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Are These the Keys to Lifelong Friendship?

Uncommon wisdom about making and keeping friends.

Single people who want to stay single will never have the respect and esteem they deserve until the people who matter most to them, such as their friends, are accorded just as much attention and celebration as romantic partners. We’re a long way from that, but there has been some progress over the past several years.

Among those who have contributed to that progress are scholars who study friendship and journalists who interview friends and write about them. One of those journalists is Julie Beck, who has been writing “The Friendship Files”1 at the Atlantic since 2019. Each of the 100 articles in The Friendship Files features a set of friends Beck has interviewed in depth. (I discussed the Friendship Files previously here at Living Single and explained why I think that friendship is the key relationship of the twenty-first century.) The 100th profile marks the end of The Friendship Files. In an accompanying article, “The Six Forces That Fuel Friendship,” Beck described what she believes to be the six keys to creating and sustaining lifelong friendships.

I wanted to know what scholars of friendship thought of Beck’s six factors, so I asked two who were among the first to put the study of friendship on the map. They are alumni distinguished professor Rosemary Blieszner of Virginia Tech and Rebecca Adams, sociologist and gerontologist in the University of North Carolina at Greensboro's School of Health and Human Services. When they first started studying friendship, other scholars were even more preoccupied with marriage and conventional family than they are now. Blieszner and Adams both realized that friendship was a very significant interpersonal relationship that deserved far more attention than it was getting. They have been publishing their studies of friendship (focusing particularly on the friendships of later life), both separately and together, since the 1980s. They are also friends with each other, fittingly.

When I asked Blieszner and Adams (separately) what they thought of Beck’s six forces that fuel friendship, Blieszner commented on each of the six forces, and Adams described other forces that are out of our control.

6 Keys to Lifelong Friendship

The six keys, according to Beck, are accumulation, attention, intention, ritual, imagination, and grace.

1. Spending time together. Beck calls this “accumulation,” and she believes it is “the simplest and most obvious force that forms and sustains friendships."

Rosemary Blieszner: “Some of our participants described friendships that had been active since they were children or teens.”

Blieszner also commented on a different meaning of accumulation—not just the accumulation of time spent with a particular friend, but the accumulation of a number of friends: “Our participants endorsed the ditty, ‘Make new friends, but keep the old.’ But research shows that the size of one’s friendship network is not its most important element in sustaining well-being. Rather, the quality of close relationships within the network is key. Having at least one confidant who is trustworthy, supportive, accepting, and fun to be with is crucial.”

2. Paying attention to opportunities to develop friendships. Beck reassures us that “connection can come from anywhere, at any time, if both parties are open to it.” She recommends “noticing when you click with someone, being open to chance encounters.” She calls this the “attention” factor.

Beck does not default to standard friend-making tips such as “go to a meetup” or “volunteer.” She’s telling us that there are far more opportunities than we ever imagined as we go about our everyday lives if we are attuned to the possibilities.

Rosemary Blieszner commented on the importance of paying attention once a friendship has already been initiated: “Our participants emphasized the importance of demonstrating interest and caring by remembering and inquiring about important people and events in the friend’s life, remembering the friend’s birthday, applauding grandchildren’s accomplishments.”

3. Acting on those opportunities. “When opportunity arises, you have to put yourself out there,” Beck tells us. This is the “intention” factor, and she thinks it is the most difficult part of friendship. But don’t expect her to start sounding like all those people who go on and on about how romantic relationships are such hard work. “Showing up for our friends takes effort, yes…but it should be a joy.”

Rosemary Blieszner: “Our participants indicated that successful friendships depend on reciprocity. If one person is doing all the relational work—making overtures, following up, arranging activities, etc., eventually that person might tire of the lopsidedness and let the friendship drift away. Also, research shows that if self-disclosure is not reciprocal, a sense of trust is jeopardized. In Societal Structures of the Mind, Foa and Foa stated that for friendships or close relationships to form, people must meet frequently enough to start to get to know each other, spend enough time together when they do interact, and they must have sufficient privacy for self-disclosure. Without these elements, pairs are acquaintances or casual friends, but are unlikely to become close friends or best friends.”

