From teenage dancing on tables to nights in in our 30s: why are some friendships built to last?

Meaningful, life-long friendships require work. In the end, it’s not the quantity but the quality of those relationships that matters

Can we really juggle jobs and kids and commutes and still keep up our 500 friendships, both online, offline, far afield and next door, small and large, old and new? Is this really sustainable?

Can we really juggle jobs and kids and commutes and still keep up our 500 friendships, both online, offline, far afield and next door, small and large, old and new? Is this really sustainable?

 

A good friend recently remarked how extraordinary it was that our friendship, which began in 2000 when we were penniless and party-loving in Paris, had made it the whole way to a very sedentary weekend in Roundstone in 2016.

Sitting together in such glorious Connemara surroundings, we smiled at what a far cry it was from our once-habitual Tuesday morning cocktails in Montmartre, routine dancing on tables and breakfast crepe at the break of dawn, courtesy of the creepy guy on the risqué Boulevard de Clichy.

Flash-forward 16 years, and here we were cheerfully admitting that we’d rather spend the night in. But how did we make it this far, with all the time passed and life choices in between? How had this friendship been sustained? And why are some friendships so naturally sustainable?

Some may consider it a stretch to discuss friendship under the already broad-reaching banner of “sustainability”. Doesn’t it mean resources or energy or carbon or something?

My simple and inexpert take on “sustainability” is to not exhaust or run things into the ground through exploitation or neglect, or to at least meaningfully try to not run things into the ground. Or, better still, to nurture and cherish things for the sake of their optimum longevity.

Surely if sustainability is about nature, it should also include us, the relationship we have with ourselves and our relationships with each other. And so I am coining the term “sustainable friendships”. A quick google search suggests I am not the first to do so, but I am the proud 10th or so.

Is sustaining friendships really that important? Isn’t it possible to flit from convenient acquaintance to convenient acquaintance? Well, no, it isn’t. We need our friendships just as we need food, water, shelter and air.

Since 1938, The Study of Adult Development at Harvard University has followed 724 subjects by tracking their work, relationships, home lives, health, etc. One of the most striking findings is that the warmth and quality of relationships have a significant impact on our health, our happiness and even our financial success.

In a TED talk from last November (http://bit.ly/1matZVB), the current director of the study, Robert Waldinger says, “The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”

So making and maintaining sustainable relationships has very clear benefits. But is it a bit idealistic to think we can achieve that in today’s world, so full of distractions?

We have great expectations of everything now; of ourselves, our friends, our jobs, our families and how much of all of this we can possibly squeeze into one day. We want it all – and now, and as much of it as possible please.

Can we really juggle jobs and kids and commutes and still keep up our 500 friendships, both online, offline, far afield and next door, small and large, old and new? Is this really sustainable?

Compare this to Sally down the lane In the 1950s, Sally was born, raised and lived in the same village, walked to school with her two good friends, her only friends, and married the boy next door and was in bed by 9pm. Even Sally, I am sure, found it all a bit much sometimes.

Individually, we probably have more friends today than the the entire population of Sally’s village. We also have busier jobs, more frequent holidays, kids and their hectic after-school classes and matches and lessons. There may be a parent that maybe requires care, not to mention that organic vegetable patch we’re expected to grow in our “perfect” lives, and the essential Instagramming of said veg patch.

Friendship – which is voluntary by nature – is its own worst enemy, as it pushes time with friends down the pecking order.We naturally prioritise non-voluntary activities and as a result, real-life intimate friendships suffer. Meanwhile, clever Facebook is cashing in on the leftovers, sending birthday reminders and memories to be shared online.

For all the flicking through news feeds, checking texts and #shoutouts to our online connections, we could be sitting with a real-life friend eating real-life cake. Technology and cheap substitutes can’t mimic intimacy – it helps people stay in contact, but is limited to the sharing of information. In order to truly sustain our friendships, we have to look beyond Whatsapp group chats and make more memories in real life.

Waldinger highlighted from the Harvard study that “it’s not just the number of friends you have, and it’s not whether or not you’re in a committed relationship, but it’s the quality of your close relationships that matters”.

Continuously presenting a flawless online facade of bubbly by the pool means we never allow friends to see our vulnerabilities, which is effectively a stone wall for intimacy and trust, the essentials of any true, sustainable friendship.

But should long-lasting friendships just be effortless and keep flowing, like prosecco on a sunny day in Roundstone?

An unscientific straw poll of some (real-life) friends suggests that sustainable friendships require work. But not too much work. “You need to look after your friendships like any other relationship” and “if we were as dedicated to our friends as we are to our partners, maybe there would not be as much of a need for ‘The One’.”

On the flipside, the point was made that “friendships are important to sustain. But to remember that some are effortless and some are not. Sometimes they require too much effort, and this is when friendships become unsustainable.”

However, “the friend you can laugh, cry and sit in silence with, respecting your differences, is a keeper”.

There is a balance to be struck in sustaining friendships. Some do require effort and some do change, depending on the environment they exist in. And so, sitting in Roundstone and thinking of all that has and hasn’t happened since our dancing days in Paris, it seems on the surface that this particular friendship has been effortless and a ridiculous amount of fun.

Still, when I dig a little deeper I cannot think of a phone call that wasn’t answered, an interest in each other’s lives or concern for the dramas of life not shown. Nor can I think of one important event that was missed.

No matter where you are in life, it’s worth getting off your phone or getting someone to watch the kids and going for a walk or a boogie with that friend, or organising a regular get-together to talk about your life or make real memories. Because the lack of close meaningful friendships... now that really is unsustainable.

Six pointers for sustainable friendships
1. Think before you text, or call instead: A study undertaken by Alex Korb, a neuroscientist at UCLA, showed that when you put people in a stressful situation and then let them visit loved ones or talk to them on the phone, they felt better.
What about when they just texted? Their bodies responded the same as if they had no support at all.
2. Focus on meaningful relationships: “Quality and intimacy, as well as stability and consistency” are what matters, according to Robert Waldinger, a Harvard psychiatrist. In your 20s it is quantity and quality. In your 30s it is quality. And in your 40s it is quality, and in your 50s it is still quality . . .
3. Try to prioritise friendships more in the hierarchy of our busy lives: The decades-long Harvard Grant study on happiness found that “people who are more isolated than they want to be from others find that they are less happy, their health declines earlier in midlife, their brain functioning declines sooner and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely”.
4. Practice empathy in your friendships: You and your friend are not perfect. Your lives may not always be aligned or perfect either.
5. Be tech aware: Try to be mindful that friendship connections on social media and smart phone technologies cannot replace the real thing.
6. Make sure you are your true selves: Otherwise surely it’s a waste of time?
 

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