Family & Friends

How to build a friendship that lasts the test of time

The phrase “best friends forever” may have been thrown around a lot in your childhood years, but how do you make sure your friendships survive the test of time and adulthood? An expert breaks down the best way to foolproof a friendship.  

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It’s no secret that the power of true friendship is one that can see you through all kinds of things in life, and it’s natural to wonder what you can do to ensure these bonds stand the test of time. It’s a topic that has been at the forefront of many minds as the coronavirus pandemic created physical distance was between loved ones, and relationships that once felt watertight have had to adjust in unfamiliar ways. 

But there are things you can do – both big and small – to encourage a meaningful, long-lasting bond with the people you care about. Marisa Franco, friendship expert and psychologist, calls a woman’s 20s the “heyday of friendship” – meeting mates from all walks of life as we are “exposed to different adventures and living” – but, like anything, this time can’t last forever. This can cause great anxiety for many, as friendship is a source of comfort and a symbol of constant connection in an increasingly volatile and unfriendly world. 

As we get older, we tend to shed friendships that aren’t as meaningful to us as we prioritise the ones we really want to nurture. So how do we actually go about preserving the relationships that we want to last?

Outside of ensuring that you have as much “basic interaction” as possible with your friend – “the more you interact with people, the more likely you are to stay connected and deepen your bond,” Marisa says – there are other ways to strengthen a friendship to make sure it stands the test of time. Marisa shares five tried and tested methods to strengthening your friendships below.

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Be vulnerable, even if it’s against your instincts

It’s sometimes one of the hardest things in the world, but in order to ensure that your friendship has the legs to survive what life will throw at it, it’s important to be vulnerable with your friends. According to Marisa, it “generates intimacy”.

“People actually like us more when we’re vulnerable because it conveys that we trust and like them,” she says. While it can be easy to assume that vulnerability comes hand in hand with perceived weakness, Maria argues that with friends this is often not the case – the opposite in fact.

“[Friends] see us more positively than we assume – they see us as authentic and honest when we are vulnerable,” she says. 

One way to do this is to practice “scaffolding vulnerability” – start out talking and acting in a vulnerable manner with someone you are closest to, and then, once you’ve had a good response, extend those exercises to your relationships with others who are newer to your inner circle.

“This is going to feel a lot less scary and a lot less risky to you, because you already feel more secure from that initial scaffolding,” Marisa says. “So if you feel comfortable talking to a sibling or a parent, but you haven’t necessarily built that up with your friends, start there, and then share with your friends – and then [you can] open up to someone who’s a bit more of a wild card.”

Make sure you “repot” your friendships 

Marisa offers a really beautiful way of looking at your relationships with your friends – tend to them like you would a potted plant. Franco advises that we “vary the settings” that we set our friendships in.

“So if you start going to the movies with them, or you take a trip with them, all of that is going to deepen friendships just simply by shaking up things you do together,” she explains. This helps with the prevention of the classic downfall of any relationship, getting “stuck in a rut”, based on a principle called self-expansion theory.

“We are all looking for ways to expand ourselves,” Marisa adds. “And the number one way we do that is through our relationships, through new experiences in our relationships.” This is a really fun, fulfilling way for both you and your friend to futureproof your relationship.

This is a particularly good way to ensure that workplace relationships last the test of time; when you inevitably move forward in your careers and perhaps away from each other. 

“Asking a work friend for a walk, or for a fun non-related work activity, can really change the dynamic of the relationship, because you’re saying ‘Hey, I’m invested in you, not just because we share a common workplace, but because I’m invested in you as a person.’” she says.

Show a little affection, even if it seems weird

This one may seem obvious, or verging on awkward at times, but demonstrating to your mate just how much they mean to you has a lot of power. There’s even a theory for it, Marisa explains – risk regulation theory.

“The idea of risk regulation theory is that we will only invest in relationships if the risks of rejection are regulated,” she says. “So basically, we only invest in our relationships when someone makes us feel safe to do that. And so when we affirm our friends, when we tell them ‘I like you, you’re so great. I’m so happy for you. I’m in your corner’, what that does is it makes them feel safe to invest in us.

“So it kind of creates this upward, positively reinforcing cycle, where we can more easily keep our friendships alive.”

Of course, everyone shows affection in different ways – and not always with words. Marisa encourages you to have a think about which of the five love languages –  acts of service, gift-giving, physical touch, words and quality time – would work best to convey your connection to your friends. 

Never forget the importance of “showing up” 

When our friends need support, whether it’s involving something big or small, it’s really important to ensure you are there for them – whether that’s physically, in person, or on the other end of a phone when they need you. Your friends will remember this, and it will “solidify and cement” your friendship in a way that will strengthen it over time, according to Marisa.

“Support is really a portal to deep intimacy,” she says, adding that it’s important to step through that portal when we are invited.

Marisa stresses that when we support our friends, we are helping to strengthen a friendship and increasing it’s durability over time because it makes us “more optimistic” during periods of being out of touch or more distant because you already have such a strong history.

When this closeness is fostered with a friend, their presence and personality becomes part of us and our sense of self, which Marisa classes as part of a term called the “inclusion of the self”. 

“So it feels like they’re with us in all the time,” she says. “It allows you to live through periods of separation from friends, because it doesn’t feel as much like you are – you’ve incorporated them into your sense of self, becoming central to who you are.”

Remember that longevity isn’t always possible      

If you become close friends with someone very quickly and it doesn’t end up lasting very long, it may be that the entire relationship lacked the required foundation from the beginning, Marisa says.

“Sometimes friendships that are super intimate have a shorter life because they’ve built up too quickly over time,” she says. “All of that intimacy makes you increase your expectations in a way that can ultimately make the friendship fail. So I think, moving slowly in friendship is a good idea,” she recommends.

That said, it’s really important to stress that every friendship is important in its own way, big or small. Franco stresses that while these close relationships can “reflect our identities”, our identities can evolve so that we don’t connect with our loved ones anymore.

“It’s normal for this to happen,” she says. In fact, research finds that the average person replaces half their friends every seven years. We can honour the friendship for what it gave us at a certain time in our lives without it having to last forever. 

“We can also use the friendship ending as an invitation for us to explore how our identity – or our friend’s – has changed and what our needs are in relationships going forward.” 

4 things you can do now to strengthen a friendship

  • Make a plan to expand your network of friends with who you can be vulnerable with, starting with your closest and most intimate, to make a “scaffolding”.
  • Think of a different activity that you wouldn’t usually do with a specific friend and suggest it to them in order to change things up.
  • Offer support to your friends who might need it, whether that’s physically, in person or being at the other end of the phone.
  • Ensure your new friendships have good foundations by building things up slowly in order not overwhelm the relationship with too much pressure and intimacy. Let it grow naturally.

Find out more about Dr Franco on her website, and feel free to delve further into Stylist’s advice on friendship.

  • Dr Marisa Franco, psychologist and friendship expert

    Dr Marisa G Franco is a former professor and a psychologist who writes about connection for Psychology Today and has been a featured expert for major publications like the New York Times, The Telegraph, and Vice. She is currently writing a book on how to make friends as an adult, Platonic, signed by Penguin Random House.