When they are good, there is nothing quite as soul-restoring as an hour or two spent with a true friend–someone who knows you inside and out, and accepts and loves you, imperfections and all. And yet, when friendships are weak or superficial or based on competition and insecurity, there is nothing quite as painful.
When I was in elementary school, my best friend and I were practically inseparable. We did everything together and planned to be friends for life. Our houses would be right next door and our kids would be best friends too. We even bought a set of “Best Friend” necklaces that fit together to form a heart.
And then in sixth grade, everything changed. My best friend abandoned me for an opening in the “Cool Club”–that ever-elusive group of popular girls I had never quite been quite cool enough to join. She was in, I wasn’t, and that was the end of that.
But I like to think that everything happens for a reason, and luckily, my sad tale has a happy ending. You see, sixth grade also happened to be the year that a new girl came to my school. And that girl–Alysha–has been my best friend ever since.
Chances are, you have your own friendship sagas to share as well. Maybe you’re still close with your childhood bestie. Or maybe not. Either way, chances are, you aren’t living side-by-side, married to brothers, and hanging out on a daily basis. It just doesn’t happen. Jobs, marriages, moves, kids…they all get in the way of maintaining those friendships.
As adults, our best friends are often not the center of our universe as they once were. You may still have very close confidants and deep friendships, but you probably also have a spouse, kids, family, coworkers and others in your life who fulfill some of that friendship role.
However, as women, most of us tend to have a need for closeness and connection that men don’t always share. And while we love our husbands–and probably may even consider our spouse our best friend (I know I do), there is still often a part of us that needs at least one or two close friendships outside of our marriage to feel whole and connected.
And let me just tell you–Facebook won’t do the trick!
Of course making friends and cultivating deep, meaningful relationships is easier said than done, right?
I’ll be honest–as someone who has moved many times in my life, I know that making new friends can sometimes be a big challenge. I might meet acquaintances at church, in the PTO, or through other activities, but true friendships take a great deal of time, effort and yes, work. Sometimes they don’t happen easily, and many of us give up on the process rather than see it through.
So, as adults, how can we make new friends, strengthen our old ties, and take our social circle from online to offline? Here are a few concrete ways to cultivate meaningful relationships in your life:
1. Look for Commonalities
When you’re seeking new friends, whether it’s after a move, in a new church or job, or simply because your social circle has been waning, look for people you have commonalities with. It seems like obvious advice, but many of us look for “surface” traits, such as age, style, and even looks, rather than finding the common threads we share on the inside. What are your passions and hobbies? Find those with common interests and get involved!
Wondering how to find common interests? Cultivate your own! Take classes, look for community meet-up groups, and start online conversations. The next time you see someone doing something you admire—whether it’s yoga, painting or playing an instrument—ask how and when he or she learned how and where he or she practices now. Let them know you share their interests and ask for advice on getting started.
Watch for fellow moms in the carpool lane, dog-moms at the park, or green thumbs at the farmer’s market. Look for book clubs at your local library, cooking classes in your community calendar, and sewing and craft classes at the craft store. Start pushing past your comfort zone and trying new things in real life.
And if you’re feeling really brave (or stuck)? Start your own group! Several years ago, when I was a stay-at-home mom living in Everett, Washingon and my husband was working long hours at Boeing, I knew I would go crazy spending all day at home alone. I started a group on Meetup.com called BoMoToGoMo, which stood for “Boeing Moms of Tots Who Want to Get Out More.” I was amazed to discover that I was not the only Boeing wife feeling lonely, and for the next two years, our group was nearly inseparable. Although in the years since, we have gone our separate ways, many of us still talk regularly.
2. Embrace Differences
Remember: your friends won’t have every single thing in common with you. (How boring would it be if we were all the same?) Instead, look for those who have traits you admire and qualities you’d like to learn or emulate, but don’t limit yourself to those with obvious similarities.
One of my close friends is quite a bit older than I am, and in a very different stage of life when it comes to kids and family life, but she and I both share a love of writing and business. If I had simply thought, “She’s retired and I have young children, what would we have in common?” I never would’ve gotten to know her.
Likewise, over the years, my friend Alysha and I have taken very different paths. She opted for community college and cosmetology school while I was on the law school path. It would have been easy, at some point, to simply say, “we’re too different to stay friends,” be we didn’t. We decided instead to support each other no matter where the path led.
3. Network Beyond Social Media
When you’re looking to expand your social circle, engage your network. Look at your social media connections and see if there’s a Facebook friend you wouldn’t mind getting to know better in person. Why not ask them out for lunch or for coffee? The worst they can say is no!
And on that note, the next time someone asks you to attend something new, make it a goal to say “YES!” It can be hard to break out of our comfort zones and agree to do things we aren’t so sure about, but oftentimes it can be very rewarding.
Take a cue from those in the business world and make new introductions and connections by working your network. If you don’t see any obvious opportunities on the horizon, make one! Invite friends over and ask each of them to bring along someone new. You’ll find your social circle grows exponentially.
4. Show Hospitality
Hosting a party or get-together can seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. Remind yourself things don’t need to be perfect. A simple soup and salad bar or a kid’s backyard playdate can result in a fun afternoon of new connections and camaraderie.
Invite the ladies you know over for a craft date or a clothing exchange party when you clean out your closets. Host a book club, a dinner co-op or swap, or a freezer-meal cooking party. Keep things light and casual.
The next time you’re in a school meeting or working on a project for church, invite everyone over to your place to brainstorm or go over plans. Rather than making it a meal or all-day activity, set up parameters for a mid-morning or mid-afternoon activity. Not only will you build more social connections, but you’ll be productive and accomplish some of your projects as well.
