Friendship: Maintenance Required
Five tips on preserving your friendships.
Who is your best friend? If you are a married man reading my words, you will probably answer, “My wife.” But, if you are a woman, married or not, you will probably say, “Jennifer!” (or Sue, or Michelle, etc.). Most women place high value on their same-sex friendships, and we should. Friends are vital for a happy and healthy life.
I read a study once that cracked me up. Women were given beepers (remember beepers?) and were randomly contacted throughout the day. Whenever the beeper sounded, the woman had to record what she was doing, and how happy she was doing it. The results showed that women were content when they were alone grocery shopping. They weren’t all that happy when they were engaged in child care (surprised?). When were they the happiest? Was it when they were rocking their baby to sleep, or out on a date with their husband? No, women were happiest when they were spending time with their friends.
I believe that my friends have kept me sane and alive, and I state this without exaggeration. I came from a well-meaning but dysfunctional family that was emotionally neglectful. I needed to reach out in the world for love and support. Because I am upbeat and friendly, it has always been easy for me to make friends. Still, I don’t think that just any kid would have wanted to be my friend. After surviving a fire in early childhood, I was a severely burned girl who was clearly suffering. It is no accident that most of my best friends are in helping professions. A rough count of the 20 people I have been closest to tells the tale: half of them grew up to be therapists, doctors, or teachers. Many of them are also from divorced families. My two boy best friends are now both proud gay men. I was different; my friends were different too.
Despite the fire, my disfigurement, and my family, which essentially collapsed and disappeared, I was not alone. In fact, my friends became my chosen family. My mother, father, and brother are all dead. But I have a circle of chosen friends who are as committed to me as if we were family. Even beyond that circle, I am still in meaningful contact with the following: my kindergarten bestie, my childhood bestie, my camp best friend, my besties from 8th, 9th, and 10th grade, my college roommate, and so on. I joke that people should be careful becoming my friend because I am clearly hard to shed.
Do you have friends you can count on, who care about you, and who are there for you in a pinch? If so, then you are truly blessed. Friendship, and the resultant social support, is a key factor in mental health, physical health, and longevity itself. A famous Harvard study of adult development found that the best predictor of happiness and physical health in old age was not wealth, or success, or cholesterol status, but rather the quality of people’s relationships (you can see a video about this study and its findings here).
So let me ask you, what are you doing to preserve your blessings? People often take friends for granted, and then are surprised when the connections fade over time. We prioritize our marriages, our children, and our work over our friendships. Routinely, women put their friends on the back burner when they fall in love, plan their wedding, and raise their children. We focus instead on the tasks at hand, neglecting the web of friendships that is just as vital for our wellbeing. I think this is a big mistake.
Here are some tips on preserving your friendships:
First, pick wisely. Pay close attention to how a person makes you feel. Are they a good listener? Are they empathic when you talk? Do you feel safe opening up to them? Do they open up to you? Do they remember what you tell them, and ask you about it later? Do they show up when you are in pain? Look for reliable people who show empathy, care, and emotional reciprocity. These are the people to give your time and heart.
Friends require energy. Relationships don’t last in a vacuum. If you want a meaningful, long-lasting relationship, you will have to put in effort, time, and commitment, and it won’t always be fun. Expect to have to call late at night sometimes, even though you worked late and you just want to watch Queer Eye. Expect to have to drive into New York City for lunch, even though your taxes are overdue. Expect to have to drop everything, at a moment’s notice, to attend their mom’s funeral.
Long-term friendship requires mutual commitment. It is easy to connect with friends in the beginning, when you both love that yoga class, or you sing in chorus together. You know you will see them every week. The hard part is maintaining the relationship once the events that drew you together end. You won’t be in college together forever. You might move away from the neighborhood. What can you do to preserve the connection? You will need to maintain regular contact with a friend for the relationship to last. It can help to develop a joint routine. My friend N and I go out for fancy dinners for every birthday (pre-pandemic). My friend K and I schedule something special together every winter and summer (also pre-pandemic). Another friend K texts me almost daily, even though we live six time zones apart. With a light habitual pattern, I am sure to reconnect with each one of these amazing women regularly, which keeps the friendship alive and thriving.
You will be disappointed. No friend will be perfect, just as you won’t be perfect for them. Sometimes, your friend will be preoccupied or say something insensitive. Your lives might move in different directions for a while. Maybe you have two kids in diapers and your friend is still single. It might seem like you don’t have much in common anymore. Hang in there. If your friend has been there for you through thick and thin, you can be tolerant and patient too. You might grow closer again over time. Also, the nice thing about friendship is that you can have more than one! Different friends offer different strengths. For example, I call my bestie S. when I just need someone to love me and give me whole-hearted support. She is reliably kind and sympathetic, and always has my back. But I call my friend C. when I need help thinking through a problem. She approaches my dilemmas like a ninja, rapidly developing plans and strategies to solve my issue. I know my friends. We love each other, and we have different strengths to offer.
Stay open to the universe. I made my newest close friend, L., by surprise. We volunteered together at the high school, and I knew her a little. One day, I looked out my window to see her right outside my house. I went out to greet her and she told me she was lost. We started talking about our kids, and our problems, and our worries. I helped her with a worry; she helped me with a project. Before we knew it, we were close.
Someday when you are old, you will look back on your life. You won’t care if you finished those to-do lists. You won’t care if you were 20 pounds overweight. You won’t even remember why you loved Candy Crush. But you will remember the friends in your life, the friends with whom you laughed and cried, whose weddings and funerals you attended. Cherish your friendships. Don’t let them go.