The psychology of friendship: “I spent a week telling my friends I loved them and this is what they said back”
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The psychology of friendship: “I spent a week telling my friends I loved them and this is what they said back”

They make up our inner circle, provide us with support and bring us joy, but should we tell our friends we love them more?

I’ve always been a very outgoing and verbally affectionate person, and comfortable with expressing my emotions and saying exactly what’s on my mind.

Having been brought up in a family where every phone call ended in an “I love you,” it’s always been second nature to me to show my love and appreciation for those closest to me, related or not, through words.

But I know that’s not always the case for everyone, as proven by the multitude of Reddit threads asking whether it’s “weird” to tell your friends you love them. (Spoiler: it’s not.)

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In a viral Instagram post back in September, writer and director Anna Ryan Konkle posted: “Friendships can be as deep as being in love. Female friendships are often portrayed as thin and fun and vapid. They missed it. It’s as serious as love and war.”

And Konkle is absolutely right.

Friendship, according to an influential Australian study on social networks over decades, may even be more vital to our physical and mental wellbeing than our relationships with close family and spouses.

In support, a popular Medium article from 2020 claimed that it’s “as important to express love to your friends as it is your partner or family, maybe more.”

So I decided to stage a little experiment of my own: texting friends randomly to tell them I loved them.

Psychology of friendship: should we be telling our friends we love them more?
Psychology of friendship: should we be telling our friends we love them more?

It’s not an action that is out of character for me, but I decided to treat these declarations as a gratitude practice. Except, rather than listing what I was grateful for, I’d find the people and tell them.

After all, all the cheesiest friendship quotes say that it’s important to let people know how much they mean and give them their flowers while they’re here. But even though it’s something that I do regularly, I found myself feeling oddly nervous as I scrolled my contact list and typed the three little words.

Starting with my best friends, I ticked them off an imaginary list one by one. All responded as expected – with a gushing “awww” and reciprocal “I love you too.”

“I don’t tell you enough but I love you,” I texted one friend from university who I’d lost regular contact with.

“Don’t, I’m gonna cry,” came her almost-immediate response.

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Before I even got the chance to contact her, another of my closest friends sent me an emoji-laden “I love you” text, which received my very earnest reply of “Omg I literally love you so much”.

Some friends replied with other messages of affection, but not the L word. But I can’t deny that being proactive about telling my friends that I loved them did invite a greater sense of intimacy than our usual transactional day-to-day texting.

Rather than messages focused on making plans for nights out or sharing links to TikToks the other would find funny, the threads were rooted in deeper emotion.

Honest conversations about how tired we were, how stressful we were finding work and dissecting the very complicated set of emotions so many of us are experiencing right now came right to the forefront.

In many ways, I think being so emotionally vulnerable early on opened up the playing field to share our true thoughts. 

The psychology of friendship

Though it isn’t a practice that everyone is immediately comfortable with, psychologist and author of the upcoming book Platonic: Unlock The Key To Friendship, Dr Marisa G. Franco, tells Stylist that “it’s not radical to express love in friendships. In fact, it’s actually quite traditional.”

Delving into the history of platonic friendship, Dr Franco explains that before the mid-1800s, friendships were relationships where people were very comfortable with expressing love, and that romance was actually a big part of friendships.

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“Friends would sleep in the same beds and carve their initials on trees, and it was common for friends to honeymoon together with their respective spouses.”

However, after psychoanalysist Sigmund Freud asserted that any attraction or same-sex relationships, sexual in nature or not, required explanation, a stigma around sexual orientation was created that prompted friends to feel concerned about expressing intimacy.

Dr Franco explains that this theory particularly harmed male friendships, as the “homo-hysteria Freud brought about led to the hyper-sexualisation of any friendship affection”.

However, as a range of studies have concluded, humans are “ultrasocial animals” because our lives tend to be extensively socially intertwined, and both our psychological and physical health is powerfully influenced by our relationships. 

Indeed, the five love languages: words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time, and physical touch are the same in romantic relationships as platonic ones.

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Dr Franco says that she would love to see a greater normalisation of going on dates with friends, travelling across the country to see friends and telling them you love them.

“Ultimately it’s going to make our friendships more intimate, which is a good thing, especially in a time where we’re becoming more lonely than ever.”

However, she does stress the importance of understanding the level of intimacy in a relationship before expressing deep feelings, as it can put pressure on the other party if they’re not experiencing the same closeness.

Love bombing – the toxic behaviour by which a partner begins overwhelming another person with compliments, gifts, and time in order to win over their trust – is something that can occur in friendships too, inadvertently or otherwise.

Therefore, it’s always important to both act and respond in a way that feels comfortable to you. After all, love, appreciation and friendship can be expressed in so many different ways, none more or less valuable than the others.

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Images: Getty