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Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make—and Keep—Friends


Making friends used to be easy or at least easier.  You went to school with kids, and you had time to connect.  Somewhere in adulthood, it became harder to spend time with others in ways that allowed you to find and keep friends.  Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make – and Keep – Friends is a guidebook on how to address the dearth of new friends that most of us form as adults.


For some who’ve grown up in poverty, they’ve elevated their status into a social circle that was out of reach in their childhood.  It’s a testimony to their accomplishments, but at the same time, it can expose a source of shame.  When listening to others sharing their affluent worlds, it can be difficult to feel a part of.  Jewel explains her perspective of this in Never Broken – how the other kids had money and she didn’t.  For those who are concerned about appearances, it can trigger debilitating shame for people to learn of your roots.

I’m not motivated by appearances, so I’m relatively unphased with my humble upbringing.  (See Who Am I? for more on motivations.)  We had powdered milk, accepted the neighbors’ allocation of government cheese, and had cups that were once butter dishes.  There’s a long list of memories I have that are only shared by those with hard working but relatively poor parents who were doing the best they could.

Shame in any form separates us from others and creates barriers to connection.  Shame is a feeling that means “I am bad.”  If you feel like you’re bad, then why would anyone want to connect with you?  If you just “know” that you’ll be rejected, why would you invite it?  Shame separates us by having us raise barriers between us and others.  (See I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) for more on shame.)

Romantic +

In ancient Greek, there were multiple words for love: eros for erotic love, philos for brotherly love. and agape for world love – what might be called compassion.  When Plato was considering philos, he wasn’t thinking that it was a reduction from romantic love.  He thought of it as a higher form of love.

Separating love from the physical act of reproduction, he believed that philos wasn’t taking away from, but was rather added to, the other kinds of love.  (For more on love, see Anatomy of Love.)

Friends +

Humans need relationships but not all relationships are created equal.  Some relationships help us to be better people.  (See Safe People.)  The right relationship can move us from an insecure to a secure attachment style (see Attachment in Adulthood).

One of the ways that friends make us better people is by expanding our capacity for empathy and compassion.  It’s not that we’re more compassionate with just our friends; our empathy and compassion extends to a broader network of friends and to the world.

Survival of the Friendliest

Much has been made of Darwin’s statement survival of the fittest.  Certainly, there’s a reality to the power of genetics – but derivative work recognizes that it’s more than just genetics.  (See The Blank Slate and The Lucifer Effect.)

Spiritual Evolution mentions the research of Joan Silk, Susan Alberts, and Jeanne Altmann, “Social Bonds of Female Baboons Enhance Infant Survival.”  This leads to the conclusion that it’s more than just heartiness.  Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind explains that we became the dominant biomass on the planet because of our ability to cooperate.  It’s not a long leap from the ability to cooperate to making relationships.

Really, our ability to form and maintain relationships is a matter of life and death – not just because of the health issues for ourselves, but it may also have drives based on protections.


I have two sayings about paranoia.  First, “Paranoia will destroy-ya.” Second, “You’re not paranoid if the world really is out to get you.”  Pronoia is the opposite of paranoia.  It’s the belief that the world is out to help you.  Rather than facing the problems of paranoia, pronoia allows you to take greater risks and live a fuller life.  (Secure attachment has similar outcomes.  See Attached.)

The truth is that neither position is correct.  There are always going to be some people in the world that wish you well and some that wish you ill.  Others are a mixture of givers and takers.  (See Give and Take by Adam Grant.)  However, having a more positive – pronoia – view is more helpful for our growth.

Secure and Insecure

It’s easier to pick a label and assign it than to consider the conditions and situations when the label applies.  When it comes to attachment, it’s easy to say someone is securely attached or insecurely attached without considering the conditions when, even though they’re generally insecurely attached, they can behave in a securely attached manner.  Similarly, even securely attached individuals can get into situations where their attachment is malleable and insecure.  Cults use these times of inflections to bring people into the fold.  (See Terror, Love, and Brainwashing.)

The truth Is that our secure attachment style is built upon our understanding and beliefs about the world.  Should our perceptions and beliefs change, so can our degree of secure attachment.  Married couples with one member who is securely attached tend toward greater security in the other partner.  As Kurt Lewin said decades ago, behavior is a function of both person and environment.  (See A Dynamic Theory of Personality.)  Our attachment style is similarly situationally dependent and neither completely secure nor completely insecure.


There are decades of research that indicate proximity matters.  Whether it’s the physical distance or the social distance (see Analyzing the Social Web), the closer you are, the more connections happen.  Ed Catmull spoke about Steve Jobs’ insistence on designing the building to encourage accidental mingling.  (See Creativity, Inc.)

