Friendship is great for your health. In fact, studies have found that having stronger social relationships pays dividends in the form of less depression, better overall health, and a longer lifespan.
But recent research suggests that many of us struggle to maintain those friendships. A 2018 survey from health insurer Cigna found that only around half of Americans (53%) have meaningful in-person social interactions, such as having an extended conversation with a friend, on a daily basis. And spending more than a year “social distancing” during the COVID-19 pandemic has kept many of us at more than arm’s length from our friends.
So how can you nurture your existing friendships and build strong new ones? As the saying goes: “To have a friend, you have to be a friend.” Here’s what the experts say about how to be a good friend.
Show Up and Take Risks
“Lately I’ve seen a lot of social media posts about ‘boundary culture,’ and feeling comfortable telling people you don’t have the energy for them,” says psychologist and friendship expert Marisa Franco, PhD. “It’s fine to set boundaries, but when you’re in a close friendship with someone, you need to try your best to show up for them, especially when it’s urgent and a time of crisis. That’s a portal to deep intimacy.”
Psychologists call this “risk regulation” — how people balance the goal of seeking closeness in relationships, which makes us vulnerable, with protecting ourselves and minimizing the likelihood of pain and rejection. “If you’re always withdrawing and putting your own needs first, telling your friend that you’re tired and you don’t have time to listen, that can sabotage your friendships,” Franco says. “When you show up for them and give them the benefit of the doubt, you’re making yourself vulnerable but you’re also helping the relationship. Good friends are people in pro-relationship mode rather than self-protection mode, and that invites your friend to do the same.”
Set Realistic Expectations
But being there for your friend, and expecting them to be there for you, doesn’t always have to mean you both drop everything the second the other one calls. “Sometimes in friendships, we have unrealistic expectations of the other person,” says psychologist Markesha Miller, PhD, clinical director of Holistic Psychological Associates and an adjunct professor at the University of South Carolina. “People may enter into friendships expecting the other person to fulfill certain roles or fill voids they are experiencing in their lives. When the person is unable to do that, it can create a rift in the relationship.”
So if you want to deepen your friendships, think about what friendship actually means to you: what you expect to put into the relationship, and what you expect to receive in return. “If you’re evaluating your friendships and continue to notice that there’s always the same thing that is missing, then you should consider whether the issue is a problem with a specific friendship, or expectations you have that aren’t realistic,” she says.
Of course, there will be times when your friend needs more from you, and times when you need more from them. Maybe they just lost their job, or maybe you’re in the process of a divorce. “Friendships aren’t always equally balanced at every point in time,” says psychologist and friend expert Irene S. Levine, PhD. “But overall there is a sense of each friend pulling their weight. A good friendship is reciprocal: It has to be mutually satisfying for both people.”
Make Time to Reach Out
Friendships don’t usually end with a big blow-up, Franco says. They’re far more likely to just fizzle out. “If you want to sustain your friendships over the long term, you need to be the one who reaches out and is intentional about making that a priority.”
When something is important to us, we schedule time for it rather than just expecting it to happen. We make appointments in our calendar for work meetings, parent-teacher conferences, and exercise classes. If you want to keep your friendships healthy, schedule time for them too. If you find that you’re often too busy or distracted to respond to your friends’ texts or calls right away, try setting up a recurring appointment on your calendar for a few minutes every day or every other day to catch up on communication with your pals.
That’s a good way to make new friends as well, Franco says. “What’s really important to friendship is having continued interaction over time. Often we’ll meet someone new and say, ‘I’d love to hang out sometime,’ and it stops there. The person who makes that encounter in a friendship is the one who takes the time to follow up and ask the other person to meet up for coffee or come to their book club meeting.”
Work Through Conflict
People who are good at keeping friendships are also good at working through conflict, Franco says. “We feel like we have to deal with conflict in romantic relationships, but sometimes in friendships we ignore it and let small grudges accumulate. Bringing up issues that you have with a friend can offer the opportunity for healing and show that you’re really invested in the friendship.”
“If it feels like a friendship you value is becoming untethered, do whatever you can to fix it. Be the first to extend the olive branch. Talk it through with your friend,” Levine agrees.
So how do you do that? Franco suggests leading with the positive. “Say something like, ‘I appreciate you so much. There’s one thing that I’ve been thinking about that I feel would make our friendship even better,” she says. “Don’t make it an attack on the person’s character. Once someone is put on the defensive, it’s hard to communicate openly and people can lash out.”
Understand When It’s Over
What if you’ve done all of this and the friendship still feels like it’s not working? “If a friendship is persistently draining and emotionally unsatisfying, it may suggest that the friendship isn’t a good one,” Levine says. “Friendships are voluntary relationships that should enrich our lives, not detract from them.”
A simple question may help you decide if it’s time to move on: Is this relationship adding more to your life than it’s taking away? If the answer to that question is no, then it could be that investing in this particular friendship isn’t worth it. “If you notice that more is coming out of you than is being poured into you, that’s a red flag,” Miller says. If the relationship is damaging or hurting you in any way, then that may be a friendship you need to detach yourself from.”