Essay

The concentric circles of friendship

Here’s another message I’ve given to my children as they navigate their young-adult lives.

When I was young I held to the concept of having a best friend, that one person I wanted to do things with most because we fit together so well and enjoyed each other’s company so much.

As I’ve grown older, I still want friends like that. But I also want friends with whom I can be fully real and who can know about the challenges in my life in detail, and vice versa. It takes a lot to build that kind of trust, and it’s special and valuable when you have it.

Looking down on Monument Circle
Monument Circle in Indianapolis

As a result I’ve left behind the idea of “best friend” and instead think of each of my friends as being in one of several concentric circles:

Inner circle: These are people I will tell anything in full vulnerability, because they’ve proved themselves to be fully trustworthy with my heart and with the skeletons in my closet. I think everybody benefits from having at least one inner-circle friend, but few of us ever have more than a few of them at a time. At this moment I have three inner-circle friends, including my wife, and I feel truly blessed.

Second circle: These are good, close friends. We share interests in common, and have had some terrific experiences together. I’m willing to tell them all but the most private stuff. I have about five second-circle friends.

Third circle: These are all good people to hang out with, but I’m not likely to tell them the deep inner stuff. I struggle to call “friend” anyone whom I don’t trust knowing that I’m going through some tough stuff when that’s true. Friends in the third circle just don’t get to know what that tough stuff is.

Fourth circle: These are all acquaintances. I might do something with them if they come along with one of my friends in one of the other circles brings them along. I might have lunch or a beer with them if the opportunity presents itself. But I won’t share personal details.

Outside the fourth circle, you are neither friend nor acquaintance. You are just someone I know.

The more I trust you, the closer to the inner circle you come. Trust builds over time with a friend, and it involves both of us sometimes taking a risk and revealing something a little closer to the heart than we have before.

Sometimes, you take that risk and it doesn’t work out. You have to be prepared for that — and move people in and out of these circles accordingly. Sometimes, someone you’ve known for a long time might suddenly behave in a way that causes you to move them out one or more circles!

I encourage you to take those risks, however, as the reward can be deeply worth it. To have friends with whom you can be fully yourself, and thus fully vulnerable, is a rich blessing of life.

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23 thoughts on “The concentric circles of friendship

  1. This is an interesting way to look at friendship, and is one that I have never really thought about in this way – but it now makes perfect sense.

    My struggle has been trying to make sense of the blurry boundary between friend and acquaintance.

    • The friend/acquaintance line is why I came up with the circles model. I needed a way of sorting people to know how to behave with them. I was oversharing with people who I shouldn’t have.

  2. Andy Umbo says:

    This is an interesting viewpoint. For many years I’ve realized that I have friends for many different reasons, and I could never invite all of them to a party, it would be a disaster! There are people that I could call at three in the morning to save me, and others I would never be able to do that with, but value them the same. Rather than concentric circles, I view my situation as a massive Venn diagram with all my friends as different circles and their cross-over point being me!

    • I came here to make a similar point. I love the concentric circles model as a starting point, but for me friendship is more contextual. There are some friends I’m very close with in some ways, but not in others.

      Then again, if we’ve ever interacted, I’m likely to call you “friend”, and I chronically overshare, so my mental model of friendship is much more theoretical than practical. :-)

      • I can see that my friends are from various contexts as well. But I am not sure I treat them any differently, after I’ve decided what circle they’re in, regardless of context. Well, the one place I do exercise caution is when I work with someone I count as a friend.

  3. Funny. I was just thinking about friendship yesterday. My best friends all live in other states and I see them once or twice a year at most. I have friends in my community but none that I ever hang out with – partly because I’m so good on my own that I forget to include other people, I guess.

    My mother asked me if I wanted to invite some friends to a wiener roast they’re having this weekend and I honestly couldn’t think of a soul. This revelation was both surprising and sad but I don’t feel inclined to do anything about it. Making new friends at my age in a rural community isn’t the easiest thing to do unless you have kids in school.
    I guess it’s good that I’m happy this way!

    • My wife and I once discussed having a party for all of our friends. She was astonished when I said that my friends all don’t know each other, as they all come from different times and places in my life. I’ve never had a “crew” of friends who all hung out together.

      I’m not unhappy with this. I really don’t need much from other people, and I like being alone. My ride across Indiana was heavenly — four days to myself.

      I can well imagine that it’s hard to make friends in a place where all of the relationships have long been established. I dated a woman ten years ago, very briefly, who had moved to the seat of a rural county just outside the Indianapolis suburban sprawl. She said it was incredibly lonely as even after ten years of living there, she was still the new person — and breaking into the long-established social fabric was very hard.

      • I wouldn’t want to be a new person here. It’s a wonderful place if you’re established but we’re all about our history and established relationships.
        My mother moved here in 1971 and married a local. She is still an outsider.

        All my friends come from different times and circumstances in my life and my relationship with each is completely different and unique. I suspect they wouldn’t especially like each other if they ever met as their only common interest is me!

        • My brother really enjoys living in downtown Indy because he can go out, meet people at random, have a nice time, and never see them again. It’s real, you can actually do that in a big city where nobody knows anybody.

        • Andy Umbo says:

          Jim, this is ABSOLUTELY true, altho I never found it to be that easy in Indy. I maintain that the easiest way to make friends is to live someplace where people are coming and going all the time. like Chicago and Washington DC! They’re pre-disposed to chat to a stranger! Out of every where I’ve lived, Chicago was the easiest. Town of wise-asses, me included! My favorite cigar lounge ever, in Brownsburg Indiana was like that. People from all over the country gravitated there, and couldn’t help but jump in with the wise-acker comments, and that’s how you learn about them.

