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11.2: Friendships

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    • Define the concept of friendship and discuss characteristics that are common to many friendships.
    • Describe the basic phases of friendship.
    • Explain how Knapp’s relationship model can be used to describe different stages of friendship.
    • Discuss potential communication issues that may occur in friendships.


    Scholars have studied friendship for a very long time. One of the earliest writings on friendship dates back to almost 2,400 years ago. During this time, a Greek philosopher named Aristotle describes friendship as an important type of interpersonal relationship that provides value to our lives. His identified three kinds of friendship: friendships of utility, pleasure and virtue (Nichomachean Ethics, Book VIII).

    Nowadays, interpersonal communication scholars have studied various aspects of friendships and how they funtion. How important are friends? Why do some people come into our lives for a relatively short period of time, while others seem to last a lifetime? In this module, we will explore the concept of friendship, different phases a friendship may go through and relational issues that may emerge in a friendship.

    Defining friendship

    What is a friend? Our definition of friendship and the qualities we look for in a friend may differ. Some of us may say a friend is someone we talk to or do activities with on a regular basis. Others may say a friend is someone we can trust or who helps us when we need it. Friendships are personal and dependent on many factors. In this section, we’ll consider different ways a friendship may defined and several common characteristics.

    A friendship is a voluntary interpersonal relationship between two people characterized by mutual affection and influence (Rawlins, 2017). Although friendships may vary from person to person, research suggests there are three types of friendship commonly found in adulthood: reciprocal, associative and receptive (VanLear, C.A. et al., 2006).

    Reciprocal friendships occur when two people (who are peers) develop a friendship that is based on mutual loyalty and commitment. These friendships develop over time and adapt well to external changes (i.e., geographic separation, a job change, a change in a romantic relationship or family life, etc.).

    Associative friendships occur when two people (usually acquaintances) develop a friendship based on mutual pleasure. These friendships develop out of convenience and lack the commitment reciprocal friends share.

    Receptive friendships occur when two people (who are not equals) develop a friendship (i.e., a supervisor and subordinate). In some cases, this type of friendship can be mutually beneficial, but it can also become caustic if the person with more power tries to dominate the relationship.

    Characteristics of Friendship

    Friendships are sometimes described as vulnerable relationships because they are voluntary in nature and based on the availability and mutual interests of others. Research suggests that five characteristics defined friendship: voluntary, mutual, personal, affectionate and equality (Rawlins, 2017). You can see each characteristic of friendship summarized in Figure 1 below.

    Characteristics Description
    Friendships are voluntary. We choose our friends and they choose us. The same sentiment is true for ending friendships.
    Friendships are mutual. We have the ability to influence our friends and they have the ability to influence us.
    Friendships are personal. We know and trust our friends and they know and trust us.
    Friendships are affectionate. We care about our friends and they care about us.
    Friendships are equal We balance our needs with the needs of our friends. While friends may not be equal in everything, power is evenly distributed.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Characteristics of Friendships

    Phases of friendship

    Like other types of relationships, friendships move through several phases from formation and maintenance to deterioration and dissolution. The evolution of a friendship can be difficult to define. Each friend may view the friendship a little differently (and may even progress through the phases of friendship at different rates).

    Some friendships may last a long time, others may dissolve more quickly. Some friends will be close, while others may be more distant. Many friendships will fluctuate between close and distant at different points the friendship (Johnson et al., 2003). In this section, we will examine basic phases of friendship.


    A friendship forms when two people move from strangers/acquaintances to potential friends through interpersonal interactions (Bleizer & Adams, 1992). Many factors may influence this process (Fehr, 2000):

    • Environmental factors: We are more likely to become friends with people we are around (i.e., live near or work with).
    • Situational factors: We are more likely to become friends with people who are available (i.e., we have a mutual interest in being friends).
    • Interactional factors: We are more likely to become friends with people we think are physically attractive, socially appropriate and receptive to our needs.
    • Additional factors: We are more likely to become friends with people who are similar. These factors could range from demographic characteristics to conflict management styles or levels of self-disclosure.


    When a friendship is established, there are several processes it may go through to maintain the relationship. These processes will vary depending on the people involved and level of commitment each person has to the friendship. Some friendships will require more interactions and emotional support than others.


    When we fail to maintain our friendship, the relationship may move toward deterioration and possible dissolution. There are many reasons why a friendship may move into these phases, common causes include (Bleiszner & Adams, 1992):

    • Voluntary: We had a huge fight with our friend and the conflict remains unresolved.
    • Involuntary: Our friend dies, so our friendship cannot continue.
    • External: Our commitments change, and we no longer have time to maintain our friendship.
    • Internal: We don’t trust our friend and aren’t sure we can continue to be friends.

