Developing A Non-Hierarchical View of Friendships

Friendships are one of the most important things in our life, and I think that we could all benefit from re-evaluating how we think about them.

This article was tagged with: Loving Better

There are 2120 words in this article, and it will probably take you less than 11 minutes to read it.

This article was published 2023-11-27 00:00:00 -0500, which makes this post and me old when I published it.

Why non-hierarchical?

Relationship anarchy is the idea of questioning and breaking down the hierarchy of relationships within our life whether that be familial, platonic, or romantic. The hierarchy of relationships of course refers to how we value and imbue importance to the various relationships in your life, like having your romantic partner come before your friends. In this article I will focus primarily on providing a framework to think about friendships in a non-hierarchical manner. However, I think this framework could be adapted to fit other types of relationships as well with a bit of effort and extra thinking.

I wanted to first focus on friendship because I think that we unconsciously rank them because we have this grand notion of a “best friend”. You have your normal, regular friends, but then you have your “best friend”, who would do anything for you, and you would do anything for them. Some people only believe in having a single best friend, while others might have multiple best friends. As people, we have finite time and energy so it makes sense to prioritize relationships by what you get out of them, but I think that it is a mistake to not have a diverse set of types of friendships. Either way I think that these approaches to friendship push some relationships down and unconsciously makes you value them less. I think that in an age where loneliness is on the rise learning how to make friends is obviously an important thing to talk about, but we should also think about how to value and treasure them.

Ordinal vs Categorical Classification

Thinking about our friends doesn’t have to be ordinal (ranked/ordered), but instead should be categorical (grouped). Categorizing people is non-hierarchical, but ordering friends is hierarchical. Ranking is when you order a group of things by making comparisons based on the value of certain parameters, wherein the rank means that the object in a higher rank is better than the lower rank. In order to group things you still have to look at the value of a parameter, but one category will not be seen as better than the other. It is important to think of them as groups/categories/clusters, instead as levels or tiers because that is the hierarchical thinking at work. For example, a ranking of best restaurants may take under consideration include food, service, and ambiance. I think that this kind of thinking can be detrimental to friendships, and that they should be categorized, instead of ranked. Instead you should be thinking about groups of friends like friends that I can talk to about anything, friends that I like to see every once and awhile to catch up with, friends that I like to talk about my interests with, etc.

This change from ordinal to categorical grouping may seem small and mostly semantic, and while it is on the surface, I think it will allow people to stress less about the nature of their friendships and simply appreciate their friends more. Putting this into practice is incredibly simple, but very hard to start out doing. You can group your friends into categories but the key is to not make comparisons between the groups, as this is what starts to form a ranking/hierarchy. Instead, you just acknowledge the differences in the type of friends that you have, but appreciate them all for what they are. Under categorical classification, it is perfectly conceivable to have multiple “best friends” that you care about deeply in a similar enough amount that they would be able to be grouped together.

How should friendships NOT be categorized?

I think that traditional ways of evaluating friendships like emotional intimacy and time spent together are parameters that can easily lead into hierarchical thinking. These parameters are also not without their philosophical issues, so for both emotional intimacy and time spent together I will discuss the problems I think they have and present an alternative. It is important to note that these rehabilitated alternatives are still quantifiable and thus potentially hierarchical, so they still are not fit for use in categorizing friendships. I won’t say that they’re easy to quantify, but I think that there is a comparison function/a notion of ordering relationships by that parameter.

I don’t mean to say that you shouldn’t think about these kinds of things in regards to your friends, but I think it should be thought about on a more individual basis. To do this, you have to think about your relationship with the other person and if you are happy with it: the amount of intimacy, time spent together, or whatever other metric you may choose to consider. If you’re not happy, you can try to improve the relationship or try to put your energy into other relationships in your life. There is nothing wrong with that, not all friends are forever and sometimes people grow apart and are not as great a fit as they once were.

Emotional Closeness/Intimacy

Emotional closeness and/or intimacy are hard to define but it is usually something that is born out of feeling safe and secure with another person to be open and honest. The main way that this happens is through reciprocal voluntary self-disclosure, wherein one person tells someone else something about themself of their own volition and the other person is able to take that information and try to understand and see the other person better.

I think it would be both insensitive and incorrect to dismiss these kinds of relationships where you are not emotionally intimate with the other person. You don’t have to be able to tell the other person your deepest shame in order to have a fun or fulfilling relationship with them. I think that you should absolutely have a support system and have relationships in which you can have a sense of emotional intimacy, but I do not that think that every one of your friends has to be a part of that support system, and that does not make someone a greater/lesser friend for being a part/not a part of your support system.

