Good friends are vitally important to your mental health and to the quality of your life. To live and to love are inseparable from each other. Friendship is an opportunity to love, to learn about yourself, to mature as a human being, and to open up to the full experience of life. To seek true friendship, you must have the courage to risk all that you are. You must have the courage to walk through your fear of emotional intimacy and let another person know who you really are on the inside. On a very practical level, you must be willing to invest the necessary time and effort to develop, nourish, and maintain the bonds of a strong relationship.
Here is what you have to do if you want to turn an aquaintance into a friend and a friend into a close friend. The eight key qualities you must demonstrate are: priority, self-disclosure, touch, affection, loyalty, independence, acceptance, and willingness to change. It’s not simple is it?
Friends take time. You have to call them, and make the effort to be with them. You have to be willing to let them get to know you and it has to go deeper than just the superficial stuff. You have to respect them enough to allow for disagreement in your relationship, and allow your friend the freedom to be different from you without censure. A friend has to be important enough for you to make a significant space for them in your life and in your heart.
With words and touch you have to tell your friend that you care. You have to be willing to stand by your friend through thick and thin. This isn’t always easy. I have a friend who had cancer and there were times when I worried that I didn’t have the strength to give her what she needed. And then I would think about what she was going through, and I knew that I would do anything for her. She was the strong one, not me. Several years later, she was there for me when I was going through a difficult time in my life.
Friends can lean on each other and there will be times when one may lean more than the other will. When you’re prepared to go the distance though, you will see that it all balances out. You may be one of those people who are good at giving to others but are reluctant to let your friends love and care for you. You might be afraid of being weak, vulnerable, or dependent. Think about this: if you don’t let your friends give to you, it’s a one-way relationship and the deepest part of you is not really in it. You may feel safe, but this is not a full relationship and it’s not a true friendship. My friends have taught me that a true friendship requires both giving and receiving. Give as much as you can and be gracious in accepting their giving to you.
Friendships can and do change. There has to be enough freedom and independence in your relationship for the growth that is a normal part of human development. Be flexible enough to adapt to different ways of relating to each other. Marriages, children, careers, interests, and extended family constantly impact the daily structure and flow of our lives. This is where effort comes in. You can find ways to keep the relationship alive and strong if you are willing to be creative.
Be open and accepting of the choices that your friends make. You can be honest when you’re asked for your opinion but you don’t have to be critical or judgmental. You may think your friend is wrong or making a mistake but you must respect his or her right to choose their own path and their own learning. I rely on my friends to give me perspective and to be straight with me. I may not always follow their advice but I truly value it. I know it’s given carefully and with love.
Finally, build your friendships slowly and have more than one friend. One person cannot be everything to you even though you may have one ‘best’ friend. Friendships deepen over time and shared experiences, and you’ll share different experiences and different aspects of yourself with different friends.
Developing true friendships may sound like a lot of work but the joy of experiencing life with an open heart and sharing it with a true friend are worth it. Besides, you will live longer and be in good company along the way.
Shirley Vandersteen, Ph. D., C. Psych.