Friendships need intimacy, too. Here's how to build it

Peter Gamlen

The scenario is so common, it’s almost cliché: You and your friends are single and thriving, when suddenly, every member of your circle gets booed-up, one by one. “Well, see you never, I guess,” you tell them, only half-joking. And your anticipatory grief would be warranted. The reality is, a lot of us prioritize our romantic relationships over our other relationships. Yet friendships are equally valuable — and they need intimacy, too.

Estepha Francisque, a therapist in Oakland, California, traces our tendency to put bae before literally anything else to European norms about relationships, like the notion of choosing a partner because you love them, not for practical reasons, or because your parents picked them for you, as in other cultures. As European culture spread across the West, Francisque explains, so did this idea of romanticism. As a result, we tend to idealize our romantic partner as “The End-All-Be-All” who’ll meet all of our needs, he says. “I think the more and more we do that, the less and less emphasis we place on just the really good, intimate friendship, which is arguably just as important, if not more.”

Intimacy between friends, a.k.a. platonic intimacy, is basically what it sounds like: the intimacy you’d have with a partner, but without the sex or romance. It’s “a shared vulnerability, a shared feeling of safety,” Francsique says. You accept and celebrate each other for who you are, and see each other as sources of love and support.

Platonic intimacy can enrich you as an individual, Francisque says. Rather than relying on your romantic partner for fulfillment, you can have diverse experiences with as many friends as you want — since, unlike with romantic relationships, “there’s no concept of monogamy in a friendship.” Through these interactions, you grow not only intellectually, but emotionally, too, he explains, expanding your ability to connect with different people.

And while this isn’t to say you should work on yourself solely for your current or future S.O., it’s hard not to carry the good vibes from these friendships into your romantic relationship. Healthy, intimate friendships filled with quality interactions and experiences leave us “energized” and “filled up,” Francisque says. “If these intimate friendships are making the individuals in the relationship healthier overall, that naturally then makes the relationship healthier.” They also take the pressure off your partner, making it easier for you to accept them as they are, even if they can’t meet all your needs.

The panny has forced us to reassess so much of our lives, including our friendships. Maybe you’ve noticed that you’re leaning too heavily on your partner to feel fulfilled or you have only surface-level conversations with your friends and want to dig deeper. Whatever your reasons for cultivating platonic intimacy, here’s how to do it.

Be curious

Show an interest in getting to know more about your friends, Francisque says. While it can easy for your mind to drift to work deadlines mid-conversation, stay present and try to ask more questions than you normally do.

Resist the temptation to overshare (at least, at first)

Francisque recommends opening up to your friend only as much as they open up to you. “By keeping that in balance, that begins to establish a sense of safety,” he explains. Safety is the foundation of any intimate relationship: When both people feel safe, they can be vulnerable with each other, which, in turn, promotes intimacy.

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Opening up to your friend too quickly can undermine that sense of safety. The hope is that with every conversation, you’ll open up to each other a little more. Like anything worthwhile, intimacy takes time.

Validate your friend’s feelings

Consider how you respond when your friends confide in you about their problems. Do you go straight into problem-solving mode? While you might think you’re being helpful, “that’s actually not that validating,” Francisque says. The person will actually feel like you skipped over all their emotions and experiences, and you’re going straight to the logic.”

Instead, slow down, and just acknowledge whatever emotion they're experiencing, Francisque suggests. Ask how they feel or say something affirming, like “That must’ve been so hurtful” or “I really feel for you right now.”

You could just stop there, Francisque says. Otherwise, as long as you’ve spent time with your friend’s emotions first and foremost, feel free to ask questions if you’re curious, or say pretty much anything you want (unless it’s offensive, of course).

“By slowing down and taking time to acknowledge those feelings, that helps the person to feel seen and validated, Francisque says. “That’s going to incentivize them to open up to you more in the future.”

Be loyal

When it comes to successful friendships, Kendrick and RiRi said it best: "Loyalty, loyalty, loyalty." Francisque recommends showing your friend the same loyalty you’d show your S.O.. That means don’t embarrass them, and don’t knowingly befriend someone they consider an enemy.

If your friend is butting heads with someone, you want to take your friend's side, Francisque says. And if you think they’re in the wrong, explain why in private, but let them know that you still have their back regardless.

Learn to speak your friend’s love language

You’ve probably heard of the love languages outlined in Gary Chapman’s book, The Five Love Languages quality time, physical touch, words of affirmation, receiving gifts, and acts of service. Everyone has a love language, the theory goes, and through learning your partner’s, you can express your love to them in a way they understand.

But you can apply this to your friendships, too. “By knowing your intimate friend’s love language, you know exactly how to make sure that they receive that message of love,” Francisque says. Speaking their love language can promote vulnerability and intimacy by making them feel seen for who they really are.

Francisque likens the process of making a friend feel safe enough to be intimate with you as a test of sorts. When they crack open the door, do you validate their feelings, inviting them to open it a little wider, or do you invalidate them, making them want to slam it shut? If you both pass all the tests, “then [you're] going to get to this really deep level of vulnerability and intimacy," Francisque says. Especially in a pandemic that’s left us more disconnected than ever, the rewards are worth the extra effort.