Aristotle was pretty perceptive about issues that still carry an urgency in modern times: Friends of utility, pleasure, and mutual admiration still exist, as are the respective styles of friendship that you might encounter over the course of a relationship. You can filter Aristotle’s concept through the lens of modern psychology to better understand what kinds of friends you have in your life, and which ones best suit your needs for fulfilling relationships.
What kinds of friendship are there?
A team of German psychologists did Aristotle one better in 2013, dividing the various types of friendships into four categories. The scholars Martina Miche, Oliver Huxhold, and Nan L. Stevens surveyed the relationships of nearly 2,000 adults between the ages of 40 and 85, finding that there are four distinct patterns that define adult friendships.
Those styles of friendship are:
- Discerning style of friendship: These are the closest styles of relationships. As the researchers wrote: “Friends were nonreplaceable and clearly distinguished from acquaintances. These people usually did not make new friends in late adulthood but kept their friends throughout life.”
- Independent style of friendship: Folks “content with having a few people for friendly interactions. Independent individuals shied away from establishing close or long-lasting friendships and let life circumstances determine their friendships.”
- Selectively acquisitive style of friendship: People “engaged in an ongoing endeavor to make new friends throughout the life course. Their friends could be both long-standing confidants and distant acquaintances.”
- Unconditionally acquisitive style of friendship: In contrast to selectively acquisitive friends, these relationships tend to have less emotional ties. This subsection tends to have the largest group of friends. As Psychology Today puts it: “Overall, this group is more about socializing than emotional support.”
This is more of an instinctual tendency than a conscious behavior. By being more aware of the kind of inclinations your friends have, you can learn how to better communicate with them, and to also temper certain expectations you might have.
How to understand your friends’ style
Sometimes it’s easy for friends to let you down, especially when you want a certain kind of relationship that they might be incapable of delivering. Presumably, most people might want the discerning style of friendship, in which a few close-knit individuals share a kind of unwavering bond. Those are relationships that are only forged over time, however, and if you have a few—or even one—of these dedicated friendships it’s likely that you’ll recognize it. These are people you can seek out for personal advice and whom you’d prefer candid moments with. You probably won’t want more than a couple of these kinds of friends—how many people are you ready to divulge your rawest feelings to?
The more independent types are probably a bit more comfortable with their own solitude—maybe they only show up every now and then when they’re craving a human connection. Even if you have a strong relationship with this kind of person forged over a number of years, you might not be able to depend on them for a consistent presence in your life. Maybe they don’t have the emotional bandwidth to have the odd heart-to-heart, and that’s OK—this kind of friend cares about your relationship, but might not be able to remain a constant fixture in your life, due to their own reclusive disposition.
Since most of us aren’t academic researchers, we’re prone to using different words for our friendships. More colloquially speaking, the people who fall into the acquisitive style of friendships are those you might call an acquaintance. Perhaps this person is a great drinking buddy, or you share a certain sense of humor and a few common interests, but beyond those casual connections there isn’t much else there. In this sense, don’t go searching for this kind of person for emotional support, or even help when you need a friendly favor—like moving a couch.
How to choose the best kind of friend for you
Choosing the best kind of friend to lean on in different situations starts with understanding which types of friends you have. These categories aren’t so much a blueprint for forging friendly bonds with anyone, but cues for helping you understand your current friends so you can match their strengths with what you’d like from them (and can expect from them) in your relationship. And understanding the depth of those relationships, in addition to their limits, will help you get the most from your friends.