    In this section, we examined the basic phases of friendship. Now we’re going to expand this framework by exploring in more detail the processes a relationship goes through and how those processes relate to friendships.

    Applying Knapp’s Relational Development Model

    Knapp (1978) developed a model to describe the different stages a relationship moves through. He categorized these stages into two phases: escalation and termination. Taken together, this model is a useful tool that may help us to understand the cycle of friendship (Knapp, Vangelisti & Caughlin, 2014).

    Phase Stage Definition
    Escalation (Coming Together) Initiating Occurs when people meet and interact for the first time.
    Experimenting Occurs when people learn more about each other through conversation
    Intensifying Occurs when people move from being acquaintances to friends.
    Integrating Occurs when partners form a strong commitment to the relationship
    Bonding Occurs when partners announce their commitment to each other publicly.
    Termination (Coming Apart) Differentiating Occurs when partners begin to see their differences as undesirable
    Circumscribing Occurs the quality/quantity of communication between partners decreases.
    Stagnating Occurs when partners are not communicating with each other as frequently.
    Avoiding Occurs when partners create a physical and emotional separation from each other.
    Terminating Occurs when the relationship is official over.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Knapp’s Relational Development Model

    Let’s look at an example to see how this theory relates to friendship.

    Escalation Phase

    Riley and Avery are in college. They met each other as freshmen in a Psychology class. Riley noticed that Avery was a good student who always seemed to be taking notes. She appeared to be well dressed, and Riley really liked her bag. When Riley approached Avery after class, they seemed to click. This initial favorable impression is called the initiation stage.

    The next week after class, Avery asked Riley if she was interested in attending a lecture series with her on Thursday. She was excited to find out Riley was already planning to attend the event. They decided to meet a few minutes before so they could sit together. This is the experimentation stage, when common interests are explored and both people get to know each other better.

    A few weeks later, it seems like Riley and Avery are good friends. They seemed to know a lot about one another. They laughed often and seemed to have a lot in common. Riley and Avery have moved into the intensifying stage where they reveal more personal information about themselves and interact in less formal ways.

    As intimacy in the friendship increases, Riley and Avery move into the integration stage. At this point they seem to share a lot with each other. When Riley ended a high school romantic relationship, Avery was there to cheer her up. When Avery wanted to go to a party, she knew she had a friend who would go with her.

    By the end of their freshman year, everyone (who didn’t know them before) thought they were childhood friends. Riley and Avery are now in the bonding stage of their friendship.

    While some friendships may stay in one stage or another of the escalation phase, some friendships may wander to the termination phase. This doesn’t mean the friendship is necessarily doomed (yet).

    Termination Phase

    When Riley and Avery come back to college for their sophomore year, a few things have changed. Riley has a new significant other who lives nearby. Avery accepted a prestigious internship on campus and is spending most of her free time there.

    When Riley decides she wants to go to the home football game on Saturday, her first thought (or second thought) isn’t to invite Avery. Instead she decides to go with her boyfriend and his fraternity brothers. When the friendship starts to fade and people begin to think more individually, they are in the differentiation stage.

    A few weeks later, Riley and Avery barely noticed that they haven’t talked to each other in several weeks. Avery is still upset about the last time they saw each other. When Riley made a comment she didn’t appreciate, the relationship had become strained. She was just fine with a little space between them.

    Riley, on the other hand, could not believe how touchy Avery seemed to be and wanted her space, too. They are now in the circumscribing stage where friends limit their conversation and set communication boundaries.

    At some point, Riley and Avery talk, but they are both busy doing other things. Their friendship isn’t the priority it once was. As communication becomes more limited, they move into the stagnation stage.

    Several weeks go by and they don’t see each other at all. They don’t seem to care much for each other anymore. One day, they happen to be in the cafeteria at the same time. They both see each other, but intentionally avoid making eye contact. At this point, Riley and Avery have moved into the avoidance stage.

    Eventually, they move on with their lives. They no longer view themselves as friends. When Riley and Avery get to this point, their friendship reaches the termination stage.

    In this example, Riley and Avery moved through each stage in the relational model (from initiation to termination). This may not be true for all friendships. Some may never cross over into the termination phase. Others may move into the termination phase but return to an earlier stage instead of moving toward an ending. It really depends on the people and situations involved.

    Communication Issues in Friendships

    As the example in the last section described, there are many ways a friendship can move toward termination. It usually doesn’t happen overnight. Many of the issues that emerge in friendships have a communication component. This section will focus on common communication issues in friendships.


