Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

10.2: Stages and Types of Friendships

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)\(\newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    Learning Outcomes
    • Differentiate among Rawlins’ seven stages of friendships.
    • Evaluate Matthews three basic types of friendships.
    • Compare and contrast healthy and unhealthy friendships.

    In Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s musical, Merrily We Roll Along, the story follows the careers and friendships of three people trying to make it in New York City. One song in the show has always stuck out because of its insightful message about friendship, “Hey Old Friends.” In the musical, three friends Mary, Charlie, and Frank get together after not having seen each other for a while. The purpose of the song is to discuss how some friendships can persist even when we aren’t in each other’s lives daily. You can see a clip from the rehearsal at the New York City Center’s Encore’s production starring Celia Keenan-Bolger (Mary), Colin Donnell (Frank) and Lin-Manuel Miranda (Charley). In this short song, we learn a lot about the nature of this group’s friendship and their enduring desire to be close to one another through the ins and outs of life. This section of the chapter is going to examine the stages that friendships through, the types of friendships we have, and healthy vs. unhealthy friendships.

    Stages of Friendships

    As we’ve already discussed, friendships are not static relationships we’re born with. Instead, these relationships are dynamic, and we grow with them. To help us understand how we ultimately form friendships, William Rawlins broke this process into seven stages of friendships (Figure 1).30

    49602101806_855193a2bf_w (1).jpg
    Figure 1: Stages of Friendship

    Role Delimited Interaction

    The first stage of friendship is called role delimited interaction. The basic idea behind this stage is that we all exist in a wide range of roles within our lives: shopper, salesperson, patient, driver, student, parent/ guardian, spouse, etc. In each of these different roles, we end up interacting with a wide range of different people. For example, imagine you’re just sitting down in a new class in college, and you talk to the stranger sitting next to you named Adilah. In this case, you are both interacting within your roles as students. Outside of those roles and that context, you may never meet and never have the opportunity even to develop a social relationship with this other person. This does not discount the possibility of random, chance encounters with other people. Still, most of our interpersonal relationships (outside of our family) stem from these roles and the communicative contexts they present.

    Friendly Relations

    From role delimited interaction, we may decide to move to the second stage of friendship, friendly relations. These relations are generally positive interactions, but they still exist within those same roles. In our example, we start chatting with Adilah before the beginning of each class. At this point, though, most of our interactions are still going to be within those roles, so we end up talking about the class, fellow students, the teacher, homework assignments, etc. Notice that there is not a lot of actual self-disclosure happening within friendly relations. Some people can maintain friendly relations with others for years. For example, you may interact with coworkers, religious association members, and neighbors within this type of relationship without them ever progressing to the next stage of friendship. According to Rawlins, friendly relationships move towards friendships because they start to exhibit four specific communication behaviors:

    1. moves away from what is required in the specific role relationship,
    2. fewer stereotyped lines of interaction,
    3. individual violations of public propriety, and
    4. greater spontaneity.31

    First, we start interacting in a manner that doesn’t resemble the original roles we had. In our example, we start interacting in a manner that doesn’t resemble the roles of students when they first meet. Second, we move away from lines of communication that are stereotypes for our roles. For example, some possible stereotyped lines for two students could include, “what did you think of the homework;” “did you bring your book with you today;” “see you next class;” etc. In each of these lines, we enact dialogue that is expected (or stereotyped) within the context of the class itself. Third, more of our normal selves will start to seep into our interactions, which are called violations of public propriety. Maybe one day Adilah turns to you before class, saying, “That reading for homework was such a waste of time.” In this case, Adilah is giving you a bit more insight into who she is as a person “These violations of public propriety single an individual out as having an essential side which is not so easily circumscribed by the protocol of a situation.”32 Lastly, we see increased spontaneity in our interactions with the other person. Over time, these interactions, although still interacting within their formal roles, take on more social and less formalized tones. Maybe one day Adilah tells you a joke or shares a piece of gossip she heard. In this case, Adilah is starting to be more spontaneous and less structured in her interactions.


    At some point, people decide to interact with one another outside of the roles they originally embodied when they initially met. This change in roles is a voluntary change. In our example, maybe one day Adilah invites you to get coffee after class, and then another day, you ask her to get lunch before class. Although it’s possible that a single step outside of those roles could be enough that a friendly relation is moving towards a friendship, there is generally a sequence of these occurrences. In our example here, Adilah may have made the first move inviting us to coffee, but we then reciprocated later by asking her to lunch. In both of these cases, we are starting to step outside of the original friendly relation and changing the nature of our original interactions.

