Thriving Friendships: How to Cultivate Them
Thriving friendships are what most of us long for. “We are designed to be in community,” is the commonly referenced phrase, and we know that it’s true, even for the most introverted individual (when we chose isolation for too long, we get weird). But in a society that has people moving, changing careers, and building new family and neighbors repeatedly, it is difficult to stay connected. We aren’t children who gather on the playground at school; we don’t live in college dorms surrounded by friends. We tend to live segregated lives, even if in a neighborhood of dozens of other families, or an apartment building with hundreds of other occupants. So, how do we dive deep, when it seems like our culture is set up to keep us at surface level?
I lived most of my young adult years feeling like my personality was “too much” for most women, and that I was “not enough” for everyone else. I wasn’t the girl with three besties from junior high until my senior year in high school. I bypassed the college sorority thing, and probably wouldn’t have made any life-long connections even if I had attended university. Finally, in my mid-thirties, after many nights crying to my husband about the lack of friendship in my life, I feel like I’m learning how to identify the relationships that I need, and what it takes for them to thrive.
In the past five years, our family has endured two significant geographical moves. My husband’s job moved us both times, and we had to rebuild our community in a place where we knew exactly no one. It was difficult to find “my tribe,” but having young children made for easy ice-breakers, and the ability to connect online through social media groups was also helpful. Eventually, however, my park playdates had to move from the playground to the backyard, or else it would never evolve past “chaperoning together.” My coffee shop dates had to relocate to my kitchen table, or living room sofa to allow for vulnerability to take place— for the most authentic conversation to feel allowed.
Here are several things that I’ve learned to be intentional about:
I stopped saying, “let’s get together.” I want to be a person of action, and a woman of my word. When I say, “let’s grab a coffee,” it’s typically followed by, “what day and time work best for you?” If I have to check with my husband’s schedule, I try to circle back to that person right away, and if I can’t, I’m honest that I need more time to put plans on the calendar.
If at all possible, I do coffee dates without my kids. Even though they are older now, and can entertain themselves in another room, I must keep my “mom-hat” on if they are within earshot. I’m still listening for the door to open, needing to hush the discussion that is maybe beyond their maturity level. I’m still having to referee disagreements, get a snack, and inevitably it takes two hours on my couch to have the same 1-hour conversation that I could have at a coffee shop.
I’m not a fan of letting things get swept under the rug. This is challenging because I’ve learned that many others operate this way— at work, in their marriage, with their friends and extended family. What it leads to is resentment and then one day someone going postal because they couldn’t take the other person comments. I’ve realized that it isn’t worth it. And those who I choose to let get the closest to me are those who feel similarly.
One of my BFF’s lives a few states away. We thrive despite the distance, and this relationship also gets the least filter. I don’t worry whether or not she’ll get the meaning in between the lines of a short text. I don’t have to qualify my responses or prepare for hers. To be honest, we’ve both hurt one another. We are both over-analytical, and words mean a great deal to us. When there has been a miscommunication or hurt feelings, there is space offered— because we are committed to one another, and to the friendship, and we know the other person will come back. There are apologies provided with sincerity; there is forgiveness and heaps of grace. We have an unspoken rule about not letting things fester. If she’s said something that stings, I tell her right away. When I’ve spoken words that cut her heart, she is quick to ask what else is going on or ask for clarification on what I meant. She’s the wiser one of the two of us, with a master’s degree and a background in counseling, and so I’ve learned to listen when she speaks, to think about the words she offers. Her friendship is a treasure that I willingly fight for.
I have learned that there is a difference between being “friendly” and being “friends,” and that certain personalities will drain all the energy out of me. To maintain healthy boundaries, I say, “no” regularly. I’m not mean or rude, but I do not allow their neediness to dominate my schedule. There are exceptions, people whom I am called to love on and minister to, but it is not at the expense of my mental and spiritual health. Even those relationships, where I am mentoring, there are boundaries as to how much time I spend pouring out before I steal away to make sure I fill back up.
My husband and I try to avoid saying many things, “I’ll be praying for you,” is one of them. I’m sure some individuals are able to catalog the randomly offered needs— probably those with a photographic memory; I am not one of them, and neither does that phrase sound sincere to me. Whether I am seated in a coffee shop, standing in Target, or in the middle of a text thread, I try hard to lift up, at that moment, the request that my friend is bringing to me. I want them to know that praying is not something that I talk about doing— it’s what I do. It takes vulnerability and humility to ask for prayer, and I cherish those who take my requests to God immediately like it’s their own concern. Those are the friendships that have spanned both time and distance.
Finally, I’ve learned to be okay with making people uncomfortable. I’m a type 1 on the Enneagram, and my personality is pretty black and white. Those who have become the closest are those who can dive deep with me quickly, who steer clear of surface conversations, and who welcome my tendency to ask the questions no one else is asking. I am learning to walk with more sensitivity then I had when I was younger. I am less judgmental, but I still refuse to beat around the bush, and my most faithful friends are those who know I don’t tiptoe around subjects. They know they will get both an honest response, and a hefty helping of grace— because that’s how I want it given to me as well.
I’ve shared before about how real friendships are hard. The “Ethel and Lucy” camaraderie that grows and develops over decades is what most of us long for, but few of us know how to cultivate. We desire to have people in our lives who know the “real” us— who have seen us ugly cry (and then what we look like without our makeup on). We say we want to have friends who will stay to help clean up after the party and have no problems parenting our children if they need it and we are absent. We want to have those in our lives who know not to call us past 9 pm because we’ll be comfortably on the couch with PJs on, snuggled next to our spouse with the Apple remote near. They know whether we’d like a big party for our 40th birthday party, with a noisy crowd, a photo booth, and a table full of gifts, or a simple card and a quiet getaway either alone, with our spouse, or a close-knit group. They know which words will breathe life back into our deflated hearts, and when we need a dose of reality, accountability, or the brutal truth. We want those relationships; instead, we tell others we do, but how do we get there?
It happens one day at a time, one decision at a time, one conversation at a time. It requires a single moment of honesty and transparency which is then reciprocated. It begins with one request made in humility, and an offer to help with sincerity. It requires shared drinks and meals— because that’s when the most authentic discussion is birthed. It is the outcome of a door knocked upon, and then opened, or one heart is extended across the table and graciously embraced.
There is no perfect equation or model, but there are values worth applying. One person cannot manipulate friendship on their own, regardless of their desire. Instead, it must develop over time between eager participants— each one extending equal parts of themselves, and choosing not to withhold. When they have done the work of establishing trust and offering grace, of diving deep into matters of the heart and mind instead of swimming in the shallows, that’s where the fruit starts to bud. The harvest may still be a ways off, but a thriving friendship cannot be coerced, it must be cultivated.