Friendships, like most relationships, have a life span ranging from the start, to maintenance, to the end; with various turning points along the way.
While there are developmental stages in friendships, they may not be experienced linearly–friends can cycle through formation, maintenance, and deterioration/dissolution together or separately and may experience stages multiple times.
Friendships are also diverse, in that not all develop the same level of closeness, and the level of closeness can fluctuate over the course of a friendship. Changes in closeness can be an expected and accepted part of the cycle of friendships, and less closeness doesn’t necessarily lead to less satisfaction.
The formation process involves two people moving from strangers toward acquaintances and potentially friends. Several factors influence the formation of friendships, including environmental, situational, individual, and interactional factors.
Environmental factors lead us to have more day-to-day contact with some people over others. For example, residential proximity and sharing a workplace are catalysts for friendship formation. Thinking back to your childhood, you may have had early friendships with people on your block because they were close by and you could spend time together easily without needing transportation. A similar situation may have occurred later if you moved away from home for college and lived in a residence hall.
You may have formed early relationships, perhaps even before classes started, with hall-mates or dorm-mates. I’ve noticed that many students will continue to associate and maybe even attempt to live close to friends they made in their first residence hall throughout their college years, even as they move residence halls or off campus. We also find friends through the social networks of existing friends and family. Although these people may not live close to us, they are brought into proximity through people we know, which facilitates our ability to spend time with them. Encountering someone due to environmental factors may lead to a friendship if the situational factors are favorable.
The main situational factor in forming friendships is availability. Initially, we’re more likely to be interested in a friendship if we anticipate that we’ll be able to interact with the other person again in the future without expending more effort than our schedule and other obligations will allow. For a friendship to take off, both parties need resources such as time and energy to put into it. Hectic work schedules, family obligations, or personal stresses such as financial problems or family or relational conflict may impair someone’s ability to nurture a friendship.
The number of friends we have at any given point is a situational factor that also affects whether or not we are actually looking to add new friends. Environmental and situational factors that relate to friendship formation point to the fact that convenience plays a large role in determining whether a relationship will progress or not.
Individual and interactional factors
While contact and availability may initiate communication with a potential friend, individual and interactional factors are also important. We are more likely to develop friendships with individuals we deem physically attractive, socially competent, and responsive to our needs. Specifically, we’re more attracted to people we deem similar to or slightly above us in terms of attractiveness and competence. Although physical attractiveness is more important in romantic relationships, research shows that we evaluate attractive people more positively, which may influence our willingness to invest more in a friendship.
Friendships also tend to form between people with similar demographic characteristics such as race, gender, age, and class, and similar personal characteristics like interests and values. Being socially competent and responsive in terms of empathy, emotion management, conflict management, and self-disclosure also contribute to the likelihood of friendship development.
New friends will need to maintain their relationship. This phase includes the most variation in terms of the processes, commitment, and how long this phase lasts. Some friendships require more maintenance in terms of shared time together and emotional support than other friendships that can be maintained with only occasional contact.
Maintenance is important, because friendships provide important opportunities for social support that take the place of or supplement family and romantic relationships. Sometimes, we may feel more comfortable being open with a friend about something than we would with a family member or romantic partner. Most people expect that friends will be there for them when needed, which is the basis of friendship maintenance. As with other relationships, tasks that help maintain friendships range from being there in a crisis to seemingly mundane day-to-day activities and interactions.
Adapted from Communication in the Real World