Kaspars Grinvalds/Shutterstock
Source: Kaspars Grinvalds/Shutterstock

When it comes to our physical and mental health, friendship may truly be the best medicine. An Australian study showed that strong social networks may lengthen survival in elderly men and women, with good friends being even more likely to increase longevity than close family members.

As author Edna Buchanon put it, “Friends are the family we choose for ourselves.” A good friendship is indeed something to savor and protect. Yet, like any human relationship, even the closest of friendships can unravel in moments of weakness.

The closer we get to someone, the more invested we become in their emotions and behavior. We are far more likely to be reactive to our best of friends. When they aren’t feeling or acting quite themselves, they can incite feelings of frustration, judgment, competitiveness, or hurt in us. How can you avoid a  falling out with someone you’ve long trusted and cared about? Start by accepting the fact that you can only change yourself. And, almost always, fixing a friendship is a matter of fixing yourself.

Think about what kind of friend you want to be, as you consider these five tips for keeping your friendships strong throughout the years:

1. Be Honest

Relationships built on false build-ups or phony facades are only as good as their foundation. Superficial relationships often fizzle over time. To achieve a solid friendship, you have to be honest with each other. Being able to offer and receive feedback from someone you trust is a gift that can easily be overlooked. Setting aside your ego and being willing to let someone know you and ask questions of you is invaluable. Friends are likely to ask the tough questions—“Why do you think you’re attracted to that person?” or, “Do you think you might be feeling jealous or hurt in this situation?” Having a friend who can tell it to you straight will help you know yourself better. Being able to reciprocate further challenges you to live with honesty, directness, and integrity. There is no way to feel more connected to someone than to open yourself up to them. Plus, keeping an honest dialogue helps prevent you from building up cynicism and boiling over in a moment when you feel triggered.

2. Repair Misattunements

When you know someone well, you’re familiar with their strengths as well as with their weaknesses. And so, just as you know how to cheer them up, you know exactly how to tear them down. In moments of tension, we can let things slip out that are far more hurtful to our closest friends because they come from us. No one is perfect. We are all sure to mess up at times, but when we do, we have to set pride aside and repair the situation. Being honest shouldn't be about being cruel. Finding a balance where you can say what you think without being parental, defining, or judgmental is important to keeping a level of trust between you and a friend.

When you make a mistake, apologize for it. Make sure the friend understands that your intention is not to hurt or punish. Explain where you went wrong and what you mean by saying sorry. And don’t be afraid to be the one who reaches out; we all have either been part of, or known pairs of friends who’ve stopped speaking for months, because neither individual would come forward to admit fault. Time is precious and not worth wasting, especially when it comes to the people who make us happy.

3. Make Time and Show Appreciation

The familiarity and comfort we feel with another person can sometimes leave us crossing lines or forgetting to show gratitude. As with a spouse, partner, children, or family, we have to find time to make real contact with friends in order for the relationship to flourish. Slipping into routine can leave us more likely to take friends for granted. Make sure to express how you feel, and take actions that show how well you know and care for them. Generosity is the key to happiness. A good friend shows interest in who we are and what we struggle with, but it is important not to let the relationship become one-sided or to become self-centered in your focus.

Be sure to engage in acts of kindness and consideration that are focused on your friends. Do the things that they would perceive as caring. Consider their interests and passions when planning a way to say thank you. A woman I know used to plan over-the-top birthday parties for her best friend. After years of this, her friend quietly confessed to her that these lavish affairs made her feel uncomfortable and shy and that she’d much rather go out to a casual dinner with a few friends. The revelation led the friend to realize that her party planning had always been more about her than her friend. She wasn’t truly considering her friend’s feelings when planning an act of acknowledgement.

4. Alter Your Expectations and Don’t Make Assumptions

In any relationship, we can start to impose certain expectations on others that set us up to feel hurt or disappointed. Don’t be quick to pick apart your friends. Accept that they are human and that they will make mistakes. We may show our friendship in one way, whether through affection, favors, or gifts, but we shouldn’t necessarily expect the same from them. Don’t assume what your friends are thinking; check it out instead. And accept that you could be wrong about their viewpoint—every individual possesses a sovereign mind and their own perceptions of the world. They may, in turn, have a very different way of expressing their feelings, or showing that they care. A close friend of mine, whom I’ve known since we were kids, rarely remembers to buy me a gift on my birthday. It would be easy to use this fact to feel bad, to build a case that she’s forgetful or just doesn’t care about me the way I care for her. But that would be far from the truth. She simply shows warmth in other ways, often bringing me books she thinks I will love, picking up my favorite tea, or sitting to talk with me for hours when she suspects I’m not feeling my best.

5. Choose Compassion Over Cynicism

A good rule of thumb when it comes to our relationships is to care more about doing what’s right than being right. When you get to know a person, you get to know their worst traits, and it’s easy to become cynical toward those negative aspects of their personality. It’s far more preferable to be compassionate. Compassion keeps us vulnerable instead of tough and guarded, or seeing the world through a negative lens. A recent study showed that toddlers as young as age 2 get joy from seeing others helped. The Greater Good Science Center at University of California, Berkeley reported this as “the first study to suggest that altruism is intrinsically rewarding even to very young kids, and that it makes them happier to give than to receive.” Compassion, then, is its own reward, as it leaves us feeling good within ourselves regardless of how a friend may be behaving. Being honest and straightforward without being cynical is perhaps the most important quality of a good friend.

Why It Matters

In her book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, Australian nurse Bronnie Ware listed "not maintaining friendships" as one of people’s biggest death-bed regrets. Keeping close friends is an essential part of life that gives us meaning and fulfillment. Holding yourself to these five standards will help you develop within yourself and expand your potential to grow meaningful friendships throughout your life. It’s no surprise that those people who are most giving of themselves are the most liked. Thus, keeping a realistic, yet compassionate outlook on the world will inherently expand your own world, attracting others along the way. All of these characteristics are contagious: By being the kind of person you respect, you encourage others to do the same.

Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone at PsychAlive.org

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