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Definition And Characteristics

Unlike other important relationships, friendship is not defined by kinship, legal ties, or formal social obligations. Normally, there are no ceremonies surrounding the formation of a friendship. In fact, friendships rarely begin with two people declaring that, "from this day forward, we will be friends." Rather, friendships develop gradually and often unwittingly as the partners begin doing "friendship things" together. Once formed, friendships are largely free of clear social norms or expectations that dictate when the partners should get together and how they should interact when they do. When friendships end, they generally do not do so as a result of an announced decision by one or both parties. Occasionally, of course, friendships end abruptly due to obvious breaches of good will such as dishonesty or betrayal. Most often, however, friendships merely fade away as the partners cease doing the things that gave the relationship its meaning.

This lack of social definition gives friendship its vague and intangible character. Nevertheless, it is a relationship that seems to exist almost, but not quite, universally across cultures. This combination of factors led anthropologist Robert Paine (1969) to describe friendship as an institutionalized non-institution (Suttles 1970). What, then, verifies a friendship? A friendship exists in the fact that the partners commit time to interaction with one another apart from outside pressures or constraints. In friendship, the partners' lives are interdependent on a voluntary basis. In more structured relationships such as marriage, the partners' lives are also interdependent, but much of the interdependence is based on social norms and expectations obliging them to relate to one another in prescribed ways. Thus, many social and behavioral scientists, in fields ranging from sociology to psychology to anthropology, emphasize voluntariness as an essential feature of friendship.

A second key aspect of friendship is what Gerald Suttles (1970) called the person-qua-person factor. That is, friends respond to one another as unique, genuine, and irreplaceable individuals. They do not see one another as mere role occupants or representatives of particular groups or statuses. Friends express this focus on individuality as a personalized interest and concern. Combining these two characteristics provides the following definition: Friendship is a relationship in which the partners respond to one another with an individualized interest and concern and commit time to one another in the absence of constraints toward interaction that are external to the relationship itself. The more these two factors are in evidence, the stronger the friendship.

According to this definition, friendship is a matter of degree rather than an all-or-none proposition. It would undoubtedly be more accurate, even if awkward, to speak of degrees of friendness rather than friendship versus non-friendship. Anthropological studies suggest that forms of relating following this pattern are found in most, but not all, cultures (Leyton 1974; Bell and Coleman 1999).

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Marriage and Family EncyclopediaRelationshipsFriendship - Definition And Characteristics, Benefits Of Friendship, Voluntariness And Contextual Factors In Friendship, Friendships Throughout Childhood