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The Paper Plate Theory of Friendship

Three girls laughing together

When I was younger, my aunt shared with me this idea of friendship categories when discussing the many types of friendships I was experiencing. This "theory" on categorization was really helpful, and it is something I often share with clients, specifically adolescent clients, that are trying to navigate their friendships. I feel that it is an important idea, and can be extremely helpful in understanding expectations/boundaries in relationships.

So what's this theory?? I like to call it "the paper plate theory of friendship". If you think about a kitchen in your house, it's typically where many people come together when you are having people over, as most people tend to socialize around food. Let's say after you've had people over, your kitchen is fairly messy. Pretty realistic, right? So, of course you'd have to go through and clean/organize your kitchen. Sometimes we have to do that in our friendships (and other relationships) as well, especially when we don't feel like they are working for us anymore.

In your kitchen, or maybe even somewhere more special like a hutch, many people have something called fine china. It's the really expensive dinnerware that you put out when you have people over for dinner at special events. This category relates to those friends in your life that you maybe don't see as often, but are an important part of your life. Most people would refer to them as best/close friends. When you see them, it doesn't really feel like much time has passed at all. They get you. They have your back. You can rely on them to be there for you no matter what. These are the kind of people you'd call at 2 am because s**t has hit the fan. These are also the first people you want to share good news with when something amazing has happened. These are the friends you drop everything for if they need help, because they would do the same for you.

Another item that most everyone has in their kitchen is tupperware. This category relates to those friends in your life that you may or may not see more often. They are good friends. They are reliable and are there for you, but they aren't going to be available all the time. They cannot hold as much as someone in the fine china category. These friends know you, but not as well. They are there for you, but not to the same degree. These are the kind of people that you call days after s**t has hit the fan and you already have it handled. You may or may not tell them about it, depending on how close you are, but you will definitely let them know you're struggling. These are people that you like to share good news with as well, but they aren't normally the first people you think of when you want to share. Not because they don't care, but because they may not understand you to the degree you'd like for them to. You guys don't click the same as the friends in the fine china category, but you still care and enjoy one another's company. These are the friends that you can go to for help, or offer help to, but you both wouldn't drop everything for one another.

The last item is something we use often when we don't want to clean the dishes: paper plates. These friends are more like acquaintances, or what some people call "party friends". They are there for a good conversation as long as it is convenient. These are people in your life that don't know you as well, and you cannot rely on them when you are having a hard time. You can appreciate their company, but that is about it. Paper plates are flimsy - they can't hold a lot. These are the kind of people you do not call if you are having a hard time, or even after. These are people you either call up once in a while to go do something fun with, or you just bump into them at an event and catch up. You typically only share the good things that have been going on, not the hard things. These are friends that you cannot go to for help because they are not reliable. You are not a priority, so do not make them a priority.

Now that we have the categories in order, it is easier to know who may fall into what category. It's important to know that because it helps you keep track of expectations, and how to respond to them. It helps you interact in a way that feels good. If you treat someone that should be in the paper plate category with the same expectations as someone in the fine china category, you will undoubtedly get your feelings hurt and the relationship will struggle.

It may seem silly to have categories, but remember: these aren't things that you are sharing with each person. You aren't telling them what category they are in, or that you even have categories. You are simply using it as an internal way of organizing so that you can feel more confident and connected in your relationships.

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