Friendships of the Good

When it comes to the five overexcitabilities discussed by Kazimierz Dabrowski, I certainly seem to have the full works—intellectual, imaginational, psychomotor, sensory, and emotional. As some Third Factor readers will understand from experience, these traits often spurred a strong negative response in my peers. I was bullied, both at home and out in the world. People often told me that I was too sensitive, and claimed that my discomfort with others’ behaviour was my fault. They put the onus on me to change my thoughts and perceptions, to avoid letting it bother me, and to adapt to society’s norms and expectations if I wanted to avoid these negative reactions.

Struggles of an Emotionally Intense Young Man

Being male meant that my sensitivity was a burden in a way that it wasn’t for the girls I knew. Although I had some lasting friendships with other boys, it was hard to get them to open up emotionally because they were afraid that closeness and affection would be seen as being gay. Thus, by my teens, most of my closest friends were girls. With one of these female friends, I suddenly and unexpectedly developed a deep emotional and spiritual (but non-sexual) connection, to the point that I often thought of her as “my other sister” (in addition to one I had by blood).

Sadly, our peers targeted cross-sex friendships with rumors that “X fancies Y.” Once accused, I was inevitably presumed guilty. My friends stood up for me, but they were outnumbered. In such a climate, some of my “other sister’s” family members disapproved of our friendship. After she got a few ultimatums too many, she abruptly cut me out of her life, taking our shared social networks with her.

When I sought guidance from adults, they said I needed to stop letting it bother me. They said whenever I have problems with friendships, the solution is to drop them, for you can always make new friends. They kept underscoring that key message: that any sort of closeness or affection was inappropriate in my friendships with men because it was seen as gay, and inappropriate with female friends unless they were girlfriends. (Never mind that this was acceptable in friendships between women and between blood relatives.) For a decade after this incident, I felt anxiety—even fear—when I sensed a similar intense connection.

Now that I am an adult, I have found that the rules are still there—but more insidious. The sort of sincere complaints I advance about stigmas against depth and emotion in men’s friendships are tarnished by association with that minority of men who really are hiding the fact that they want something sexual, or to objectify women and claim that they are “just being friendly.” British culture comes with a strong preference for superficial, transactional social interactions—a requirement simultaneously to greet people with “How are you?” but to have no actual interest in how they are.  This means that living in a society that permits men to share emotions only with their sexual partners makes emotional overexcitability a huge liability in a man.

I have proved capable of dumbing down, slowing down, and shallowing up in order to fit in with these expectations. But in doing so, I end up feeling as if I am merely existing rather than living. I feel as if I am watching everybody playing roles on a stage—but without the emotion that brings the theatre to life.

Good Friendships—And Why They Break

The best times of my life have been when I have managed to find like-minded peers. These are typically people who come across as feisty, determined, nonconforming, intelligent, and excitable—especially emotionally. And they do not disguise it. Around these people, I am able to be myself. In their company, I can interact deeply. I can get immersed into something creative, diving into that wonderful state called flow.

My successes here have also given me confidence: if I can find one, I can find more.

The best times of my life have been when I have managed to find like-minded peers. These are typically people who come across as feisty, determined, nonconforming, intelligent, and excitable—especially emotionally. And they do not disguise it.

In some cases, after I find one such person, I’ve been able to build a wider network by branching out into their social circles. Strikingly, in these circles, I’ve got a reputation for having better than average social skills. After my ill-fated friendship with “my other sister” in my childhood, in 2011 and 2016 I formed two more comparably deep friendships, and in both cases I branched out into their social circles.

And yet, at some point, I keep running up against the same old problem: these deep intellectual and emotional connections go beyond the socially accepted boundaries of male-male and male-female friendship in this culture. The pressure to “prove” to audiences that we are “just friends” contributes to these deep friendships often quickly falling back to a casual level of friendship. I repeatedly get the message from my peers that men are only expected to have casual, shoulder-to-shoulder friendships—the type that rely only on shared activities with their romantic partners.

Friendships Through History

Modern Western culture’s tendency to contrast “love” and “friendship” promotes the view that we can only love our romantic partners and our blood family members, and that we cannot love our friends without it becoming sexual.

Aristotle and Plato greatly valued deep, non-exclusive, non-sexual friendship bonds. They referred to these as philia, or “brotherly love.” C.S. Lewis lamented modern society’s tendency to ignore this type of love.

But it was not always this way. The ancient Greeks had a number of words for different types of love, giving them a much more robust lens through which to view emotionally intense relationships. These are represented in the works of Aristotle and Plato, who tended to focus on four main types, as the modern British writer C.S. Lewis discussed at length in his book The Four Loves. Here I focus on philia and eros; the other two were storge (familial, especially parent-child, love) and agape (universal love).

Like myself, Aristotle and Plato greatly valued deep, non-exclusive, non-sexual friendship bonds. They referred to these as philia, or “brotherly love.” C.S. Lewis lamented modern society’s tendency to ignore this type of love. His argument that “friendships are not jealous” resonates powerfully: when people fall in romantic love, they usually strongly desire exclusivity, but at least in my experience, with deep spiritual friendships, the opposite happens: I develop a strong desire to branch out and hopefully find more of them.