5. Stay in Touch
Staying in touch means more than simply “liking” and commenting on your friends’ latest social media posts. You may feel like you’re clued in to what’s going on in their lives, but in truth, most of us don’t show our struggles online or we tend to gloss over things. Instead of assuming you’re getting all the news from your newsfeed, pick up the phone or at least send a personal text or email every so often.
Again, it seems like “staying in touch” is a basic rule of friendship, but between our busy lives and the feeling like we’re in constant contact via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, we might barely notice when a friend has slipped through the cracks. Similarly, we might wonder why no one is there for us in our times of need.
Keep personal connections strong by staying in touch the old-fashioned way—by actually talking. Pick up the phone for a quick call. Send a card via snail mail and make a point to keep your relationship strong.
6. Learn to Listen and Relate
It’s easy to “hear” people, but it’s a lot harder to really listen. To be a good listener, you have to ask questions, you have to make eye contact, and you have to put down your cell phone and have an in-person conversation. You also have to stop talking and really take time to absorb what the other person is saying.
Listening, as it turns out, is a true art. It’s not a skill everyone has. Plus, some of us can feel a little awkward being attentive when we’re interacting with a new person. We can try too hard to sound impressive, to tell our story so they know we’re relating, or to interrupt and talk about ourselves.
Instead, try to really focus on what’s being said. If you have a similar experience or want to relate, save it until your friend is done explaining and talking. Make it a point to avoid interrupting no matter how excited you are to share or make a connection.
7. Be Grateful
Chances are, you probably practice gratitude and etiquette with your kids, teaching them to say please and thank you. You may help them write thank you cards for gifts and help them learn to be thoughtful when they receive something from another person. Yet, as grownups, some of us forget this very basic tenet of Ps & Qs.
When you receive a gift or when someone goes out of their way for you, take a moment to send them a note. It takes very little time to construct a sincere thank you, and yet, it’s rarely done these days even though it means so much to the recipient. You can acknowledge little acts of kindness, too. Try thanking someone for a word that lifted you up or a gesture that was meaningful to you.
Gratitude can shift our focus and bring continued good into our lives. Remembering to be thankful for our relationships and friends helps us continue to strengthen those relationships and build them up.
8. Pencil Them In
We’re all busy, which is why it is so important to take the time to block out time for friendship. Just like any meeting or event, if it’s important, we learn we need to make room for it on our schedule. We need to write it in and adhere to it. When it comes to friendships and cultivating our relationships, they’re no different. If we want to have great relationships and closeness with others, then we have to make it a priority on our calendar.
It might mean you have to prioritize and put other things on the back burner. But try reframing how you think about scheduling social time—not as procrastinating so you can “go out and be social,” but instead, look at it as making time for your relationships and social nourishment. Our friendships give us joy and elevate our lives. We need them to keep us grounded and happy.
Rethink the traditional “friend date.” You don’t have to always do dinner or a big three-hour coffee and venting session. It doesn’t have to be expensive. Instead, consider taking a class together or scheduling your workouts at the same time. If you’re both running the kids to a dance lesson, grab coffee while they’re learning or make a date to do your grocery shopping together. Think of less-traditional ways to get things done and still spend time with your nearest and dearest.
9. Be Honest
All relationships thrive on honesty, including marriages and friendships. If you’re struggling, overwhelmed or need a break, be honest with your friends about your feelings. Don’t try to gloss over things or make up excuses. When we tell “white lies” or fib to avoid getting together, we’ll eventually either get caught or our friends will tire of getting shot down.
If you let your friends know you have a lot on your plate and you need a few months to tackle your to-do list, but you’ll still call them weekly or email them regularly, it lets them know it’s not purposeful avoidance. Help your friends understand it’s not something they did wrong, but instead just something you need to work through.
On the other hand, maybe there’s a friendship that monopolizes your time or requires too much of you. It’s also okay to let that friend know you’ve got a lot going on, so while you can’t meet for coffee every week, maybe you’d be able to do something once a month instead. Set appropriate boundaries to avoid getting burnt out.
As challenging as it can be, also embrace honesty when it comes to your feelings. When a friend lets you down or disappoints you, let them know. There’s a difference between being honest and being confrontational. It’s perfectly fine to let someone know your feelings were hurt or you were disappointed by their actions. Get things out in the open so you can talk it out rather than letting silent resentments build up and turn into something bigger.
10. Ask for Help (But Don’t Be Needy)
Strong relationships help us when we’re in a time of need. Friendships are there to support us and get us through. When you’re struggling or feeling depressed, don’t be afraid ask for help. Let your friends know you’re in need of a hand.
Of course this doesn’t mean becoming a burden or constantly asking for favors, but it does mean making yourself vulnerable from time to time, and trusting in other people instead of always trying to make it on your own. Team building exercises are built on the principles of building trust and reliance. Friendships are also built on the same ideas—so if you need a hand, ask
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If we’re being honest, when was the last time you talked to a close friend? Has it been awhile since you’ve had some one-on-one time with one of your favorite people? Try reaching out to someone special today. It’s never too late to cultivate or reignite our friendships. Chances are, you’ll fall right back into conversation, even if it’s been awhile.
True and close friendships are important for all of us. Our friends nourish us and keep us strong. They’re there for us, but sometimes we need to reach out and nudge them along. Hey, we all get by with a little help from our friends. Use these tips to cultivate your relationships and keep them healthy and strong for the long haul. Friends are so worth it!
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