Don’t let the title of this article fool you- forming lasting friendships is not easy. It would be nice if we could all follow a simple formula and have all the friends we could handle, but life does not always follow the recipe. Human beings are complex creatures, each with his or her own set of aspirations and life experiences.
With these variations also comes differing levels of trust, prejudices, and needs for companionship. Trying to mesh your own personal gears with those who may share a cog or two with you can be difficult at best. But all is not lost, if we take the time to examine a time when forming friendships was much easier.
Most infants and preschoolers are not intellectually or socially equipped to form true friendships, much to the dismay of their ever-hopeful parents. By sheer necessity, a young child’s universe revolves around this newly-formed concept of ‘self’. Anyone who has observed very young children in a group setting can attest to the fact that each child begins and ends these sessions alone.
They may form a brief alliance with another child in order to share a toy or activity, but soon they return to a world where their individual needs come first. Some may become fascinated with a new playmate or sibling, but this fascination is clearly not the same as a true friendship. Once the playmate is out of sight, the child resumes a more self-involved style of interaction. Obviously there are exceptions to this rule, but for the most part infants and toddlers are still working on the development of ‘self’, not on forming lasting friendships with non-family members.
But all good things must end, and children enter the school system around the same chronological age. From this point on, many childhood experiences become ‘shared’, which means the end of a self-oriented lifestyle. It is at this crucial stage of a child’s social development that the concept of friendship first arises. We discover that other children have indeed watched the same television shows or have played with the same toys we had.
Some of these other children understood things better than we did- Johnny can tie his shoes really fast or Susie can read a lot of books. Conversely, we also discovered that some children didn’t play by the rules we were given. Billy doesn’t like to share his toys with anyone and Brian makes fun of the way Cindy talks. Forming friendships became a way of strengthening our own sense of self while protecting us from those who didn’t share our views.
As we grew older, the friendship process became more and more selective, as we discovered the benefits of ‘group think’. Instead of forming friendships strictly on logistical or situational circumstances, we could choose to align ourselves with those who shared a common interest or common experiences. These friendships tended to be more permanent because they were based on experiences and goals that were more long-term.
High school friendships had the added benefit of time. We all had daily access to people who were from the same socioeconomic background as we were. The common experiences of school life were destined to last at least four years. Forming lasting friendships during our High School years was much easier because we had common experiences, common goals, and a strong need for companionship. Romantic relationships also developed from these close quarters, leading to an entirely new set of friendship skills.
Following the adolescent years, the idea of friendship may take several unexpected turns. Colleges are filled with potential new friends, but many find themselves caught between holding on to familiar friendships with their former classmates and the unknown factor of new friendships in a competitive environment.
For many of us, our early 20s becomes the first time that we actually experience difficulty in establishing or maintaining true friendships. Even if we’re not attending college, the struggles of working lower-paying jobs can easily override our ability to make friends with co-workers. The patterns that develop in our early adult lives can seriously affect our ability to form adult friendships in the later years.
So what is the secret to making friends? The short answer is to be a friend yourself. People who surround you on a daily basis are not obligated to become friends- you must make an conscious effort to be receptive to the needs of others. From our earliest childhood experiences we can well remember sensing the relative ‘friendliness’ of those around us. Before any new friendship can be formed, both parties must display a level of interest that goes beyond individual needs. This is the basic cornerstone of friend making.
As we also learned from childhood, good friends often share common experiences. Co-workers, church members, sport teammates, other parents- all of these people share a common experience. There is no reason why adults cannot equate their adult-level experiences with their earlier childhood ones. Ask another parent about their own child’s success on the field. Invite another couple from your church to lunch and discuss the meaning of the day’s sermon.
Buy a cup of coffee for the new accountant at work and ask about his or her impressions of the company. Whether your goal is to establish a good casual working relationship or a long-term friendship, the people you see most are more likely to be receptive to friendly gestures. We often overlook those who are closest to us in an effort to find more ‘interesting’ contacts elsewhere. Never underestimate anyone’s potential to be a good friend in need.
Another element of friendship that carries over from childhood is the shared interest. The same reason you joined the golf team or the audio-visual club in High School should be the same reason you join the country club or volunteer to work the videocamera at your church. You truly enjoy an activity or hobby, so you surround yourself with the atmosphere needed to pursue that interest. Why should it stop there? One of the best opportunities you have as an adult to make friends is by joining a club or organization.
Once you’ve joined a group that shares your interests, however, you must take the next step and actually share your interests. The more active you become in a group situation, the more likely you are to attract friends. Offer to teach a class in some difficult aspect of your chosen hobby. If you need an extra player for your team or a specialist for your project, get in contact with a new face or two.
Perhaps the trickiest part of making new friends is maintenance. Many of us can recall a time when we formed ‘friendships’ with certain people that turned out to be closer to strategic alliances than real bonds. We befriended the smartest child in our class in order to get the answers to the test, or we made a pact with the strongest child in school in order to protect us from bullies. These ‘friendships’ were rarely long-lasting because they lacked the basis for a maintainable relationship.
As soon as the test was over or the bullies dispensed with, we may or may not have even pursued the friendship. This pattern of behavior may carry into our adult lives, causing some of us to form short-term friendships for less than honest purposes. If you want to form more lasting friendships, you must be prepared to work on them for the duration, not for the immediate gratification element.
Many people develop a defense mechanism against those who appear to be seeking friendship for selfish reasons. If you are to form lasting relationships with co-workers, you must assure them that you are not using their particular ‘assets’ for your own benefit. Be aware of your own motivations when seeking out new friendships, especially with co-workers.
Above all, respect the varying degrees of friendship that others have established. Some people naturally prefer to have a few very close friendships, while others are happier with numerous acquaintances on a much lighter plane of emotion. There are those who prefer not to have friends at all, but there is usually a deeper issue that causes them to feel this way, not an innate desire to be left alone.
If you are seeking out a new friendship, try to gauge the level of intimacy that works for both parties. Trying to be more of a friend than necessary can be counterproductive, as well as not treating a friendship seriously enough. Once you’ve established a comfortable level of intimacy with a new friend, learn to live within the boundaries. Strong friendship bonds take time to develop, so never force the issue.
One of the most difficult issues to deal with is the loss of a friendship. Sometimes one party will physically move away, causing a loss of communication and casual contact. The friendship may survive in a long-distance mode, or it may wither from lack of maintenance. You must be prepared for either eventuality.
Other friendships suffer from a shift in intimacy, in which the other person finds more satisfaction in a new or different relationship. Single friends sometimes feel that their married friends become more distant as their marriage deepens. A former high school friend may find more in common with a college acquaintance. These things happen, with a frequency that some may find discouraging.
The point is, many well-formed friendships have a natural stopping point that you may or may not recognize or accept at first. Friendship is a constantly evolving state of being, so one of the best ways to remain a good friend is to allow those you care about to explore their own options. If the relationship is worth saving, it is imperative that you allow for the negative as much as the positive.
As nice as it would be to have an instruction book entitled “How to Make Friends”, the reality is that for the most part, our truest friends make us instead.