Friendship Inventory

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?

14 Comments

  1. I was under the impression (incorrectly, perhaps?) that you and your mom were close. Do you not consider her a Committed friend? I definitely do my mom…

    Also, I know girl friends are different from guy friends, but do you not also consider your husband a Committed friend? I don’t think the benefits of having a strong support network are limited to same-gender friends.

    1. These are really good questions. My mom and I are very close, but I have found myself pulling away from her in the past few years, at least when it comes to sharing, because we were falling into (what felt like to me) an unhealthy relationship in which she was sharing things about her marriage and my father that I felt uncomfortable with. I mean, he is my father as well as being her husband and sometimes it felt like she was forgetting that and putting me in really awkward situations. So I have pulled back on sharing some things about my life because it seemed like an invitation for her to share some things and those things were almost always negative things about my father. I think this would be better now that he finally has a job (after six years of unemployment) but I’m not feeling strong enough emotionally yet to go there with her. So I wasn’t quite sure where to put my mom. I suppose you’re right, that she is a Committed Friend, but it feels a little different because she is also my mom and that relationship brings all sorts of complications.

      As far as my husband, he is absolutely my best friend. And honestly, I wasn’t quite sure if I was supposed to include male friends, as the book is specifically about girlfriends. I have one really good guy friend and I included him in my Confirmed Friends list. I have another good friend from high school and I’ve become friendly with his wife and our kids get along but I wasn’t sure where to put them because honestly we only see them once a year if that and I’m ALWAYS the one to initiate contact, so if I am being brutally honest with myself, I just don’t know where he falls on the continuum. So the male friends thing kind of tripped me up and I wasn’t sure how to handle it.

      Having said that I definitely do consider my husband my best friend and I can talk to him about anything. Of course he is still my husband and that adds complications that wouldn’t be there in a friendship with a woman. So I didn’t include him in my list because he plays this other role in my life. Still, I don’t want to look past how important he is as my only close friend and confidant.

  2. Like you, my friendships these days are generally in the outer left hand side. My one “committed” friend recently moved away, and while we keep in touch via email/chat/etc… its not the same relationship. I generally agree with categorizing and assessing everything in life, so why is it wrong to categorize friendships, with the caveat that there is obviously going to be fluidity over time in relationships. Its not to delegate someone into being a “lesser” or “better” friend, but more for yourself—to see what is lacking and figure out how to fill that in. Of course, the problem is, its not that easy to “make friends”. It takes a LOT of time and energy, which seem to be in short supply in most working mothers lives these days. I know its a worthwhile investment, but the thought of going to some meet up or mom’s group after an exhausting day, to make small talk on the off chance that you’ll meet someone you click with—its hard to muster up the will to go through that.

    1. I also appreciated categorizing friendships in a way that wasn’t about “lesser” or “better” but just about different. The author did a lot to highlight why and how each friendship is important, though I didn’t have the time to include all that here.

      As for finding new friends and the time and energy that requires, well I will be writing more about that. It’s definitely not something I am looking forward to, but I do feel it’s worth the effort, at least for me right now. There will definitely be more on this later though… 😉

  3. This was really interesting to think about. I have a couple Contact Friends & Common Friends in town (tho not many) and 3 “Confirmed” friends from younger years (1 high school & 2 college – all live 1,000+ miles from me now), but you’re right that Community & Committed are the hardest to come by. I’d say my Community friends sort of shift in and out of the Common Friends category depending upon what’s going on in my life and where I’m spending my “free time” at that point. However, I’m lucky to have 2-3 Committed Friends here as well, and you’re right that it makes all the difference. I don’t necessarily hang out with them every week or two even, but they live in town, would come over in 5 minutes if I really needed them, and we text/talk at least a couple times a week. I moved here 10 years ago, and one of those girls I connected with way back then when we waitressed together (then she moved away, and now she moved back and her kids are the exact ages of my kids which helps immensely) and the other girl I met about 5 years ago through my husband (our husbands are close friends, so it makes it easier to keep up our friendship when the guys are always getting together having beers). My point is that it’s definitely rare to come across someone who will turn into a Committed Friend, and I totally understand how it would be devastating to you to lose one. I hope that this book has some great ideas for you and that the right friend comes into your life soon!

    1. I am really jealous of those relationships you have in your town. I would die for something like that, and I’m glad that you have it. There is one woman that I really like and I’m working hard to develop a better friendship with her. So far it seems to be working, but she is a little flaky and tends to cancel a lot so I have to work hard to see her. I also worry about getting sucked into a non-reciprocal relationship, which seems to be the main defining characteristic of most of my friendships, no matter where they fall on the continuum. I’m trying really hard to invest in the people who seem to have the interest and time in investing in me. I hope that effort pays off too.