Aristotle also proposed three levels of philia:

1. Friendships of utility, in which people love each other because they get an external good from each other. Such friendships dissolve when they no longer profit from the external good.

2. Friendships of pleasure, in which people love each other because they get pleasure from being with each other. These run deeper than friendships of utility, but are still based chiefly on “what’s in it for me?” They can dissolve quickly when the shared pleasure is lost.

3. Friendships of the good, in which people love each other because they love each other’s characters and virtues, and genuinely wish well upon each other. As long as the friends’ characters and “goodness” do not change, their friendship has a good chance of enduring.i

In the last of these three, I found language to describe the friendships that I have sought.

Aristotle acknowledged that friendships of the good are relatively rare; after all, it is hard to maintain large numbers of such deep friendships. The lower two levels of friendship are easier to find and easier to sustain.

Regarding modern tension between friendship and sex, we would do well to learn from the ideas of Plato,ii after whom the modern concept of “Platonic love” is named. Unlike many other philosophers of his time, Plato believed that eros, i.e., passionate love or lust based on physical attraction, could be transformed into a love of the soul, thereby feeding into philia.

While Plato originally envisaged this process in chaste friendships between men, his ideas can readily apply women’s same-sex friendships as well as cross-sex friendships. When I read about this, I recognized this as my default way of handling physical attraction, especially in my own cross-sex friendships.. Personally, I believe strongly in the value not only of the deep male friendships that Aristotle and Plato celebrated, but also in the value of cross-sex friendships. Gender roles tend to resemble a Venn diagram, and I very often lie in the area of overlap in the middle, which has been described by psychologists such as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as “psychological androgyny.” I have found some of my most rewarding friendships with women in this area of overlap. I am happy to support female friends with pursuits in stereotypically “masculine” or male-dominated arenas, while these friends have often similarly provided me with outlets where I can make good use of my heightened emotionality, intensity, empathy, and compassion.

What Is To Be Done?

Regrettably, the shoulder-to-shoulder model remains a hurdle in male friendships, whether with men or with women. This hinders our efforts not only to promote equality between the sexes, but also to allow each of us to develop our own unique potential to the fullest—whether we are a woman, say, playing professional sports or a man working in a so-called “caring profession.”

My experiences have shown that that it is possible, even for men, to form friendships of the good in this culture. Achieving this will require a few things. First, that we do not become emotionally repressed. Second, that we do not internalize the pervasive cultural belief that we cannot love our friends without it turning sexual. Third, that we find other people who have also met the first two requirements.

In this area, I find myself motivated to try to “be the change I wish to see in the world.” But what can I do? In the absence of support from my peers, I have often found inspiration from the quotes of the great innovators of the past who overcame this sense of powerlessness. And not all of them are so far removed from us as the ancient Greeks. Probably the quote that has inspired me the most comes from a 1995 Steve Jobs interview:

When you grow up you tend to get told that the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world, try not to bash into the walls too much, try to have a nice family, have fun, save a little money. That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader, once you discover one simple fact, and that is that everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.iii

And so, I’m trying to live my vision of “what ought to be.” I envisage a society which recognises the value and importance of extended family ties, including non-blood friendships—”chosen family”—alongside romantic relationships and the nuclear family.  As a general rule, the ideal solution to alienation from the dominant culture is to find subcultures of like-minded peers. Unfortunately, this is easier to do in a culture that puts a high value on friendship to begin with—which means that my mission to solve this very problem will struggle to get off the ground.

And yet, I remain hopeful. My experiences have shown that that it is possible, even for men, to form friendships of the good in this culture. Achieving this will require a few things. First, that we do not become emotionally repressed. Second, that we do not internalize the pervasive cultural belief that we cannot love our friends without it turning sexual. Third, that we find other people who have also met the first two requirements. Such people were relatively easy to find when I was a student in my early twenties, but as I have got older, such people have proved to be increasingly few and far between.

Maintaining close relationships of any kind is inevitably challenging. I know that my friendships will come up against barriers that are not merely cultural, but inevitable in human life. This makes it easy for others to minimize my friendship-related struggles by saying “That’s life.” It is difficult to argue with them, for when I do, I get accused of being unable to accept that separation is inevitable.

History shows, however, that it is possible to change things if enough people are interested. I think the key is to challenge the stigmas against sharing emotions outside of the private nuclear family realm. I doubt it is coincidence that friendships of the good have seen a revival in the subcultures where sharing of emotions has become more normal, such as among TV celebrities and university students. By raising awareness of these issues, I hope to set off a “ripple effect” which may eventually lead to positive change.


i Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book VIII, translated by W.D. Ross.

ii Reeve, C.D.C. (2016) Plato on Friendship and Eros. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Ian Simm is a scientist and musician from England. Plagued by a sense of being different, he has researched giftedness, high sensitivity, and overexcitability. He is keen to keep learning and being creative, to promote equality and diversity, and to examine ways of making the world a better place.