During this season of tremendous social and political upheaval layered with serious virus worries, many of us are spending more time in isolation. This has given each of us opportunity to reconnect more fully with old friends, strengthen existing friendships, and even forge new ones. These old and new friendships often prove to be among the highlights of our lackluster existence. I have certainly grown to savor their beauty and importance these past few months… So, what are the qualities of strong friendships? Read on…
While meeting a new friend can be exciting, the most rewarding aspect of friendship is that day-to-day (or decade-to-decade) presence, be it immediate or distant. As friendships deepen and mature, we want to know that our friends appreciate our support and are not offended by our bad moods and personal setbacks, or scared by our tears and fears. Hopefully we can settle into friendship as into old slippers. For each of us, the greatest challenge in maintaining good friendships is to not take them for granted…
Carmen Berry and Tamara Traeder, authors of Girlfriends, offer a variety of important practices that allow us to nurture and support meaningful and long-time friendships with people of all ages.
Loyalty — There is nothing that warms the heart more than knowing you have a loyal friend, someone who will stand by you no matter what. A true friend will defend you when you can’t defend yourself. A loyal friend will stand up to tell the truth (or a lie, if necessary) to protect you. We may show loyalty to our friends by speaking up or merely showing up.
Paying Attention — Deep friendships often result in knowing, frequently without asking, what the other feels and needs. Somehow our psyches become intertwined, and we know things about each other that we have no rational reason to know. Understanding what our friends need comes from taking the time to notice one another and respond to the needs we see or sometimes only intuit. We all appreciate when someone notices we are hurting. This kind of attentiveness takes effort, and a real friend makes the effort.
Honesty — Being honest with one another is tough. Yet each of us needs a truth teller, and every relationship, in order to survive, requires that truth be told. We all know the sadness of friendships that fade because we can’t bear to reveal our true feelings. It is easy, yet ultimately painful, to let someone drift away because of unresolved conflict. The relationship in which truth is told is one that can be trusted. Friendships that go through troubled times are strengthened by the test. A good friend is one who can admit if they are upset with you and you can admit the same to them. Friendship is limited when we are not honest with our friends, and when we don’t allow our friends to tell us what they perceive as truth. We may not ultimately agree, but if our friends are trying to tell us something, perhaps we need to take some time to listen.
The best mind-altering drug is truth.
Bonds of Humor — Many beautiful friendships develop and grow from a shared sense of humor. Shared laughter offers us pleasure during the fun times and a resilient strength during periods of distress. Laughter shared with a friend feels sweet and healing.
Independence — While our lives seem quite tied up in the lives of our friends, these bonds do not weigh heavily. Many people express appreciation for the freedom and independence they find in their relationships with friends. This appreciation seems to grow as we get older and our time and attention become absorbed by an ever-expanding number of responsibilities. Whether the cord of independence stretches to allow for emotional space or spans years of separation, it is strong and unbreakable, eventually drawing us back to one another.
Constant togetherness is fine — but only for Siamese twins.
Getting Unstuck — Sometimes we need a friend to give us a kick start to break out of a bad habit or negative way of looking at ourselves. When we need to get a grip, a true friend will offer helpful suggestions and, if necessary, take charge. At other times, we may need someone to support us in our decisions and help us to clarify our thinking if we get muddled in the process of living them out.
Sometimes love is soft and sweet, nice and nurturing. But often the love that is needed is strong, clear, and direct. Sentimentality is cast aside for the powerful vision of someone who knows us well and cares enough to take us on. When we are confused, we can rely on those friends to point the way to clarity and maybe even to give us the necessary boot to get started.
Empathize — Empathy is the capacity to participate in another’s feelings or ideas. It is the knowledge that the other person is in sync with us, able to appreciate our feelings or ideas without necessarily agreeing with us. Empathy is “being there,” which includes giving encouragement. We all need support, especially when we are exploring new talents or attempting a life change. Our friends also remind us when we are sliding from the path that is good for us or forgetting our value. “Being there” includes not only empathy, but the willingness to put ourselves in our friend’s place, and the offering of encouragement when our friend’s supply of faith is low. Shared encouragement and empathy can propel us further than we would ever be able to go if left on our own. Sometimes there is no greater gift we can give each other than simply “being there.”
Soul Connection — Some friendships are so strong that they become part of us, almost visceral. Shared experience can also cultivate a soul connection. Sometimes we become so identified with a friend that we begin noticing we have both clicked into the same mental track. And then there are the physical connections, which are sometimes eerie and frequently unexplainable.
When soul connections exist we may realize that there are certain things that never need to be explained. At times it seems coincidental, yet our paths often crisscross in surprising ways. This common knowledge, on an experiential, intuitive, or even psychic level, can bond us powerfully and forever to others.
Friend as Counselor — In our society many people see therapists or counselors. In past decades people would often discuss their problems with their minister, priest, or rabbi or consult with an older, wiser family member or friend. Of course, friendship will not solve all psychological problems. But for the day-to-day counseling, the reciprocal listening without judgment, our friends can be invaluable. No one knows why feeling completely accepted, faults and all, is so powerfully healing. We just know that we are transformed when someone else listens to us, taking in and validating our experience.
Surviving the Rough Spots — Rocky periods in friendships tend to be like broken bones —painful and debilitating but, once healed, making the relationship stronger than ever. Taking a huge step and allowing yourself to be vulnerable and speak out when you notice something feels wrong in the friendship takes courage.
