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How to Build Strong Friendships, One Step at a Time

By Ruthie Ackerman

Loneliness is just as dangerous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even more of a threat than obesity. Which is why understanding how to form strong friendships — and maintain them — is key to a long and healthy life. Yet a recent study revealed that by age 25, most of us hit our peak in terms of social connections. As we grow into adulthood, establish careers, pair off, and have children, our friendships get put on the back burner.

We’re making a big mistake; learning how to build friendships will pay dividends throughout life.

Be the friend you want to have

The first step, says Miriam Kirmayer, a therapist and friendship expert, is to set the stage by knowing the expectations we have for our friendships. That doesn’t mean sitting down to your first coffee and putting a list of everything you need in front of your potential new friend. But it does mean leading by example.

So, if you want your friends to be reliable, follow through when you make plans. If you want your friends to share about their lives, you have to share about yours too. It’s a give and take. “Self-disclosure is crucial to healthy friendships because it’s that kind of vulnerability that helps us to build trust,” Kirmayer said. “It’s also one of the most important ways we create a sense of closeness and comfort in our friendships.”

Self-disclosure doesn’t have to mean sharing your deepest, darkest secrets the first time you meet. It can mean sharing your likes, dislikes, experiences and perspectives, she added, which is essential for maintaining a sense of intimacy long-term.

“I speak with people in my work and a lot of what I hear is that people are so invested in showing the person they’re interested in them that they forget to show up and own their place in the conversation,” she explained. “It’s all about striking a balance. Don’t come on too strong. But it’s equally detrimental to hold back and not share anything personal either.”

bond in more area than one

Finding common interests is also critical. Taking a yoga class together or even going for a walk helps to build bonds and is what differentiates a friendship from a colleague or an acquaintance.

The difference is that friendships take place in more than one context and conversations focus on different areas of your life. If you meet someone at work and you think it could turn into a real friendship, it’s important to get together with that person outside of the office to test the waters. Can you talk about something other than work with them? Do they enjoy the same hobbies and interests as you?

Remember these three words

A roadmap to a healthy friendship is paved with three things: “consistency, positivity, and vulnerability,” Shasta Nelson, a friendship expert and author of Frientimacy: How to Deepen Friendships for Lifelong Health and Happiness, told me. “Take one out and you don’t have a healthy friendship.”

Positivity means positive feelings. It’s when you’re left feeling good because of someone’s kindness, laughter, gratitude or affirmation, Nelson said. Once you meet someone and know you feel good around them, the next step is consistently interacting with them, building a shared history and making memories. “It’s the repetition or regularity that develops patterns, rituals, and expectations in our relationships,” she continued. The third piece is vulnerability. “It’s allowing someone else to hear our ideas, know our opinions, validate our feelings, and listen to our experiences.”        

Where strong friendships sometimes slip up, is that we’re not honest about what we need and what we’re capable of giving at any one moment in time. “One friend won’t meet all your friendship needs,” said Kirmayer. “Putting all your eggs in one basket sets you up for heartache and puts a lot of pressure on one relationship.”  

Pave the way for open communication

We talk a lot about healthy communication in the context of our romantic relationships, but it’s important with friendships too. “It’s important to share with a friend when you need more effort or time or support. Or when your feelings have been hurt,” said Kirmayer.

You should also share your limitations - and be open to feedback. Tell your friends when you’re less able to be present. Don’t just say, “I’m busy,” because that could be seen as a blow-off. Explaining to your friend that you’re going through a tough time at work or with an illness in your family goes a long way to building connection.

Not only do we have fewer friends as we age, but we tend to have less quality time to spend with our friends, which is why it’s important to sneak in small ways to keep up the momentum: doing errands together, going to an exercise class, grabbing a coffee. Technology can play a role too, both in getting friendships off the ground and staying in touch with friends new and old, Kirmayer added.

Technology isn’t a replacement for those in-person conversations and connections, but it can create a genuine connection, which is what strong and healthy friendships are based on.