When it comes to relationships, romance often grabs the spotlight. A simple glance in the self-help aisle of any bookstore reveals a thousand ways to Get a Mate/Keep a Mate/Dump a Mate/Get Over a Mate—perhaps there are even tips on how to Moisturize A Mate—and yet so few words written on friendship, which is one reason I wrote The Friendship Fix.
In my years of practice and research as a clinical psychologist, I’ve learned something that comes as a surprise to many: It’s friend relationships that often make up the highs and lows of our lives, and in some ways they affect our daily well-being even more than our family does.
For better or for worse, friend relationships, or the lack of them, can largely determine our happiness. They help us develop the rhythm of our days and can even shape our goals and our dreams, encouraging us to become who we want to be. Despite their vital importance, though, true friendships in adulthood can be much harder to make and maintain than they were during the golden days of lunchboxes or the late-night camaraderie of dorm rooms.
Take heart: If you’re willing to set your mind to it, you too can develop outstanding friend relationships that help you thrive in ways you never thought possible.
1. Make it a health issue.
Solid friendships are crucial to your physical—yes, physical—health. Did you know that poor-quality social support is the mortality-risk equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes per day? Or that supportive friendships in your 20s are a solid predictor of being alive at 70? Genuine, nourishing friendships boost your immune system, improve your prognosis with various chronic health conditions, and lower your blood pressure—and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Emotionally, they help reduce your risk of disorders from depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder to anxiety disorders and substance abuse. If you’re great with your gym regimen but keep putting off having lunch with the person who most makes you laugh, shuffle your priorities a bit.
2. Embrace quality and ditch quantity.
We know this intuitively, and can probably acknowledge that our five-hundredth Facebook friend relationship is not the bearer of much emotional sustenance. And research suggests we may actually be lonelier now despite having more “friends” than before. But despite this, many of us spend countless hours every week spinning our wheels within some very superficial friendships, getting caught up in a minefield of bland emails or generic texts or the endless treadmill of social networking. We may spend hours each day fiddling on Instagram or Facebook, typing LOL under a video we didn’t even bother to watch, but doing nothing to make true connections—all the while feeling too “busy” to go out and make some friendships that are much more real.
3. Ride out transitions.
Not only is it harder to make new friends when you no longer have the automatic proximity you had to peers in your school days, but it is common (and natural) to have friendships wither away when life transitions shift the relationship—from a geographical move to a change in job to marriage, kids, retirement, health issues, or divorce. Many of us are bereft after a life transition—feeling ashamed of the fact that we seemingly don’t have many friends anymore—and yet it is quite a normal problem to have. It has nothing to do with who you are as a person, and everyone goes through it at some point. Those that emerge better off than before are the ones who take it as a logistical challenge to overcome, not as something to be embarrassed about.
4. Expect—and even embrace—false starts.
Making friends takes effort, and here’s a reality check: You need some failed attempts. Would you expect to marry the first person you ever dated? Not every friendship you attempt will get off the ground, either. It’s not something to take personally; building friendships is a process that takes time, and is in many ways a numbers game. And here’s the beautiful thing about false starts: Each and every one gives you a little more insight about how to refine your friend search, and it gets you a little bit closer to finding a good match.
5. Commit to community.
Friendship is not just about a one-on-one relationship, but it can also entail the good feelings you get from being part of something bigger than you. Traditional communities involve neighborhoods, workplaces and places of worship, but new ones can be built in any way you desire. Think of interests you have that you might have some time to devote to. From volunteering with homeless pets to cheering on your team at a pub, from taking up tae kwon do to joining a knitting circle, from a neighborhood listserv to just teleworking from the same coffee shop at the same time each week, becoming part of a community will expose you to like-minded people and give you an important sense of belonging that goes beyond even the beauty of individual relationships.
6. Focus on follow-up.
Often it’s not meeting people that’s hard; perhaps you even have more small-talk-partners than you know what to do with. But many people get trapped at this first, superficial level, because they lack the courage or know-how to go a bit deeper. Bring up something that was talked about in the last conversation. Remember little things and ask about them. Reveal something that leaves you a bit vulnerable. Suggest a spontaneous outing, splurge for an extra ticket for something off-the-cuff. Give a compliment. Suggest someone follow up with a text to let you know how something went that was important to them. Offer them a resource—even just a link that you heard about—that you'll text them later. The only way to go from talking about the weather to being friends for decades is to start with a nudge of making things more personal and continuous.
7. Avoid technology traps.
Smartphones, social networking, instant messaging—thank goodness for the many advances that can help us keep each other close, and that can expose us to many people we would never have known before. But the negatives can trick us into missing out on the stuff of true emotional sustenance. When we rely too much on our screens instead of our faces and voices, our interactions can be dehumanized. Face-to-face and even voice-to-voice contact bring a level of spontaneity, warmth, and engagement that our souls were not meant to be without. The next time you’re lucky enough to be sitting across from a friend over coffee, pile your phones up in the middle of the table, and the first one to reach for theirs pays the tab.
8. Develop momentum.
We’ve all been there: An attempt to get old coworkers together, or new moms or neighbors or old classmates stalls after the seventh “reply-all” response where no times seem to work for everyone. Or you like to chat with a dear friend on the phone, but both of you are always too busy to pick up. If you want to stay close, stop letting schedules contribute to the deterioration of the relationship. Pick a standing time—the second Sunday of every month is brunch, for instance, or every Wednesday afternoon is a phone chat during your commutes—and let it work automatically. The magic comes soon after, when the event becomes routine and ingrained and continues on its own—no planning needed.
9. End poisonous friendships.
Is there a long-standing pattern of stress, imbalance, or resentment within a friendship? Do you consistently dread spending time with a friend, or leave them feeling drained? Do you not like who you become with that person? Clearing away the emotional debris of toxic relationships is imperative to make way for healthier ones. The inertia of unhealthy friendships can be strong: Guilt, fear, and familiarity can keep us in them much longer than is good for us. But if you can bring yourself to make some real changes, you’ll have even more room for healthier relationships.
10. Remember the little things.
We often get so bogged down with perfection that we sabotage ourselves, like the person so focused on "owing" their friend a nice, long email response that they put it off and fail to respond at all. But done is better than perfect. So you neglected to plan a big surprise for your friend’s big birthday; don’t let that stop you from bringing over her favorite candy and some flowers. So you missed your wonderful coworker’s baby shower; don’t let that keep you from stopping by with a casserole. Just a simple, heartfelt or funny note—on real, touchable paper—is the type of small thing that adds up to a beautiful lifetime of true friendship.
Because it's not grandiose gestures that make up a friendship over the course of the lifespan; it's the consistency of connecting, no matter how small it sometimes needs to be.
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Andrea Bonior, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and speaker. She is the author of the upcoming book Psychology: Essential Thinkers, Classic Theories, and How They Inform Your World and The Friendship Fix, and serves on the faculty of Georgetown University. Her mental health advice column Baggage Check has appeared in the Washington Post Express for more than eleven years. Write your mental health questions to the column at firstname.lastname@example.org. She speaks to audiences large and small about relationships, work-life balance, and motivation, and is a television commentator about mental health issues. Join the conversation on Facebook or twitter!