Let’s talk about friendship, shall we? For those that know me, it is one of my favorite subjects… Particularly intimacy in friendships. I recently googled “Female Intimacy in Friendships,” and the first hits were: “When Women’s Friendships Turn Sexual”, “I’m Having a Friendship Affair” and “The Five Stages of Every Female Friendship Fling”. At first glance, it seems that in our culture female intimacy in friendships is paired with unhealthy behaviors and outcomes. This is deeply upsetting to me. I am convinced that one’s ability to experience and maintain deep and meaningful friendships is closely related to how well one can experience and maintain love relationships. In short, if we cannot do friendship well, then I question our ability to do love relationships well. While female intimacy in friendship is my focus, I must lay a foundation first. The following information sets the stage for how one can be open and available for intimate friendships.
My mentor and dear friend, Dr. Janelle Hallman, states “Healthy intimacy happens out of a fullness of self” (follow her on Facebook). The question then is how does one have “fullness of self”? The development of a healthy self and one’s ability to form secure love bonds can best be understood using a developmental approach. She categorizes four distinct ways in which love is received and expressed throughout our lifetime. Each type creates a building block for the next to grow upon.
The first type of love received and expressed is called parental love. This type of love is unidirectional. Meaning it flows in only one direction, from parent to child. For a moment imagine holding your infant child. Picture the way the weight of their tiny body felt in your arms and the warmth that was created by the embrace. Imagine gazing into each other eyes and the effortless whispers of love and affirmation that pour from your mouth over the child. This image points to a few of the critical behaviors that flow from parental love such as a consistent and constant experience of eye-to-eye and skin-to-skin contact along with a sense of physical and emotional warmth. These behaviors, along with many others, create an environment for a child to move through the early stages of development in whole and healthy ways. Parental love is the ground from which all other love expressions manifest. According to Erik Erikson’s Psychosocial Stages of Development (https://www.psychologynoteshq.com/erikerikson/), a child who experiences an appropriate degree of parental love will come through infancy and toddlerhood with trust in themselves and the world around them, a sense of personal control and independence, and the ability to assert that control within their sphere of influence. These are cornerstone developmental skills that must be attained in order to build a personal identity and have healthy relationships. It is important to note that many people did not receive the parental love needed to secure such developmental needs. If this is you…do not despair! With awareness and healing, developmental deficits can always be repaired.
The second type of love received and expressed is called friendship love. This love expression begins in toddlerhood and continues to strengthen and grow in importance into childhood and throughout adolescence. Friendship love is multidirectional and reciprocal in nature. The love flows back and forth and is characterized by mutual respect and time spent together. Whether you have experienced this kind of relationship in your life or only watched it play out in films and books, friendship love is marked by a fierce enjoyment and adoration of another. Picture that friend who loves you just as you are. Who thinks your smart, and talented and hilarious and beautiful. Who will stay up all night to listen, encourage, or take care of you. Friends stand side by side, looking outward and upward to common interests. Within psychosocial development, the early experience of friendship love builds interpersonal skills such as communicating, collaborating, caring, listening, and problem solving. In addition to developing interpersonal skills, friendship is a major contributor in the development of a healthy self-esteem. With parental love being the ground from which personal trust, autonomy, and power are secured, the reciprocal nature of friendship love provides a canvas for interpersonal skills, self-esteem, and identity formation to begin to grow. These are all core developmental skills necessary in securing and maintaining healthy relationship throughout one’s lifetime.
The third type of love received and expressed is called romantic love. Romantic love begins in adolescents in conjunction with one’s sexual development. This love expression is characterized by a personal vulnerability experienced by turning inward towards another. The awakening of our sexual energies is the birth place for romantic love to grow. The experience of romantic love is one of life’s sweetest gifts. When my husband and I started dating we could not get enough of each other. It was like he was a magnet drawing my mind and body towards him. He was the first thing I thought of when my eyes opened and the last thing before my eyes closed. Nearly 20 years later I greatly value the depth and security our love embodies; however, I will forever treasure the feelings and memories that came with our experience of romantic love. Specific behaviors that flow from romantic love include gazing into each others eyes, an obsessive thinking about and craving for a specific person, and a strong desire for physical proximity to them. Romantic love has an almost irresistible power to it. It can be an incredibly exhilarating and intoxicating experience. However, for this type of love to be healthy and fulfilling, one must have first had a moderately healthy experience of parental and friendship love. In order to be available and open to romantic love one needs to trust themself, have personal autonomy and power within and the emergence of a strong identity.
The final type of love received and expressed is called sexual love. This love expression begins in late adolescence and continues throughout adulthood. It involves two individuals fiercely committed to each others best. It is about equality, mutuality, safety, and trust. To clarify, sexual activity is not sexual love but rather behaviors that comes out of the experience of sexual love. Sexual love is the ground from which one can experience the fullness of sexual intimacy. It is characterized by a mutual experience of deep intimacy that comes from a secure attachment to self and to the partner. For sexual love to be fulfilling and healthy, one has to operate out of a strong sense of self. If a person does not trust themselves or those around them, believe they have value and a voice or have a strong sense of identity they are at risk of trying to experiencing sexual love from developmental deficits instead of wholeness and health. To experience sexual love in its healthiest form one must first experience parental, friendship, and romantic love. The first three love expressions are the foundation whereby critical developmental skills were secured. This then allows sexual love to blossom in its healthiest expression.
Because we are relational beings and created to receive and express love, our radar is always seeking opportunities to meet these needs. In our over-sexualized culture it seems many are using romantic and sexual love to meet ALL love needs. Many times when one is in an unhealthy sexual relationship, it is not sexual love they are needing, but rather parental or friendship love. If one did not receive the parental or friendship love they needed, it creates deficits that impair their ability to have healthy friendships and love relationships in adulthood. If you find yourself in a season of relational lack or turmoil and wish to experience deep and meaningful friendships and/or love relationships there is hope for you! Know that help and healing is always available.
I hope this information brought a deeper understanding to how our love bonds build on one another and continue to develop over our lifetime. I have much more to say about female intimacy in friendships but will first offer suggestions in my next article about healing developmental deficits in order for one to experience the intimacy, satisfaction, and freedom that healthy relationships bestow. Stay tuned and thanks for reading.