  4. I think my approach to relationships is very different, possibly of no use to you at all, but I couldn’t agree more about the value of connection in our lives. My take is that we can “practice” connection with literally everyone that we come into contact with. I guess that you could say that I see the term friend as an action word (and not in the same way that FB does!). This means that you can be a friend to someone for 5 minutes while you wait for a train or an hour on the playground or whatever. These connections typically end when they end but nevertheless will enrich your day and your capacity for human connection and sometimes, often surprisingly, they lead to strong and much more meaningful relationships.

    1. I really like this idea. I think I practice connection with most people that I come in contact with and I do think those interactions enrich our lives. But I also think those isolated, fleeting moments of connection are not enough for me (personally) to feel fulfilled in a general sense. I really need to have a connection with someone that is more sustained over time and that deepens and widens as I get to know them better. But that doesn’t mean I don’t also cherish those moments of connection with others. That is why I write here and why I’m trying hard to respond to comments, because I feel like that deepens my connection with my readers and blog friends, and that is really important to me.

      1. I get it. I don’t actually want to say that the long-term connections are not inherently more valuable but I guess that I find personally that it is more valuable to focus on the process rather than the end goal. Life is full of surprises. One of the people that I’ve found myself closest to right now is my son’s former preschool teacher. Though she is 20 years older than I am and her children are grown, we share an underlying set of values and I am incredibly grateful to have her as a mentor and friend. But, honestly, I didn’t see it coming and it was years in the making.

  5. In my main circle of friends I have community and committed. There are 12 of us that are still best friends from high school (30 years on). Within that I would say I have 6 committed and 4 community and maybe 1 confirmed but I know that I could call on any of the community at any time.

    There was a while there where I felt maybe some of us were drifting apart but the private group thing on FB has been awesome for keeping us connected. We also have our own bank account where we put money in every fortnight and make sure we do things as a group at least every two months. We also ensure that we never just invite one specific group to do something it is posted on FB and anyone who can make it comes and if you can’t you can’t. That way it eliminates cliques even if you are closer with some than others.

    I have quite a few contact friends that I have met through the internet, university and work. Some of them are quite close due to shared interests and values but they don’t have that long term intimacy that I have developed over the years with my main group. But I feel very fortunate to have them in my life.

    All of it requires investment I suppose. I would be utterly lost without my core group. We call ourselves the wine glass club because a few us have mothers that have known each other since we were toddlers through the local toy library and they call themselves the tea towel club. It drives my husband mad and he thought by now we would be shot of each other (there have been fights over the years!) but we just get each other.

    After reading this I feel really thankful that my most full group is the committed / community circles. I have never really done a friend inventory before, they have just always been there.

  6. This is very interesting. I usually fail to move people from the left side of the circle to the right. I think part of the problem is my fear of rejection. It takes persistence and confidence to build a friendship. I think I’m too guarded most of the time. It’s easier to pretend like the friendship is just casual then to try and make it something more. Is this true for you too or do you feel like you really put yourself out there?

    1. I wonder sometimes if my fear of rejection causes me to pull back when I’m starting to make real connections with people. I am pretty good at putting myself out there, but I think a eventually hit a certain point where, if the reciprocity doesn’t seem to be happening, I just abandon my efforts completely. I’ve noticed myself doing that with a few friendships recently and I’ve pushed through that desire to stop attempting to see someone and declare the attempt a failure. It’s hard though because that is definitely my go-to response.

  7. I like the idea of these 5 types of friends, although the alliteration is kind of annoying (I’d rather they had names that described them better). And I love your analogy of a blog commenter who you occasionally FB message with (like me!) being similar to a colleague you occasionally get coffee with before heading home. I have friends who I see at synagogue who I might invite over (or they might invite me) for a Jewish holiday, but not for a random playdate. I guess that’s similar. And I think it explains why, despite your loyal commenters who love you, you still feel like you have “no friends.”

    I have a large number of people I’d consider friends, but there isn’t anybody I talk to or see regularly, except my sisters. My group of close friends has a standing date once a month (Community Friends, I guess, although I call them my best friends). And I have a lot of friends who I see only once every few months (also Community? or Confirmed?) I definitely have a large number of people in the Confirmed category, from college. I really do feel close to them no matter how much time has passed, but our communication is reduced to holiday cards and emails whenever there’s a major life event.

    This is really interesting stuff!

    1. I also find the names of the circles really arbitrary and have a hard time remembering a lot of them (Confirmed and Committed are the only ones that seem to stick for me).

      I wonder sometimes if the reason I have fewer friends is that I’m not a part of as many larger communities. One big one that seems missing from my life is a faith community and I’m really hoping that some day I can bring my kids into a Buddhist community nearby. I’m also thinking of taking some classes at a Buddhist center not far from me in hopes that I might meet someone and click with them. I do think faith communities are really powerful and I wish I were a part of one. I want to write more about that actually.

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