    Nascent Friendship

    When one enters into the nascent stage of friendship, the friends are no longer interacting within their original roles, and their interactions do not follow the stereotypes associated with those roles. Eventually, we start to develop norms for how we communicate with this other person that are beyond those original roles and stereotypes. Ultimately, this stage is all about developing those norms. We develop norms for what we talk about, when we talk, and how we talk. Maybe Adilah makes it very clear that she doesn’t want to talk about politics or religion, and we’re perfectly OK with that. Maybe we keep the bulk of our interaction before and after class, or we start having lunch together before class or coffee after class. The norms will differ from friendship to friendship, but these norms allow us to set parameters on the relationship in this early stage. These norms are also important because keeping them demonstrates that we can be trusted. And when we show we can be trusted over time, the level of intimacy we can develop within our relationship also increases.

    It’s also during this period that others start to see you more and more as a pair of friends, and external forces may begin to impact the development of your friendship as well. In our case, maybe Adilah has a sister who also goes to the school, so she starts hanging out with both of you from time to time. Maybe we have a significant other, and he/she/they start hanging out as well. Even though we may have these distractions, we must keep faithful to the original friendship. For example, if we start spending more time with Adilah’s sister than Adilah, then we aren’t faithful to the original friendship. Eventually, the friendship crystalizes, and others start to see the two friends as a pair. One of our coauthors had a friend in graduate school, and it was very common for people to ask the friend when our coauthor couldn’t be found or ask the coauthor when the friend couldn’t be found. Friends in the nascent state are seen increasingly as a “duo.”

    Stabilized Friendship

    Ultimately nascent friendships evolve into stabilized friendships through time and refinement. It’s not like one day you wake up and go, “My friendship has stabilized!” It’s much more gradual than that. We get to the point where our developed norms and interaction patterns for the friendship are functioning optimally for both parties, and the friendship is working smoothly. In nascent friendships, the focus is on the duo and developing the friendship. In stabilization, we often bring in new friends. For example, if we had found out that Adilah had coffee with another person from our class during the nascent stage of friendship, we may have felt a bit hurt or jealous of this outsider intruding on our growing friendship. As stabilized friends, we realize that Adilah having coffee with someone else isn’t going to impact the strength of the relationship we already have. If anything, maybe Adilah will find other friends to grow the friendship circle. However, like any relationship, both parties still must make an effort to make the friendship work. We need to reaffirm our friendships, spend time with our friends, and maintain that balance of equity we discussed earlier in this chapter.

    Rawlins also notes that friendships in the stabilized stage can represent three different basic patterns: active, dormant, and commemorative.33 Active friendships are ones where there is a negotiated sense of mutual accessibility and availability for both parties in the friendship. Dormant friendships “share either a valued history or a sufficient amount of sustained contact to anticipate or remain eligible for a resumption of the friendship at any time.”34 These friends may not be ones we interact with every day, but they are still very much alive and could take on new meaning and grow back into an active friendship if the time arises. Commemorative friendships are ones that reflect a specific space and time in our lives, but current interaction is minimal and primarily reflects a time when the two friends were highly involved in each other’s lives. With commemorative friendships, we still see ourselves as friends even though we don’t have the consistent interaction that active friendships have.

    In a study conducted by Sara LaBelle and Scott Myers, the researchers set out to determine what types of relational maintenance strategies people use to keep their friendships going across the three different types of friendship patterns (active, dormant, & commemorative).35 Using the seven relational maintenance behaviors noted by Laura Stafford (positivity, understanding, self-disclosure, relationship talks, assurances, tasks, & networks),36 the researchers recruited participants over the age of 30 to examine the intersection of relational maintenance and friendship types. All three friendship types use positivity, relational talks, and networks related to relational maintenance to some degree. However, active friendships were more likely than commemorative friendships to use understanding, self-disclosure, assurances, and tasks to maintain their friendships. No differences were seen in relational maintenance strategies between active and dormant friendships nor dormant friendships and commemorative friendships.

    Waning Friendship

    Unfortunately, some friendships will not last. There are many reasons why friendships may start to wane or decrease in importance in our lives. There are three primary reasons Rawlins discusses as causes: “an overall decline in affect, an individual or mutual decision to let it wane based on identifiable dissatisfaction with the relationship, or a significant, negative, relational event which precipitates an abrupt termination of the friendship.”37 First, some relationships wane because there is a decrease in emotional attachment. Some friends stop putting in the time and effort to keep the friendship going, so it’s not surprising that there is a decrease in emotional attachments. Second, both parties may become dissatisfied with the relationship and decide to take a hiatus or spend more time with other friends. Lastly, some relationship-destroying event could happen. For example, you find out that Adilah had an affair with your romantic partner. Adilah broke a promise to you or told someone one of your secrets. Adilah started yelling at you for no reason and physically assaulted you. Each of these events would most likely destroy your friendship.