What we learn from this is that we don’t spend time with our friends.  We’re friends with those we spend time with.  If you discover that you don’t have friends, create situations where you’ll interact with others, and you’re likely to develop friendships.

And if there’s someone that you’re interested in becoming friends with, sit closer to them.

Packaged Vulnerability

In my posts Trust=> Vulnerability => Intimacy and Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy, Revisited, I shared the pathway to intimacy.  However, this isn’t always the direct path that we follow.  Sometimes we package our vulnerability to be more acceptable to others.  We package it in ways that obscure the details or the resulting feelings.  We package it in ways that allow the other person to not experience the full weight of empathy.

When I speak of my son’s death by suicide with those who I don’t know are safe, I’ll often package it in a way that they need to say nothing.  They don’t have to worry about what they’ll say, because I allow them (and sometimes encourage them) to say nothing.

This doesn’t allow for the flow towards intimacy in the same way.  Sure, they know more, but at the same time, the full force and effect of the event is hidden – meaning that we can’t move fully into intimacy.  That may not be necessary or even appropriate in every situation.  It’s not that packaged vulnerability is bad, it’s just different.


Why do we need friendships?  The reason is simple.  The alternative is loneliness, and the outcomes aren’t good.  (See Loneliness for more.)  Still, we find better success when we’re striving for something rather than striving to avoid something.  (See Collaborative Intelligence for more.)  While we sometimes measure success in avoiding being lonely, what we crave as humans is connection.

Authenticity in Listening

Most people, when giving advice, advise that you invest your entire attentional “budget” focusing on the other person.  Certainly, it’s possible to pay so little attention to the other person that you fail to understand them or even look interested.  However, there’s an important aspect of effective and authentic listening that isn’t about a focus on the other person.

Some amount of our attentional budget must be focused on how we’re responding to the other person.  It’s not the words we use to verbally respond but rather what’s happening inside of us.  The words that others use can be triggering to us, generating anxiety or frustration, and those emotions are bound to leak out.

If we fail to acknowledge and accept them, they’re likely to hitch a ride on our words and convey the wrong message to the person we’re listening to.  They’ll catch a snarky barb about some aspect of their story, or our body will start fidgeting indicating our impatience – even if that impatience is focused on us.

Conflict in Friendship

Friendships are a different kind of relational proving ground, where we’re focused on being wholly real.  C.S. Lewis once said, “Eros will have naked bodies; friendship naked personalities.”  In other words, the parts of ourselves that we might hide in other situations will be exposed to our deepest friends.  This is bound to generate conflict.  We can’t be completely alike, even if we want to be.

Our different perspectives, values, and experiences will inevitably lead to a difference that matters and ones that will cause conflict.  While conflict can help both parties to understand ourselves, our perspectives, and our values, even done well, conflict can be challenging.  So, just because conflict is a necessary part of friendships and life, it doesn’t mean we have to like it.

Trouble with Self-Esteem

The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care is Dr. Spock’s blockbuster book that changed the way that we thought about parenting.  It changed the way that the Boomer generation raised their children and may have created a problem.  The problem is that the children raised with permissive parenting and always being told how good they were created generations of people that needed to be constantly reminded of how great they were.

If you were a trophy shop, this worked out well, as we suddenly had to give everyone a trophy for participation.  We didn’t want anyone to feel bad, and it’s resulted in at least a few professors to explain it as The Coddling of the American Mind.  While some portion of people’s self esteem wasn’t high enough, we seemed to manufacture a generation of people that thought they were special and deserved to be treated that way.

The opposite end of the spectrum is just as bad, with self-hate driving death through suicide.  (See Compassion and Self-Hate.)  Self-hate isn’t any better than excessive self-esteem – and some would argue it’s worse.  However, there’s no need to hang out at the edges of the continuum when the best place seems to be the middle.  We can and should find value in what we do and recognize our limitations – and our friends should, too.

As external governors of our self-esteem, we expect our friends to pick us up when we’re low – and let us know we’re getting “too big for our britches.”

Forcing Compliments

A compliment, though well-intended, can be invalidating for someone.  You tell them they’re great at something when they know they’re not, and you’ve invalidated their sense of self.  In the same moment, you’ve pushed them to deciding that you don’t know what you’re talking about.

The central premise behind Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is the need to accept people where they are and help them change so they get different outcomes.  (See DBT Explained.)  When we’re forcing a compliment on someone, we’re focused on the change – accepting the compliment – and ignoring the acceptance that this is what they’re experiencing now.  They don’t believe the compliment is truth for them.

Wholehearted People

The language that Brene Brown uses to describe these people is wholehearted.  (See Dare to Lead.)  They’re the people who are able to listen.  They set boundaries but find compassion.  These people are the most capable of empathy, compassion, and friendship.  We need more people with the capacity to be friends.  That’s the way we’ll find more relationships that are Platonic.