September 23, 2016
By Irene S. Levine, Ph.D.
Making and keeping friends can be challenging because there are no “rules of the road.” Many people feel self-conscious about making new friends and guilty about ending friendships that are no longer rewarding. They’re curious about how their friendships compare to those of other people, and wonder how they can be better friends.
Here are a few rules to help you navigate these relationships:
1. Friendships are unique and special relationships.
Unlike marriages (that are bound by law) or familial relationships (that are bound by blood), friendships are totally voluntary. These relationships begin and end at will. Sometimes, it can even be tricky to know precisely when a friendship begins or when it has ended.
2. Friendships are vital to our health and emotional well-being.
Friendships enhance our lives in a variety of ways. Although scientists still don’t understand the specific underlying biological and physiological pathways, a number of research studies have established links between having supportive friendships and improved health outcomes.
For example, having close friendships can reduce blood pressure, decrease stress, be protective of the heart, lessen the risk of depression and even improve longevity. Our friends also help us maintain healthy lifestyles and increase the likelihood of us seeking treatment and care when needed.
3. Friendships can’t be rushed.
It takes time to forge a solid friendship. Friendships begin as acquaintances: Two people need to gradually get to know each other before they can become intimate friends and reveal more of their “true selves” to each other. The best way to make new friends is to place yourself in situations where you spend time regularly with the same person (e.g., in a class, at the gym, as a volunteer, or in a sorority or other social group).
4. The need for friendship differs amongst different individuals.
Based on background, personality and temperament, people’s needs for friendship vary. Some prefer close, intimate friendships; others prefer more distant ones. Some people prefer having a small group of two or three close friends while others enjoy having a large group of friends.
There is no commonly accepted language available to characterize friendships. One person may consider a relationship a “close friendship” while another may perceive the same relationship to be “distant.”
5. No friendship is perfect.
Every relationship, whether it’s a friendship or a marriage, has its ups and downs. Two friends need to make accommodations to each other constantly, but in a true friendship, this happens almost seamlessly most of the time.
Open communication is essential to resolve conflicts and misunderstandings. And if you say or do something wrong, don’t be too big to apologize. If your friend apologizes, don’t be too big to forgive.
Friends need to be mindful that solid friendships are reciprocal. One person can’t always be on the giving side and the other always taking. One friend can be more needy than the other at a given point in time—but over time, things need to balance out.
6. It’s unlikely that one person can fulfill all our needs for friendship.
Because people are complex and differ from one another, it’s unrealistic to think that any one individual can meet all your friendship needs. One friend may share a particular hobby or interest, like dance or yoga. Another may be a mentor at work who motivates you to achieve your personal best. Another may be your wing person who is more outgoing and social when you’re at a gathering. Another may be someone who lives close by, making spontaneous get-togethers possible.
A real danger of having only one friend is that it can be very devastating if that friendship frays or ends, especially if the decision to end the friendship isn’t yours.
7. Maintaining friendships takes time and effort.
When people are juggling school and/or work with responsibilities to family and home, it’s easy to place friendships on a back burner. Doing so can be especially tempting when someone is in the throes of a new romance or new job. Don’t forget that friendships are a gift you give to yourself, and they need to be nurtured to survive.
8. The need for friendships varies over time.
As our responsibilities, time availability, and life circumstances change (graduating, changing jobs, moving, marrying, mothering, divorcing, becoming a widow), it’s normal for our needs for friendship to fluctuate. At different times and during different life passages, individuals may feel like they need more or fewer friends.
9. Friendships come in different shapes and forms.
Some people complain that they have difficulty finding new friends. People often shrink their universe of potential friends by only seeking out relationships with people who “look just like them.” Instead, for example, it’s wise to pursue friendships with people who are older and younger. You may find a lot in common with someone else who isn’t obvious at first glance.
10. Not all friendships, even very good ones, always last forever.
Long-term friendships are extraordinarily rewarding—and irreplaceable. They may include shared memories of one or more “firsts.” A long-term friend has the perspective of knowing the person you were as well as the person you have become. It could be the friend who knew your parents, lived in your neighborhood, and/or attended the same elementary school, high school or college.
Yet even these friendships that you thought would last forever can end unceremoniously. In fact, most friendships end when two people simply drift apart as they grow in different directions and their lives take different turns. When this occurs, no one is necessarily at-fault or to blame. Treasure the memories of how they’ve enriched your life and what they’ve allowed you to bring to your future friendships.
Irene S. Levine, Ph.D. is a psychologist and clinical professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine. She is the author of Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend and produces www.TheFriendshipBlog.com, an online advice column on female friendships.