Good friends. They pick us up when we’re down, and rely on them to keep us honest and happy. Why, then, is it so hard to sustain strong friendships as the years go by?
“Life transitions tend to get in the way,” says Dr. Andrea Bonior, psychologist, author of The Friendship Fix and a professor of psychology at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. “A job change, relocation, birth of a child or divorce can spell the death blow for friendships, especially if they were based on proximity and shared experiences. When people are no longer a part of your daily life, it takes effort to make the friendship last.”
Here, four common challenges good friends face and Bonior’s “fixes” to help your friendships thrive.
Challenge: No time to get together.
Solution: Make pals a priority.
The laundry pile is two feet high, the kitchen sink is filled with dirty dishes and bills are begging to be paid. But don’t let that to-do list (or the exhaustion of getting it done) keep you from a coffee date or Girls’ Night Out. “Half the battle of sustaining healthy friendships is making them a priority,” Bonior says. “Commit to spending quality time with friends, just as you’d commit to being with your family or exercising to stay healthy.”
Challenge: You live far away.
Solution: Commit to real connection.
When the miles separate you and a good pal, it’s easy to fall into the rut of trading occasional emails and calling each other on birthdays — but that’s not enough to keep your bond tight. Nurture long-distance friendships by thinking outside the box and using technology to your favor. “Send your friend a little package of her favorite candy or a funny greeting card to let her know she’s on your mind,” Bonior suggests.
Don’t confuse memes and “LOL” comments online with real connection. “You may feel like you have interaction because you’re always texting or commenting on each other’s Facebook posts, but that’s neither quality nor quantity,” says Bonior. Schedule regular phone calls so you can catch up in a real conversation, not sound bites. Connect through Skype or video conferencing, rather than email or texts. Consider vacationing together or paying a visit to enjoy each other’s company and create new memories.
Challenge: You’re not sure how to help.
Solution: Tune up your listening skills.
When a friend is struggling with a problem, you may drift apart because you feel you don’t know how to be supportive. But most of the time, the best way to help is to be a good listener; sometimes people just need to vent and feel emotionally heard. Encourage your friend to talk, and stay in the moment by interjecting neutral comments (“Wow!”) and asking open-ended questions (“What do you think about that?”). Then check in with a “how are you doing?” call the next day to show her that you truly listened. What’s more, avoid passing judgment (“Oh, that stinks”) and giving unsolicited advice (“Here’s what you should do…”). If you think your friend is creating her own troubles, test the waters by saying, “Do you have any idea why this seems to keep happening?” rather than pointing out the obvious.
Challenge: Your gang of pals hasn’t met in months.
Solution: Plan group time.
Do you and your friends always promise to get together, but put it off because you can’t find a day that works for everyone? Solve the problem by setting a standing date with plenty of advance notice — say, brunch the first Sunday of every other month or lunch the third Friday of the month. “A get-together is more likely to happen if people can plan their calendars around it,” Bonior says. And once you’re F2F, make it a tech-free time. One way to make this happen: Put your phones in the middle of the table, and agree that the first person who reaches for her phone to text must foot the bill for the group. After all, the whole point of getting together is to connect — so do it!