Making and keeping good friends

Do you have a bestie? A buddy? How about a good mate? A group of people you enjoy hanging out with? Welcome to the world of making and keeping good friends.

Although they tend to take a backseat to romantic relationships and family, friends are an important part of our personal wellness. These initially random, entirely voluntary, two way relationships can keep us entertained and supported for anything from a short period to the whole of our lives. And whilst some people may remain acquaintances long term, they can change from friends to confidants and from confidants to significant relationships if both of you so choose.

According to Dunbar’s theory, most of us can maintain contact with about 100-200 people at a time. However, we trust only maybe 10-20 of those, and a 2005 study found that our very inner circle had  shrunk from three people to two in the previous 20 years. Even worse, one in four respondents claimed to have no close relationships at all!

That’s a problem, and one researchers suspect is growing. But how do you go about making and keeping good friends? Well, here’s the advice:

Give it time

The first thing to know is it’s going to take some of your time. Apparently, it takes 50 hours of being together in some context to trade up from being an acquaintance to a casual friend. Then it takes another 40 hours to become a ‘real’ friend and about 200 in total to be a close one.

This time doesn’t have to be all deep, intense conversation. You can sit in a class or meeting together, watch a film or play sport with these people. At the beginning, what you probably have in common is something you do, side by side. But to progress things, you’ll have to risk a little more.

Take the first, small step

Growing friendships can be seen as a series of small actions or steps. For initial progress, someone has to make a move. That’s you! But it’s key you make it small and reasonably non-threatening.

Who with? Well, this article suggests you begin with the humble acquaintance. Pick someone you know enough to like a bit and start with them.

American relationship specialist John Gottman suggests thinking about building relationships as a series of making bids. A bid is a single, small action or comment you put towards this other person. It could be a welcoming smile, or a line about the weather or something they’re wearing. Or asking advice. If it’s too deep or intense you may well throw them off-balance, so keep it superficial to begin with.

Make one bid, and when you get a positive response, or a similar bid in return, take things further.

Multiple ties bind

Friendships are strongest when you have multiple interests or values in common. So try to view your small talk with this new person as a treasure hunt. What have you got in common? That’s what you’re trying to find. The more things you share, the stronger your friendship can become.

Doing things together – especially something you both enjoy or value – is also important. It can move your friendship to a new level. So, if you normally sit beside each other at work but then you decide to go out for lunch, that’s strengthened things and moved the friendship forward. Going out with them after work steps it up another notch.

Think of it as you having a ball of string. The more times you pass that string back and forth between you and them (every shared interest or event is one pass), the stronger the relationship becomes. So actively look for ways to build in new memories and interactions over time.

Would you be my friend?

Last year I was at a two day coach/mentor training event and looking for someone to have lunch with. I woman I’d passed a few friendly smiles and comments with approached me. I was happy, because she seemed good value. As we ate, she looked a bit nervous and then asked me,

“Would you be my friend?”

I was rather chuffed, and told her yes. Although it was a bit unexpected, we’ve managed to push past the initial awkwardness and get to know each other more. Penny and I now catch up at least every couple of months. Sometimes we do coffee but often we walk along the beach, with or without our dogs.

I tell you that because instant friendships can happen. It’s just that it’s rare. In fact, Penny’s one of just two times in my life I’d say the fairy dust fell.

Regardless of how it starts, every friendship still takes work. You need to decide to meet, and to share a little bit of yourself when you do. But that’s how even more magic can happen…

Stepping friendships up

Time is a necessary element of deepening friendships. But vulnerability’s also part of the picture. In fact, Adelaide based Kitestring claims friendships become closer through small, continuing acts of bravery.  It’s no good meeting up with someone and telling them life’s all roses when you’re struggling. You’re only insulting the integrity of the relationship.