    A wide range of different events could end a friendship. In a study conducted by a team of researchers led by Amy Janan Johnson, the researchers interviewed college students about why their friendships had terminated.38 The most common reasons listed for why relationships fell apart were 1) romantic partner of self or friend, 2) increase in geographic distance, 3) conflict, 4) not many common interests, 5) hanging out with different groups or different friends, and 6) other. Interestingly, females and males in the study did report differences in the likelihood that these five reasons led to deterioration. Females reported that conflict was a greater reason for friendship deterioration than males. And males reported not having many common interests was a greater reason for friendship deterioration than females. Females and males did not differ in the other three categories. It’s important to note, that while this set of findings is interesting, it was conducted among college students, so it may not apply to older adults.


    The final stage of the friendship is what happens after the friendship is over. Even if a friendship ended on a horrible note, there are still parts of that friendship that will remain with us forever, impacting how we interact with friends and perceive friendships. You may even have symbolic links to your friends: the nightclubs you went to, the courses you took together, the coffee shops you frequented, the movies you watched, etc. all are links back to that friendship. It’s also possible that the friendship ended on a positive note and you still periodically say hello on Facebook or during the holidays through card exchanges. Just as all friendships are unique, so are their experiences of post-friendship reality.

    Friendship Styles

    Beyond the stages of friendship development, different people develop different types of friendship throughout their lifetime. Sarah H. Matthews noted that ultimately people have three basic types of friendships: independent, discerning, and acquisitive (as seen in Figure 2).39

    49601602228_39ff3f931c_w (1).jpg
    Figure 2: Friendship Styles


    In her study, Matthews found that independents often saw their friendships based on specific circumstances in their lives and not necessarily specific friends. When talking about friends, independents were more likely to about “people they knew” or “people they had known,” not reflecting on specific names. Independents were more likely to mention specific names when they talked about people they were interacting with currently. For example, independents talked about friends during periods of their life (e.g., elementary school, junior high/middle-school, high school, college) and not about specific people they knew for long periods of life. Matthews argues that independents framed their concepts of friendships regarding major life events. They also never reported having a close, special, or best friend relationship, so during periods of major life events, they didn’t have specific commitments to the people they called “friends.” Independents were also more likely to talk about friends as a general concept instead of specific friends. Comparing independents to the stages of friendship discussed by Rawlins, you can consider these to be more along the lines of “friendly relations.” Matthews chose the term “independents” because it reflects a more autonomous state, “It was clear that most of them were not isolated people, but instead considered themselves to be sufficient unto themselves.”40


    The second type of friendship discussed by Matthews was the discerning style, which, unlike independents, is marked by a deep connection with a friend or group of friends regardless of changing circumstances in their lives. These friendships are marked by deep commitment and longevity, which also means that when a discerning person loses a friend, they are the most likely to experience a deep sense of loss in their lives. Discerners were also more likely to draw clear lines between friendly relations and friendship. Overall, “the discerning identified … only a very few people throughout their lives whom they considered friends. Although not all of these informants had kept these friendships, those who had, valued them highly.”41


    The final friendship style discussed by Matthews is the acquisitive style. Acquisitives are “people who moved through their lives collecting a variety of friendships, allowing circumstances to make possible the meeting of likely candidates, but then, committing themselves to the friendships once they were made, at the very least for the period of time during which they and their friends were geographically proximate.”42 Unlike the independents, acquisitives discussed having close connections with all of the friends they’ve met, and unlike the discerning, acquisitives were open to developing new friendships throughout their lives. In essence, these individuals develop a strong, core group of friends as they go throughout their lives while acquiring new ones depending on changes within their lives.

    Good and Bad Friendships

    Another system for understanding friendships is to think of them with regard to two basic psychological constructs: health and enjoyment. First, is the relationship a healthy one for you to have? Although this is a concept that is more commonly discussed in romantic relationships, friendships can also be healthy or unhealthy (Table 1).

    Table 1: Healthy vs. Unhealthy Friendships
    Healthy Unhealthy
    Mutual respect Contempt
    Trust Suspicion
    Honesty Untruthful
    Support Hinder
    Fairness/Equality Unjust/Inequality
    Separate Identities Intertwined Identities
    Open Communication Closed Communication
    Playfulness/Fondness Sober/Animus
    Self-Esteem Enhancing Self-Esteem Destroying
    Fulfilling Depressing
    Acceptance Combative
    Affectionate/Loving Cold/Indifferent
    Comforting Stressful
    Genuine/Benevolent Manipulative/Exploitive
    Beneficial Damaging
    Healthful Toxic

    In addition to the health of a friendship, you must also question if the friendship is something that is ultimately enjoyable to you as a person. Does this friendship give you meaning of some kind? Ultimately, we can break this down into four distinct types of friendship experiences people may have (Figure 3).

    Figure 3: Four Types of Friendships

    Ideal Friendship

    The first category we label as “ideal friends” because these relationships are both healthy and enjoyable. In an ideal world, the majority of our relationships would fall into the category of ideal friendships.