4. Having a regularly scheduled meeting or ritual. It takes effort to stay in touch with friends. Someone has to initiate or plan outings. Beck suggests getting something on the books, like a weekly dinner or a monthly book club meeting, so that it is a regularly scheduled event. This is the “ritual” factor.

Rosemary Blieszner: “When speaking about their closest friends, our participants mentioned the value of having common interests and engaging in activities that promoted companionship, shared experiences, and enjoyment.”

5. Prioritizing friendship and your friends. Beck calls the prioritization of friendship the “imagination” factor. She encourages us to imagine something different from the standard script in which a romantic partner is the main person with whom we share our lives. She suggests that we consider possibilities such as raising kids with friends, buying a house with a friend, going to therapy with a friend, or donating a kidney to a friend.

Rosemary Blieszner: “I think the participants in our study who embraced friendship with those who differed from themselves (e.g., being friends with someone several or more decades younger) were exhibiting the imagination that let them move beyond the typical kinds of friendships, which they also had. Also, we found that the older people in our study seemed much more tolerant of foibles and annoyances among their friends than may be the case with young adult friendships.”

6. Forgiving yourself and your friend for not being the perfect friend. This is the “grace” factor, what friends offer themselves and each other when they do not live up to the other five keys to lifelong friendship.

Rosemary Blieszner: “Tolerance and non-judgmental acceptance of others comes into play in sustaining friendships. This is not to say that our participants didn’t have friends who became less close than before or drifted away for various reasons. And a few participants described ending friendships on purpose because the other person violated a friendship/relationship norm. But mostly they seemed to give each other some grace.”

Forces Outside of Our Control or Awareness

Rebecca Adams explained that there are other important factors, too, including some that are outside of our control or awareness:

Beck’s comments focus on what individuals can do to maintain their friendships but much what fuels friendship is out of control of the individuals involved, or at least they are unaware of it. Our opportunities for friendship are shaped by our daily routines, which are dictated not only by our own preferences and dispositions, but also by our social positions and statuses. Our friends tend to be similar to us in terms of gender, race, class, age, and other characteristics whether we are open to diversity and inclusiveness or not. This similarity of friends is thus fueled or shaped by a tendency for people with similar social positions to engage in the same type of activities, have the same type of jobs, live in the same neighborhoods, interact in the same online communities, etc.

My friendship with Rosemary Blieszner, the subject of one of Beck’s wonderful interviews, illustrates the invisible hand of social structure really well. We are both Ph.D.'s, college professors, female, and near the same age. So we had the opportunity for friendship because we started attending the same professional conferences at the beginning of our careers and would have seen each other repeatedly even if we had not engaged in the behaviors Beck describes. Without that initial opportunity, which was shaped by our social positions, we would not have even known each other.

Special Relevance to Single People

Beck’s “imagination” factor, which involves challenging the exalted place of romantic relationship partners, is especially important to the Single at Heart, for whom single life is our best life. We live in defiance of the conventional wisdom that insists that the best life is one that is organized around a romantic partner. In the Atlantic in 2020, Rhaina Cohen asked, “What if friendship, not marriage, was at the center of life?”2 At the online community for single people that I started years ago, that article has been posted over and over and over again. That doesn’t mean that we all want to organize our lives around a close friend. We who are Single at Heart love our solitude and many of us cherish having homes of our own that we share with no one. As for our friends, rather than having one best friend, sometimes we have a variety of friends we turn to for different emotional needs; they are our “emotionships.”

In their research on young adults, Alexandra N. Fisher and her colleagues found that single people invest in their friendships more than people in romantic relationships do, and they are rewarded with better quality friendships and higher self-esteem. Because of the special place of friends in the lives of many single people, singles can perhaps lead the way in showing how to value friends. Here are 19 ways I described here previously.