. She extolls the reader to be honest in her assessment, to categorize friendships based on the true conditions of the present, not nostalgic reminiscences of the past or hopeful projections into the future.
I took my own inventory and while I wasn’t shocked, I was still saddened, by the results. The majority of my friends fell in the two left-hand circles; most of the women I am close to are Contact Friends and a few can be considered Common Friends because we get together every once in a while outside of our shared context (work or play dates with our kids) or exchange emails or FB messages outside of our shared online context (blog comment sections). I also have a few friends in the Confirmed circle, all women I lived with during college or know from high school. I am still close with these women but I only see them once every year or two and we don’t connect regularly via phone, email or other social media.
I didn’t have one friend to list in either the Community or Committed Friends circles. The word that kept anyone from inhabiting those circles was “consistency.” There is just no one in my life that I communicate with, let alone see, consistently. That is what I am missing.
Doing this exercise has been incredibly validating. It really helped me to understand exactly what friendships I feel are missing from my life. I always knew that I wanted more, but in the absence of a clear articulation of what exactly it was I wanted more of, I felt I was being selfish and taking the friendships I did have for granted. I knew that something was missing, but I couldn’t easily determine what that thing was and in my clumsy fumbling to express how I was feeling, I disparaged the friendships I did have, the ones I cherish and thoroughly enjoy. Now I better understand how I can have so many wonderful, meaningful friendships with women, both in real life and online, and still ache for something different.
Inventorying my friendships also helped me understand why the loss of my good friend has been so devastating. She was my only “right-hand side” friend and in the aftermath of her abrupt exit from my life I had no other friends I shared with consistently enough to help fill the gaping hole.
Doing this exercise also makes me feel sad. I already knew I wanted more friends, but seeing that I don’t have one person I can say I share with intimately and consistently hurts. I think it would be different if I’d just moved or dealt with some other massive life transition, but I’ve lived in this city (and been at the same job) for a decade, and it’s been almost five years since I became a mother. I feel like I should have at least a few friends on the right-hand side, but in reality I have none.
I’m assuming the rest of the book focuses on how to populate these circles with meaningful friendships and I hope I find some good advice. I’m also moving through (slowly, it’s intense stuff) a workbook on attachment theory so that hopefully I will have healthy expectations of whoever ends up on the right-side of my continuum.
This friendship work is hard, but I think it’s really worth investing the time and energy into making new friends. I’ve read some alarming stuff about how important a strong support network can be to a overall health and vitality; in one study of over 3,000 nurses battling breast cancer, a strong sense of friendship and support resulted in survival rates four times greater than those without strong friendships. Being married made no statistical difference in survival outcomes. Lonely had similarly terrifying statistics about the sobering effects a lack of friendships can have on mortality rates. The last thing I want is to die young because I don’t have something in my life that I always wanted.
What do you think about making a friendship inventory? Can you guess which circles would be more full, and which would be more empty?