May 28, 2024

Put in the time

There is no way around it, you have to make time to be a good friend. According to Robin Dunbar, professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Oxford and author of Friends: Understand the power of our most important relationships, we must spend the equivalent of nine minutes a day maintaining a healthy relationship with our closest network of friends, which he admits is “hardly enough time to raise your coffee cup to each other”, so one meeting a week is more realistically. If you don’t, “the friendship starts to decay”, says Dunbar.

Be the initiator

Don’t be afraid to take the lead in your social life, says Max Dickins, author of Billy No-Mates: How I Realized Men Have a Friendship Problem. “Be the one who sends the messages, organizes the bar gathering, gets people together for someone’s birthday. It takes effort and intention, but it goes a long way.” For male relationships, he says, it’s especially important for someone to take on this role: “When life is busy, and you have bums to wipe off if you’re a parent or a very busy career, you need the pens place to pitch the whole social tent.”

“Rekindling an old friendship is all about picking up the phone and saying, ‘Do you feel like going for a walk in the hills or dinner somewhere?'” says Dunbar. “Some semi-social activity that provides an opportunity to engage in conversation to recharge it.”

Communication is the key

If someone is flaky or not pulling their weight in your friendship, tell them, says Dickins. “Your friend may not have the self-awareness to know that they are not doing their fair share, or they may not be aware that you are hurt or annoyed by it.” This is easier said than done as most of us do not communicate very honestly in friendships.

“We don’t take friendships as seriously as romantic relationships, and we don’t have the same scripts,” says Dickins. He shares the story of a friend he had to meet with over the weekend. Dickins sent a text asking if they were still on, but his friend didn’t reply until Monday. “I had to tell him, ‘This is the third time in a row you’ve canceled and it’s pretty frustrating’.

His friend was quite horrified. So make sure “You approach these conversations in a non-blaming way,” says clinical psychologist Miriam Kirmayer. “Use this as an opportunity to reiterate your desire to stay connected and your willingness to make it work.” She suggests saying something like: “I noticed we spend less time together/talk less often. Is this something you’ve noticed too? I bring this up because our friendship is something I really care about. Can we talk about this and what could happen?”

Kirmayer saw the benefits of such openness. “One of the themes I see is that friendships where both people prioritize open, transparent communication — as we often do in our romantic relationships — not only have the best chance of survival, but are often the closest and most fulfilling .”

Find regular activities to do together

“For some people, especially as we get older and busier, friendship holds high expectations,” says Sheila Liming, an academic and author of Hanging Out: The Radical Power of Killing Time. “This is where we run into trouble, when we feel that the time we spend with someone else is ultimately not worth it.” To avoid this, Liming recommends creating “little rituals or regular interactions with friends, so that those interactions don’t carry that burden or expectation that everything has to be perfect.” For her, this involves popping into friends’ houses for a cuppa and a catch-up, and letting her know that she is always open to this too.

Nina Badzin, host of the Dear Nina: Conversations about friendship podcast, recommends taking up a regular pastime with your pals: “There’s a reason everyone plays pickleball. So much of the work of staying close is about time spent together—and scheduling that time is challenging. If you have something that already exists on the calendar, a lot of the hard part of staying connected has already been done for you.” Dunbar points out that research on joining a choir is particularly positive for friends, as singing together causes a greater release of endorphins. The same goes for running together.

Give people a second chance

“Friendships can bring a lot of discomfort,” says Liming. “The more you practice building your relationships, the more stamina you build up to work on those that have become a little difficult. One of my big mantras is to give it a second chance. And a third, fourth, fifth and sixth chance too, because sometimes that’s what friendship requires. Someone may be having a bad day, or going through a difficult time. Or we feel like we are being neglected by someone we thought was a good friend. One of the best things you can do is to indicate that you are still for someone and wait until they are in a better place.”

It’s only human says Susan Shapiro Barash, author of Toxic Friends: The Antidote for Women Trapped in Complicated Friendships, to mourn “a lost or broken friendship. There are cases where someone will reconnect with an old friend and the friendship is rekindled. However, this only happens if there is forgiveness and the two friends can move past whatever the incident was that ended their relationship. If tension is still brewing, there is less opportunity to move forward.”

Illustration: Lisa Sheehan/The Guardian

Meet (and touch) IRL

“Don’t turn your real friend into an online friend,” says Badzin. Friendship maintenance should ideally take place in person. Make the effort to visit when possible. “Friends of friends should try to get a trip on the calendar or a visit to one of the friend’s homes,” she says.

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“There’s a premium to face-to-face,” says Dunbar. “Technology helps keep friendships going, but there’s nothing like being across the table, staring into the other person’s eyes and making physical contact with them.” This is the basis of all primate social relationships, he says, and happens constantly during conversations. “The amount of body surface that is permissible to touch during interactions is directly correlated with the emotional closeness of the relationship.”

Pick up the phone

Long-distance friendships are especially prone to becoming stale. “If you’re long-distance friends, you still need to shake up the way you stay in touch,” says Badzin. “Pick up the phone and talk while you each run errands. Make an appointment for a FaceTime call. It doesn’t sound exciting or spontaneous, but if the friendship feels stale, it’s usually because too much time passes between quality time together on a regular basis, keeping you stuck in the same catch-up conversation.”

“Voice notes can be useful for a quick update, but they shouldn’t be relied upon,” adds Badzin. “When overused in place of a call, there can be an end to voice notes that can’t scratch the itch like a deeper conversation.”

Schedule a going out at night

“Bring a sense of romance into your friendships by going on a regular friend date,” says relationship coach Vicki Pavitt. “You can take turns to squeeze each other and think of ways to make your dates special, such as dressing up, choosing a different restaurant each time, or visiting art galleries together. Turn your dates into a celebration of each other and your friendship.

It’s important to carve out time to create new memories,” says Kirmayer. “whether it’s trying out new activities, exploring unknown places, or planning a break or festival together. Our friendships thrive on novelty and benefit from shared feelings of excitement and novelty.”

Recognize that relationships change

The longest friendships will experience major shifts and changes over the course of each person’s life, so it is important to accept that they too will evolve.

“There can be moments when we feel a little more distant, and others where we feel incredibly close,” says Kirmayer. “It is therefore important to abandon all-or-nothing thinking. A friendship can still be worth holding on to when it no longer resembles its initial form.”

Recognize when you grew apart

“When a friendship grows stale, it helps to ask yourself what kind of friendship it was,” says Lydia Denworth, author of Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life’s Fundamental Bond.

“Not everyone will be a friend for life and that’s okay,” says Denworth. “People change, they grow apart, they lose that thing that bound them together. There are friends who sustain us and friends who drain us. Be honest with yourself about it and look to keep the people who support you.”

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