Kitestring reckons many friendships grow through the pull of enjoyment – and the push of problems. Most of the time it’s about the fun and enjoying each other. But every so often one of you has a problem. Friendships cross a threshold and you become ‘good’ friends when in those instances one of you demonstrates enough commitment to the relationship by offering some practical or emotional support.

Big life changes – the end of the line?

One of the things researchers have noticed is that big life events are often times when friendships get lost. So, moving from school to uni or uni to work, or from Brisbane to Perth can see a lot more than old t-shirts being thrown out.

This is obvious in some ways – if you’re changing towns, you’re not likely to see your footy mates ever again. But this friendship dump doesn’t have to happen. It’s more a matter of whether you choose to find another way to still be friends.

Keeping good friends

Deliberateness is part of maintaining older friendships. Sure, you’re no longer both in the same original context – but have you made enough other string connections (to use my earlier analogy) to hold your being friends together? Schedule a weekly time to chat, or post pics of your new life to increase mutual understanding of your new ‘world’  – these are smart ways to increase the odds of friendship survival.

Friendships need holding, in the same way that all rich and rewarding relationships do. Even if you met at the gym and are still going to the same gym, eventually your friendship will get lost in the activities of life – unless you find ways to keep it healthy. A regular cause, or time and place to meet, will help friendships to both thrive and last. And every so often? Try something new together to keep things fresh.

Friendships as we mature

Given the longer we live the more big life events we accumulate, it’s no wonder many people reach middle adulthood and find they’ve got no friends. Between the busyness of family life and the career many of us take on, the friendships we had can be pushed to the side and left to wilt.

Officially, there are three types of friendships: active, dormant, and commemorative. Active friendships are obviously your current ones, with interactions between you still happening. Dormant ones are those people you’ve lost contact with (perhaps because you’ve moved), but if you went back to visit it’d feel normal to catch up again. Commemorative ones are those which perhaps give you warm fuzzies (your Grade 1 bestie, that ex-boyfriend) but you’d never resurrect.

Far too many adult friendships are from the latter two categories only. And while those are great to have (even believing we have potential support increases our sense of wellbeing), we really want some active friends in our lives too. A director of one of the longest running studies on adult life (it’s lasted 75 years!) says the quality of your friendships and partnerships at 50 is the most accurate predictor of your mental and physical wellbeing at 80. Yes folks, friends matter!

Internet: angel or evil?

This leads us to an ongoing debate about the positives and negatives of the internet. Whether it helps or hinders you in your social life depends largely on how you use it.

If you consider your 429 followers on Instagram to be all you need and never cultivate any live, face to face relationships, you won’t be being helped by the internet. But if you decide to stay actively connected to, say, a key 12 people, and message, chat and comment with them regularly, it can help those friendships develop. I found this video on how the internet can strengthen friendships worth watching.

Significance or belonging?

At Head.Set.Go! we talk a great deal about two types of relationships – significance and belonging. As we wind up, it’s probably worth explaining where making and keeping good friends fits into that.

Because they start as acquaintanceship’s, friends begin life in the belonging category. Belonging’s about the two (or more) of you being in the same place and doing something together. Over time, friends can either stay in that category – say if things never become more than that – or grow into significance ones.

Once a relationship’s in the significance basket, each of you’s caring about the wellbeing of the other, even if you aren’t doing anything else together. Although, hopefully there’ll still be occasions you switch back to a shared activity to keep building those memories and strengthening your relationship. When in those doing moments, you should follow the rules of belonging (ie don’t try to make it all about you). Friendships where both of you feel close and supported are valuable, and worth the time and effort you invest in them.

How are you at making and keeping good friends?

At the end of the day, the only question that really matters is where you place yourself on the topic of making and keeping friends. All the awareness in the world’s not going to get you better ones – or help you feel better about yourself and your life. It’s over to you.

I’ve found researching this post to be an excellent reminder of some key facts, and it’s given me some ideas to action in the following few days. I’m off to tell Penny I’ve been writing about her. What’s on your action plan?