I had a chance to see one of my longtime friends recently. I met her 20 years ago when we attended a leadership camp as representatives from our high schools. We were fast friends and stayed in touch, visiting each other throughout our remaining high school days, eventually becoming college roommates. Life has taken us to opposite sides of the country, but as luck would have it, I ended up raising my family just minutes from where she grew up so we’re able to see each other once a year when she comes home to visit. For friends with such a long history, we could be better at staying in touch. Over these 20 years, we’ve both been in and out of each others’ lives in varying degrees of closeness, but what has helped us remain friends is that we give each other grace during the moments when one of us is swept up in life and falls off the radar for a bit. We always come back around and tag in as if nothing ever happened. Spending time with her had me reflecting on just what it takes to make a friendship last.
Maintaining friendships can be complicated, as it requires a high level of emotional stamina and maturity. These relationships can feel vulnerable because unlike family where you are bonded (stuck?) forever, in a friendship you are in a constant state of choosing each other. That’s where the vulnerability lies – both people need to choose to be a friend and choose to accept friendship. Read that carefully – you need them both.
Choosing to be a Friend
This part comes more easily to some than others. There is no perfect “way” to be a friend. The most simple advice I can give on how to be a good friend is that you look for an opening and invite yourself in.
The type of friend we choose to be is dynamic and changes with where we are at in our lives. There are times when you have the space in your life to be the all hands on deck friend. But there will be times when your life ramps up and you are unable to put the energy into a friendship that you once did, leaving you the monthly text check-in friend. And that’s ok. The important thing is to be honest with yourself and honest with your friends when things change. So much about relationships boils down to managing expectations, and the same goes for friendships.
We’ll never be one type of friend. The hard work of being a friend is acknowledging what you are capable of in any given phase of life. Some of my best friends live the farthest away from me and distance does not allow us to be the type of friends we once were when we lived closer. We’ve all developed new relationships that serve as our day-to-day close friends. But that’s life, and the fact that we have new close friends in no way devalues the friendship we have cultivated over the years.
That’s the grace of friendship. If you are going to have lifelong friends, then you need to give yourself grace and allow for these ebbs and flows of energy.
Choosing to Accept Friendship
So often when we consider friendship, we think of it from an outward facing perspective – those who are our friends. But rarely do we think of the other part of friendship – how we accept it.
I like to bring my friends into my life, share my world, make them cookies, buy them coffee and so on. That last sentence sounds obnoxious – I’m not a perfect friend. It’s actually exhausting to be my friend and it takes a special kind of person. What I’m saying is that I’m most likely to be friends with those who accept these gestures because by accepting my gestures, they are accepting my friendship.
Conversely, I am mindful of how I accept the friendship of others. I don’t expect everyone to be like me, so I look for what their unique friendship currency is. Kind of like that book The Five Love Languages – friends have unique ways of offering friendship and if we want to be their friend, it’s our responsibility to respect that and accept it. For instance, I have a friend who likes phone call catch-ups. I don’t love phone calls, but I love her, so I make time for periodic phone chats. I enjoy them and it’s important to our friendship. I have another friend that is a significant gesture friend. This friend will be in an active state of accepting my friendship for loooong periods of time…like to the point where I get annoyed and cut them off from my coffee gestures. But just when I’m at my friend threshold, they drop in when it really matters and do something really thoughtful or helpful. I’ve come to accept this over the years and am at peace with this dance now.
Grace and Space
I regret that I learned this so late in life. I used to hold friends to high standards, taking things personally and complaining when they were not as attentive or responsive as I would have liked them to be. Had I only stopped to think about how our lives were changing, how we had new things on the scene like grad school, new jobs, new loves, new babies – things that required attention and left all of us unable to devote the same energy to our friendship – I would have saved myself a lot of unnecessary hard feelings.
My husband was actually instrumental to my learning to relax about all of this. He holds onto the friendships that he picks up in different parts of his life. High school buddies, college dorm buddies, college house buddies, neighborhood buddies…he has a lot of buddies that keep him busy. Remarkably, his relationships are pretty much drama free. Men seem to have the ability to not internalize and overthink friendship dynamics. What I noticed in my husband’s many sets of friends is that they all pop in and out with no issue. I like how they roll and over the years have tried to emulate this open, relaxed approach to friendship.
Giving grace and space is not to say that you should tolerate a toxic friendship. That’s a whole other tangent. The reflection here is about managing a set of long term friendships and acknowledging that as life changes, so will each individual relationship.
If you simply let friends be the kind of friend they are capable of, you will find that you have everything you need. Some will be close, some will pop up when needed, some will send copious amounts of Facebook “likes” but the sum of those friends will be a blanket of warmth and support in any way you need it. And over time, those friends will most likely shift roles.
Grace and space. Lifelong friendships require us to view these partnerships as dynamic entities. Offer friendship always in the best way you can, and remember to accept friendship in a way that leaves space for your friends to also do the best they can in any given moment. Relationships last when your expectations allow them to.