Sometimes shared misery can break down a wall that forms between friends. However, sharing misery is not the only way to make it possible to talk through a rough spot in a friendship. Sometimes it helps to look at all that you and your friend have in common and all that you lose without each other. It is never too late to reset a broken bone…
Trouble is a sieve through which we sift our acquaintances.
Those too big to pass through are our friends.
Refreshment — We go to our friends for nourishment, both figuratively and literally. Replenishment can be an easy thing, a simple happening, such as a walk on the beach, a cup of tea, or a long conversation. Such experiences can leave us fulfilled and refreshed, with a renewed sense of energy and contentment. Replenishment can also result in a change of purpose or focus. Suddenly we are able to see new opportunities and possibilities for the future.
Often we view relaxing and taking care of ourselves as a luxury. But the refreshment of body and spirit, so often available through our connections with good friends, can add years to our lives, replenish us after a dry period, or even propel us to start a new chapter of life. Our friends can rejuvenate us by just letting us be, or they may drag our weary minds and bodies, despite protest, to a physical or mental place where we can be renewed.
Strength — At certain times of our lives we need to rely on our friends. They can be an anchor when we are drifting and unsettled. We also can gain strength from friendship groups. The “pack” can often get more accomplished than one lone person. Plus, working in a group can give us the courage and momentum to step in where we wouldn’t necessarily have done so on our own. A group of friends can band together not only to get a lot done; they also generate an amazing amount of power.
We hopefully respect our good friends and appreciate their valuable qualities. They can be strong when things are really messy, when we are cranky, raging, or mourning, when we are trying to find new courage in ourselves. They jump right into the muck and take care of the problem at hand. Sometimes it is the intensity of the muck which really solidifies the friendship. All we may need is one friend to share their strength, and we can become clear-headed and courageous once again.
Surviving Betrayal — Friends can betray one another through actions and words that are hurtful. Being lied to or betrayed by a friend can be bewildering and cut us adrift from our usual moorings. It can fill us with disbelief and disappointment. Our friends are so important to us that when one of them deserts us, we miss them terribly. Not only does the betrayal hurt, but we have lost the person to whom we normally would have gone to for comfort. Usually with this kind of betrayal, we can fight, apologize, and hopefully with the passage of time, heal and move forward. The kind of betrayal where someone just removes themselves from the friendship seems impossible to repair; both parties have to want it. Part of being a good friend and having good friends is being willing to stay in there and fight. But sometimes we discover that a friend would rather leave us than fight with us.
Some people who experience betrayal believe that forgiveness is possible. When betrayal happens, Berry and Traeder recommend the “most forgiveness” test. They say that you should try to apply either the standard of forgiveness you would apply to your friend or the standard of forgiveness you would apply to yourself, whichever is the most generous. When betrayal does occur, genuine forgiveness is the only path back to friendship.
Forgiveness is the act of admitting we are like other people.
Being Heard — Miraculously, our most serious situations seem to lighten when we tell them to a friend and feel that they have heard us. The magic happens when such a friend is able to put themselves in our place, and knowing us as they do, help us to come to a decision without necessarily solving the problem for us. Being heard helps us to see things and think about things more clearly. Clarity and perspective are what we gain from our friends who really hear us, who take the time to stop other tasks and focus on what we are saying. High quality listening, even more than high quality advice can keep us grounded and help us listen to our own hearts, finding our answers within ourselves.
If you want to be listened to, you should put in time listening.
Acceptance — The best thing about friends is that we can be whoever we are with them and they will accept us anyway. We can be grumpy and perky (and both may be annoying) with greasy hair and a dirty sweatshirt. It really does not matter to our close friends what mood we are in or what we look like. By accepting the characteristics of friends, we may find that we are achieving a balance in our own lives. When we get out of balance we can reach out, and the other person can reach back. There is a feeling of completeness.
In feeling accepted, we learn to like ourselves more. When we like ourselves more, we can accept others and be more patient with their quirks. By being more accepting of our friends, we may bring some balance into our own lives. The cycle of caring and support that friendship provides can be extremely worthwhile and rewarding.
Oh, the comfort, the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a
person, having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words,
but pouring them all right out, just as they are, chaff and
grain together; certain that a faithful hand will take and
sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and then with the
breath of kindness blow the rest away.
~Dinah Maria Mulock Craik
Like Family — An interesting paradox arises when we describe our friends. Often wishing to illustrate the importance of friendship or the closeness we feel toward a friend we may use the phrase “she’s like my sister” or “my friends are my family.” Yet many of us would not share the details of our inner lives and outer occupations with our families the way we do with our best friends. Perhaps, as we get older and do not want to pass on our worries to our aging parents or busy family members, we tend to share more of our burdens with friends.
With families we expect unconditional acceptance. However, many people do not feel that their families accept them as they are. Many have found that needed level of acceptance with friends. If we say our friends are like our families, we generally mean we share the highest level of commitment to and acceptance of each other, even if our families do not, in reality, meet all our needs or expectations.
God gave us our relatives;
thank God we can choose our friends.
~Ethel Watts Mumford
Berry, Carmen & Traeder, Tamara. (1995). Girlfriends. Wildcat Canyon Press.
Rubin, Lillian B. (1985). Just Friends: The Role of Friendship in Our Lives. New York: HarperCollins.