I think society’s most underappreciated relationship, is friendship. A close friendship is one of the most influential and important relationships a human life can contain. But culturally, we primarily and understandably value familial and romantic relationships more.
Day to day, our friends influence our tastes and moods. Long term, they can also affect how we spend our money, feel about our bodies and spend our time. We grow in response to each other, in ways both intentional and subconscious. But, I feel that most people don’t talk much about what it really takes to stay close for the long haul.
I read the book Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close' by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman recently which got me thinking about how my own friendships are formed, challenged, and preserved. It got me to evaluate some of my own friendships in all of their complexity, actively choose them, invest more deeply in them and in some instances walk away from them.
The book is a poignant memoir of a big, invaluable friendship and frank manifesto on how to nurture the important friendships in our lives in good times and bad. In each chapter, Sow and Friedman demonstrate how they navigate the nuances of their long-standing friendship with elegance, warmth, and generosity. This is the kind of book that makes you want to reach out to your best, biggest friends to say thank you, thank you, thank you for walking in this world with me.
So I wanted to share some of the lessons I've learnt over the years about big friendships:
1) Give and take is necessary from the very beginning because no two people are exactly alike. You're not the person you were 10 years ago and you won't be the same person in the next decade.
For a friendship to survive it has to adapt.
So, I feel a deep appreciation for the friendships that have grown through different phases of my life. I realise that some friendships change and grow through the years and that's fine.
2) A healthy relationship involves stretches in both directions. When you're stretching you're both making an effort to figure out how to adapt to your differences.
It doesn't have to feel equal in every single moment sometimes one person will require more from the friendship than the other, but overtime the give has to even out the take.
If a stretch feels fun and emotionally low stakes i'm all about it. However, if it's challenging me with discomfort, series of disappointments and the pleasure reward isn't tangible or involves having a hard conversation repeatedly over a long time, then it's not worth stretching for.
For a friendship to last it requires two people who check in with each other and both sides willing to do the work to maintain the friendship. But, I've realised once I evaluated some of my friendships that some felt quite one-sided and that I was investing more into it than the other. It felt like I was almost always the one initiating contact, checking in, making plans, planning occasions, buying gifts...etc. The worst part was that I didn't see that shifting anytime soon and I realised that the friend probably doesn't even realise it because she's not the one who's feeling stretched so it can be hard to notice all the effort I've been putting into sustaining the friendship.
Because I've known some friends for so long I'll stretch without reciprocity, but even that has its limits and that's okay if I realise it's not sustainable and that actually I'm not willing to do the stretching anymore.
3) A healthy relationship is where people are bringing their true feelings and need into the relationship. However, if your needs aren't being met then something needs to change.
It's so important to speak up, but I've realised that I also can't change how people act and that I can't ask/force certain things, so instead of expressing how I feel if I'm not getting what I want or expect from a friendship I'm going to match my friends energy and lower my expectations to avoid disappointment because it's important for me to feel that our friendship is balanced over the long term. In my opinion though, naturally that friendship will dwindle down because any 'big' friendship requires an investment of time and energy.
With the ease of having been so close to some friends for so long it can almost feel like a threat because so much goes unsaid and is assumed and friends can get complacent and used to the imbalance and just expect more from the other than they put into the relationship because that's how it's always been.
4) Invest in your friendships worth investing in
It's so important that I invest in those big friendships which feel so rewarding by: celebrating their wins as if they were my own (#ShineTheory), offering a helping hand, spending quality time with them and expressing words of affirmation because life is too short!
5) Being a friend means being there for each other even when things aren't fun without making the other feel like a burden.
I was talking to a friend who literally said to me something along the lines of we are each other’s burden, which helped me reframe what it means to feel like you can depend on someone. If we’re going to say that our friends are a part of our support system and part of what makes us healthy and whole people then it means that we’re going to go through the good and bad together.
It's okay to ask and receive help from others, that's partly what friends are for!
A couple of weeks ago I was flying out to Khartoum from London and I was working from home up until the last minute. My friend offered to look after my plants while I was away and so when she came over to pick them up she could see me frantically trying to pack and clean out my fridge so she grabbed the sponge and started cleaning my fridge and helping me around the flat. Sometimes it's not even about the big gestures it's the small acts of service!
So in summary, friendship is a beautiful connection and choice we make. And that laziness in tending to friendships is dangerous, and that regardless of the circumstance, whether geography or pandemic, friendships must be nourished, or they will wither.
I really wanted to write about this topic because if you dig deep enough into research on happiness and wellbeing, one of the biggest factor that comes up again and again is the quality of a person's relationships.
If you're able to maintain good relationships with family and friends, you're going to be healthier mentally and emotionally, experience less anxiety and feel more satisfied with your life in general.
I'd love to hear your thoughts on the lessons I've learnt. What are some of the lessons you've learnt about friendship? Please comment and share below!