    Each person comes into a friendship with certain expectations. Sometimes those expectations align and sometimes there are differences. Differing expectations can be problematic if they are not discussed and agreed upon. Expectations may also change over time. What was acceptable in high school may not be acceptable in college or as an adult. When expectations change a friendship will need to adapt or move toward the termination phase described above.

    Gender differences

    Men and women communicate differently. Male friendships tend to focus more on shared activities, such as golfing after work on Fridays. Female friendships are generally characterized by shared conversation. Two female friends may prefer to sit on the patio, drink a glass of wine, and talk about their week on Friday evening. When a male is friends with a female, differing expectations may be more challenging to the friendship. At the same time, it may also be viewed as a benefit (the female may enjoy doing activities and/or the male may like that he has someone to talk to about his day).

    Power Dynamics

    If there is an unequal power distribution in the friendship, many issues may emerge. For a friendship to thrive both people need to feel like they have some power in the relationship. When one person attempts to be in charge or control things by tell the other person (through words and deeds) that they are constantly wrong. Even with the most patient person, this will eventually become a problem.

    Social media

    Friends on social media platforms can be a great way to stay connected with people you no longer live near. But it can also present some challenges. Is a friend on social media that you never talk to otherwise really your friend? It depends on how you want to define a friend. There have also been many things written on the effects of social media that can range from a person being upset when friends don’t “like” a post to harassment and cyber bullying. Balancing the benefits of using social media to maintain friendships against the challenges is something we each need to do for ourselves.


    Friendships are important interpersonal relationships. They may be more important to us because they are voluntary and personal (we choose our friends and they choose us). Friends can shape our lives in many ways and help us to define our priorities. They cheer us on and celebrate our successes or support us when we face challenges. We do the same for our friends. Aristotle (1906) best summarizes the value of friendship when he wrote:

    We need friends when we are young to keep us from error, when we get old to tend upon us and to carry out those plans which we have not the strength to execute ourselves, and in the prime of life to help us in noble deeds – ‘two together’ [as Homer says]; for thus we are more efficient both in thought and in action (p. 251).


    Activity 1: Good Friends

    In small groups, create a guidebook on friendship. Your group should create a list of ten attributes that a good friend exhibits and describe how to assess whether a potential friend has these attributes. Mark each attribute as “must have,” “nice to have” or “optional.”

    Then create a list of five challenges to maintaining a friendship and describe how to avoid each challenge (or determine when each challenge cannot be overcome).

    Be prepared to share your guidebook with the class and explain how your group made decisions about what would go into your guidebook.

    Activity 2: TV Friendships

    Discuss your favorite television show. (Friends, Big Bang Theory are good examples). What type of communication issues do you notice in the friendships on the show? Describe how Knapp’s relational model relates to the characters.


    Aristotle. (1906). The nichomachean ethics (F.H. Peters, Trans.). HardPress Publishing.

    Aquileana. (2014). Aristotle’s nichomachean ethics: “Three types of friendship” (based on utility, pleasure and goodness). Retrieved from

    Bleiszner, R., & Adams, R.G. (1992). Adult friendship. SAGE Publishing.

    Communication Theory. (n.d.). Knapp’s relationship model. Retrieved from

    Fehr, B. (2000). The life cycle of friendship. In C. Hendricks, & S.S. Hendricks (Eds.), Close relationships: A sourcebook (pp. 71-74). SAGE Publishing.

    Helm, B. (2017). Friendship. Retrieved from

    Johnson, A.J, Wittenberg, E., Villagran, M.M, Mazur, M., & Villagran, P. (2003). Relational progression as a dialectic: Examining turning points in communication among friends. Communication Monographs, 70(3): 230-249.

    Knapp, M.L. (1978). Social intercourse: From greeting to goodbye. Allyn and Bacon.

    Knapp, M.L, Vangelisti, A.L., & Caughlin, J.P. (2014). Interpersonal communication and human relationships (7th edition). Pearson.

    Liebendorfer, A. (2020). Just between friends. Retrieved from

    Rawlins, W.K. (2017). Friendship matters: Communication, dialectics, and life course.Routledge.

    VanLear, C.A., Koerner, A., & Allen, D.M. (2006). Relationship typologies. In A.L. Vangelisti, & D. Perlman (Eds.), The Cambridge handbook of personal relationships (pp. 91-110). Cambridge University Press.


    Friendship is a voluntary interpersonal relationship between two people characterized by mutual affection and influence.

    This page titled 11.2: Friendships is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Daniel Usera & contributing authors.

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