    Waning Friendship

    The second category we label as “waning friendship” because these friendships are still healthy but not enjoyable anymore. Chances are, this friendship was an ideal friendship at some point and has started to become less enjoyable over time. There’s a wide range of reasons why friendships may stop being enjoyable. It’s possible that you no longer have the time to invest in the friendship, so you find yourself regretting the amount of time and energy that’s necessary to keep the friendship afloat.

    Problematic Friendship

    The third category of friendship, classified as problematic friendships, is tricky because these are enjoyable but not healthy for us. Ultimately, the friend we have could be a lot of fun to hang out with, but they also could be more damaging to us as people. Instead of supporting us, they make fun of us. Instead of treating us as equals, they hold all the power in the relationship. Instead of being honest, we always know they’re lying to us. Ultimately, we must question why we decide to stay in these relationships.

    Deviant Friendship

    The final category of friendships we may have is deviant friendships, more commonly referred to as toxic friendships. For our purposes here, we use the term “deviant” because it refers to any behavior that violates behavioral norms. In this case, any friendship situation that is clearly outside the parameters of what is a healthy and enjoyable friendship is not the norm. Unfortunately, some people get so stuck in these friendships that they stop realizing that these friendships aren’t normal at all. Other people may think that their deviant friendships are the only kinds of friendships they can get and/or deserve. It’s entirely possible that a deviant friendship started as perfectly healthy and normal, but often these were somewhat problematic in their early stages and eventually progressed into fully deviant friendships.

    Deviant Friends:

    • Use criticism and insults as weapons
    • Use guilt to get you to cave-in to their desires and whims
    • Immediately assume you’re lying (probably because they are)
    • Disclose your personal secrets
    • Are very gossipy about others, and are probably gossipy about you as well
    • Only care about their own desires and needs
    • Use your emotions as weapons to attack you psychologically
    • Pass judgment on you and your ideas based on their own with little flexibility
    • Are stuck up and only really turn to you when they need you
    • Can be obsessively needy, but then are very hard to please
    • Are inconsistent, so predicting how they will think or behave can be very hard if not impossible
    • Put you in competition with their other friends for affection and attention
    • Conversations tend to be all about them and their desires and needs
    • Make you feel that being your friend is a chore for them
    • Make you feel as if you’ve lost control over your own life and choices
    • Cross major relationship boundaries and violate relationship norms without apology
    • Express their jealousy of your other friendships and relationships
    Key Takeaways
    • Rawlins proposed that friendships go through seven distinct stages. The first stage, role delimited interaction, is where we interact with a broad range of people within specific roles we play in life. The second stage, friendly relations, occurs when we have continuous positive interactions with someone, but the interactions still exist within those same roles. The third stage, moves-toward-friendship, occurs when people decide to interact with one another outside of the roles they originally embodied when they initially met. The fourth stage, nascent friendship, occurs when the friends are no longer interacting within their original roles, and their interactions do not follow the stereotypes associated with those roles. The fifth stage, stabilized friendship, reflects friendships that have developed norms and interaction patterns that are functioning optimally for both parties, and the friendship is working smoothly. The sixth stage, waning friendship, occurs when a friendship decreases in importance in our lives. The final stage, post-friendship, occurs after a friendship has been terminated.
    • Sarah H. Matthews proposed three basic types of friendships that people have: independent, discerning, and acquisitive. Independents see friendships based on specific circumstances in their lives and not necessarily on specific friends. Discerning friendships are marked by a deep connection with a friend or group of friends regardless of changing circumstances in their lives. Lastly, acquisitive individuals develop a strong, core group of friends as they go throughout their lives while acquiring new ones depending on changes within their lives.
    • To understand healthy versus unhealthy friendships, it’s also important to consider whether an individual finds that relationship enjoyable or unenjoyable. People who are in a healthy and enjoyable friendship are in an ideal friendship. Individuals who are in a healthy friendship that is unenjoyable are in a waning friendship. People who are in unhealthy friendships that are enjoyable are in a problematic friendship. Lastly, people who are in unhealthy friendships that are unenjoyable are in a deviant friendship.
    • Think back on a friendship that you no longer have. Take that friendship through all seven of Rawlins’ friendship stages. How did you decide when the friendship entered into a new stage?
    • Think about your patterns of friendships in your life. Based on the information you learned from Matthews, what type of friendship style do you have? What made you decide that this friendship style most accurately reflects your approach to friendships?
    • Thinking about the intersection of healthy friendships and enjoyability, think of one friendship from your own life (past or present) that fits into each category. After coming up with four friendships, differentiate among the four friendships and their outcomes.

    This page titled 10.2: Stages and Types of Friendships is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Jason S. Wrench, Narissra M. Punyanunt-Carter & Katherine S. Thweatt (OpenSUNY) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.