gail schimmel

The blog of writer Gail Schimmel: A bit of writing, a bit of parenting, a bit of thinking and some book reviews

The Friendship Paradigm

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When we were much younger, my friend Julie and I came up with a Friendship Paradigm that I still use to understand my friendships today.

I don’t know how old Julie and I were when we had the conversation. It might have been around the time that Julie explained oral sex to me in a way that left me under the impression that oral sex is when you replace a sexual word with a euphemism. We were 11 then. Or it might have been around the time when Julie and the other Julie negotiated to swop their boyfriends, and the conversation happened around my parents’ kitchen table. We were about 15 then, and the boyfriends were strangely acquiescent to the arrangement.

I don’t know how old we were, but I do know that we were sitting on my parents’ front stoep, and the whole discussion was based on what was within our immediate view:

front stoep


Friendship, we decided, is divided into three aspects – the Pillar, the Ivy and the Butterfly.

The Pillar is the friend who is always there to support you and listen to your problems.

The Ivy is the friend who always comes to you with their problems, and to whom you act as the Pillar.

The Butterfly is the friend that brings flashes of colour and fun and excitement into your life.

We agreed that the ideal friend, the best friend, has all three elements – they are there for you and you are there for them and you also have lots of fun together. You cannot have a best friend that lacks one of the elements.

But we also agreed that some friends have only one aspect of the three. There are friends who you can rely on, but for some reason never bring their problems to you. And there are friends that spend hours crying on your shoulder but are strangely awol when it comes to your problems. And then there are the friends that you only see occasionally and are always a good laugh and lots of fun, but that’s where it ends, and that’s okay.

What is remarkable to me is how this Paradigm still works to understand friendship some 25 years or more later. And that is why I am sharing it with you.

This year, I have decided I need to look out for the people who are only Ivy. And on the same note, if you have a friend who you regard as only a Pillar, you’ve got to ask yourself what you are doing wrong that they don’t feel able to let you take the Pillar role sometimes. Because Ivy, when it is left to its own devices, smothers everything in sight. Don’t let yourself be smothered, and don’t be the one to do the smothering.

And if you come across my friend Julie, don’t ask her to explain oral sex. . .



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