For millions of years, humans have searched for a tribe to be a part of. At first, we did this for protection and finding safety in numbers, but as we evolved the reasoning behind finding a tribe shifted into being less about safety, and more about emotional support. Our “tribe members” eventually turned into our friends. Friendships are an essential part of a happy and full life. Having an intimate friendship can offer just as much support as a relationship with a partner — sometimes even more so. But navigating friendships can be difficult, especially as we age. It becomes harder to make new friends as we become adults, and our busy schedules can sometimes leave little time to grow and nurture these types of relationships. I often have people tell me that they struggle with adult friendships more than at any other stage in life, and that they often find themselves feeling lonely, isolated, and sad around their lack of a close circle. So, once we find these friendships, how do we strengthen them into something that can unfold into a lifelong connection? Here are some ways to help you forge deep, intimate, and fulfilling friendships — ones that will stand the test of time.
Be honest. Oftentimes, we find it hard to express ourselves honestly to those we are closest to. This can be a bit confusing because we sort of expect ourselves to be more open to those we care about. But this feeling is actually quite common. Why? Because most of us fear that being honest might result in hurt feelings or judgement, and we would often prefer that those close to us not know the whole truth, rather than be judged or cause them any sort of pain. But holding back our truths can result in suppression or avoidance, causing further pain (or even the breakdown of a friendship) later on down the road. If a friend is doing something that hurts you, say something! It doesn’t have to be aggressive or mean — honesty doesn’t equal being brash or hurtful. Explain how you’re feeling, rather than allocating blame on them. No one likes to be blamed, so you can expect defensiveness if this is the route you take. Try saying things like, “I feel [blank] whenever you say/do [blank].” This way, you’re simply expressing your feelings, rather than pointing a finger at their “bad behavior.” Expect the conversation to be difficult, but remind yourself that the clarification that may result from it (as well as a strong possibility that your friend will be way more mindful of their words or actions next time) is the reward at the end of the tunnel. These conversations can open the door to bigger understanding, more vulnerability, and ultimately a closer, more intimate friendship. So don’t be scared to say how you feel — trust that your friend will be way more likely to listen than to judge or walk away. Listen up. Expressing yourself is important, but it is just as necessary to be open to hearing what they have to say. It can be that much more difficult to be on the receiving end of the type of conversation mentioned above. Our instinct when we are criticized is usually to protect ourselves (e.g. become defensive or switch the blame over to the other person) and we can end up missing the message our friend is trying to deliver. Again, trust that a friend who loves you isn’t telling you things to be hurtful or malicious, but likely doing it to try and resolve an emotional conflict. So, listen to what they have to say about something you might be doing that could be interpreted as hurtful. Your closest friends usually know you better than anyone, so be open to looking into the mirror they are holding up, without resistance. Maybe it’s working on your communication skills or temper. Whatever the case, growth usually begins when someone we care about is on the receiving end of our negative behavior. And if we truly care about them, being reflective on how you can shift is super important to maintaining a happy and balanced friendship. Also, it’s a win-win! Growing past negative or detrimental behavior patterns helps us way more than it helps our friends. Sometimes, it just takes a nudge from someone we care about to help us get the ball rolling on things we deep down inside know we need to work on anyway. Invest time & energy. A garden can’t grow and bloom unless we tend to it daily — the same goes with our friendships! We can’t expect them to stay strong and resilient if we don’t dedicate time to them. Make room in your schedule for quality time with your friends, where everything else can be set aside and you can truly have time for genuine bonding and conversation. If in-person meetings are hard to schedule frequently, do regular check-ins with them via a nice message. Sending a text, email, or even an old-fashioned letter (especially nice if they live far away!) is a great way to let them know that you’re thinking about them, even if you can’t say it in-person. Make sure these check-ins are genuine. Anyone can tell the difference between a drive-by “hey, how are you?” and a more detailed message. Ask about things you know they have going on, and get specific. Questions about their new job or relationship, their family, or a recent emotional issue they had feels way more personal than a broad, four-word text. It’s the difference between watering the garden every time you happen to remember versus going out there daily to do a little maintenance, checking in to see if everything is healthy and happy. Don’t expect a friendship to thrive if there isn’t a healthy amount of time and energy allotted to its upkeep. You reap what you sow, as they say. And finally, show them you care! Think about how many times you tell your partner you love them when you’re in a relationship. For most of us, that’s at least once a day. Now think about the last time you told your friends you loved them. My guess is it’s been a little longer, and likely not as frequent as every single day. Letting your friends know you care is essential to a thriving friendship. Whether you say it with a hug, a kind gesture, or a small gift they’d love, doesn’t matter — just do it often! Again, this is a win-win situation. The likelihood you’ll be hearing and feeling this love right back grows exponentially with each time you express it to them. And who doesn’t like to be told or feel that they are loved? If you dedicate time and energy to your friendships in these ways, you are on the right path to building strong, loving, and deep connections — and building your very own tribe that will always keep you feeling appreciated, safe, and supported.