          Brandi B, no shame in not being an overt person. When the pandemic hit, I can’t tell you the amount of people I knew that loved staying home and not having to see and/or meet people every day. I personally don’t care for 99%of the people I meet, so can spend a lot of time reading library books and going to movies all by myself, especially since most of my friends are at least a thousand miles away.

          Another pro photographer and I were talking a number of years ago, and we decided our strongest skill was being master of the “one hour friendship”. You pop in, crack some jokes, know enough about the world to be able to talk on many subjects, set up people, take their picture, and…bye, bye!

        • I used to be a newspaper reporter and editor so I find myself casually interviewing people when I travel. Everyone has a story to tell and people are often glad to share theirs when properly prompted. So I’m totally down with that one hour friendship concept.

          I love to go out and see the world and do things but I’m equally happy at home with a book or a hobby. This has served me well through the pandemic. I know people who were climbing the walls because they couldn’t stand being alone in their own home. Me, I was asking if we could extend the six foot distance thing to forever and make quarantining a socially acceptable concept. :)

  4. I like this concept in general even though I apply it somewhat differently. I have my inner circle which is most valuable. These are friends, lovers and family. Then there is an outer circle also with friends and family. These are people who are a fixed part of my life but with whom I share less personal stuff. Broadly your first and second circle.

    I value deep one on one connections with people very much so I really do not have any kind of friendship groups since I left school. Because my friends are all quite different characters who often do not know each other maybe “circle” isn’t the right word but it will do for now. I tend to not have acquaintances. These are usually people I am in the process of getting to know and we either grow trust and become friends or the relationship ends at some point.

    I learned that I have really no interest in people who want to maintain casual personal relationships with me. Which means that I am often the one taking a risk, opening up about some aspect of my life and see if we can deepen a relationship. It is a bit like dating ;-)

    You mentioned oversharing in your comments. I used to do that at work. as public sector company there is very little employee turnover so it kind of feels like good friends or even family because I see my coworkers every day for years. It made me trust and open up to people even though I should not have. Thankfully now with remote working I feel a more appropriate distance to my coworkers.

    • For those of us for whom the circles model makes sense, I think we all have different numbers of circles. For me, I think most about the inner and second circles and a lot less about circles three and four.

      I’m much the same, I lack interest in casual relationships. I’ve had to learn to do them professionally as maintaining the network is vital in my profession, but I’ve had to learn those social skills slowly over time because they do not come naturally to me.

  5. tbm3fan says:

    As my wife says I am quite capable of getting along on my own and she is right. First there is fun at work, my cameras, my cars, and the aircraft carrier I am fully occupied. Second, if I am depressed it lasts only about an hour and then I am good to go. Nothing ever lingers.So there has been only one person in your inner circle over the last 40 years. Older than me and has serious health issues he may not beat. There is no one in your second circle but lots of people in the third circle from my car club and other volunteers on the Hornet. There were also a number of them, in your third circle, who I would always meet when on vacation in the Philippines but last trip there was 2008 and several have passed.

    An interesting learning example recently revolved around my best friend between 1969-1985 starting with high school before moving out of state. I recently found some Kodachrome slides of our group of five water skiing that I took with my SRT-101 and 200mm from the boat. Located his email and asked if he would like to see. Eventually said alright. Only alright? After sending them I never heard back any comment concerning the pictures taken in 1972. Ok no problem, forget the wedding pictures I took, and now move on to my regularly programed life in which I am doing fine. Did make me decide not to bother going to my 50th high school reunion in October which would be the first reunion of the class even though my wife wanted to go. That would have been interesting with her 26 years younger than everyone there and a 12 year old son.

  6. My friends are scattered all over the country and represent different times of my life…friends from high school, friends from my radio days, friends from my marriage, friends post-marriage, work friends, photo friends. Most of them are geographically distant so we rarely see each other in person. Right now, I have one inner circle friend besides my fiancé. And it’s interesting, I think, as all of my closest friends have always been women. Can’t recall ever having an inner-circle male friend.

    • I’ve had women as my closest friends as well, but in my 50s I’m focusing more on developing friendships with men. I don’t know why, but it feels right now.

  7. Ah so where do blogging friends come in this model Jim? You share quite a bit of personal stuff here that you probably wouldn’t with those in your third and fourth circles defined above.

    • The blog is second circle. Unfortunately, sometimes people who are third circle or beyond find this blog and want to talk about what I’ve written. It’s uncomfortable and I have not figured out how to handle that even after all these years.

  8. Roger Meade says:

    It seems to me there are three kinds of communities that affect the ability to form new friendships when you move to a new area.

    Big cities, where anonymity is the norm and friends are easy come, easy go. Small towns, where friendships are forever and fitting in is very difficult, and special cases like retirement communities, where everyone is from somewhere else and making friends is quick and easy, but are perhaps, but not necessarily, shallow.

    My wife and I moved to this small town about 20 years ago. She worked, so made acquaintances quickly, but few friends. I was already retired and knew no one, and had few opportunities to meet new people aside from commercial transactions.

    She started going to senior swimming and met a few people. One couple, older than us, were also from out of the area, but had been here a long time. He was a member of a local service club and invited us to join. We did, and that has made all the difference. We became active members, volunteered often and made the effort to learn local customs and history. I will say that in a small town, YOU must be the one to reach out. Long time residents have long time relationships. They don’t need you. It’s not that they will not welcome you, but you must be the one to make the effort. It works!

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