Ability to Un-Mask/Be Authentic

I think that this is related to emotional closeness, but is importantly different. I think that it combines parts of being able to be your full authentic self while also being able to hang out without an activity. Some people say that “true friendship” status is achieved when you are able to just sit around with them and do nothing, or achieve parallel play where you are both doing your own thing without talking in the same room. I think that some friendships aren’t performative per se, but you do have to put your best foot forward and put a lot of effort in trying to connect and enjoy your time with the other person. Some people call these “activity” friends, where you always have to be doing something with them, or do a specific kind of activity with them.

I think that this sense of being able to be your truest self is a bit better of a metric than Emotional Closeness because it seems to be less vague. It is important to note that unmasking is not binary and there are degrees of authenticity meaning that this metric is also numeric and orderable thus allowing it to become hierarchical. I think there is a lot of moral worth in friendships that allow you to unmask, underlying the idea that being authentic is good and masking is bad. While I will definitely agree that masking all the time can have negative consequences for mental health and energy, I do not think that not being authentic all the time is an inherently bad thing.

Duration/Frequency of Time Spent Together

I think the categorization of friendships should solely be about frequency and duration of time spent with people. There are some people who you may want to check up with and hang out with once a quarter, once a month, once a week, or every day. I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with this, every person has something different to contribute.

One consequence of this view is that you have friends that you still care about, or have a lingering attachment to, but you don’t or can’t spend time with them anymore. The emotional closeness is probably still there; you just don’t know much of their lives anymore because you don’t see them as much. Under this view you would have to concede that without time spent together, it would not be a friendship. Maybe you could draw a distinction like practicing vs non-practicing friendship in order to preserve the idea of an old friend that you don’t talk to anymore, but for some, they would be able to bite this bullet and accept the fact that that person is no longer their friend.

Another objection to this view is that you can see someone every day at school and talk to them without really being deep friends, or have a best friend that you don’t get to spend that much time with. I think that the “school” friend case is somewhat convincing, but I don’t think that the best friend case is salient because I’m sure that they would be communicating via text or calling, where we would very much count virtual time communicating as time spent together.

Quality of Time Spent Together

One way to get around some of the downsides of the time spent together approach would be to instead focus on the quality of the time together, or how much you enjoy spending time with that person. You don’t have to enjoy the entire time spent with your friend, but it’s more about the general feeling on the whole.

I think that an interesting potential issue with this parameter is that you can enjoy time with someone more because it is fundamentally limited, as in, the joy of spending time with that person may be amplified slightly because it doesn’t happen as often. I don’t personally find this to be a problem though because there are a few friends that I really enjoy spending the time that we do together, but that I wouldn’t need to or want to spend more time with them. Maybe I would want to spend more time with them if I could, but not a significant amount more, I just appreciate our time together for what it is without a need for more.

How then should friendships be categorized?

The best candidate for grouping friendships that I have found has been something many of us have been doing all along: by Function or Location. In statistics this is called a categorical variable, sometimes known as a qualitative variable, as opposed to a quantitative variable (numeric). This is the best kind of variable for non-hierarchical thinking because there is no immediate way to order categorical variables, it requires the use of some other parameter.

However I think that we often use these kinds of categorizations to downplay the relationship. The concept of “school friends” comes to mind; a person who you would see in class everyday and have friendly conversations with, but would never hang out with them outside of school. Some people would say that that’s more of their acquaintance and not their “real friend”, but I would absolutely argue that school friends are a type of friendship, a very important one at that.

Function (“This is my friend I do X with”): A person who you may talk about a few specific interests/topics or do certain kinds of activities with.

  • Talk about anime together
  • Show and talk about art together
  • Go out drinking together

Location (“This is my friend from X”): A person who you know from a particular place.

  • Work
  • School
  • Sport/organized activity
  • Family friend

What to Take Away From This Article

After reading this article I don’t mind if you don’t adopt a categorical grouping approach to thinking about friendships, as long as you take some time to think about how you value your various friendships. The way that we think and talk about friendships has a great effect on our life, so it would only make sense to examine it. Friendships come in all kinds of forms and I think it would be best for all of us to appreciate them for what they are. Your friendships and other relationships in your life make up your support system and I think if you have less friends/only lean on your best friends it makes us expect more out of our friends which may be unhelpful, unfair, or unsustainable to them/us.

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