This surprising trait is the ultimate test of a lifelong friend

By Anna Brech

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Look to strong and simple friendships for a grounding influence in your life

Friendship makes the world go round – but as we grow older, we become more selective about whom we allow within our inner circle. Fair weather pals are traded for those with staying power, as we swap quantity for quality in a litmus test of lasting intimacy.

This so-called “social pruning” goes hand-in-hand with the litany of adulting pressures that typically kick in from your 30s onwards. It’s surprising how the vaulting bar to friendship shifts up a notch when you’re not mainlining tequila in a dorm at 3am.

Minus the free-wheelin’ cushion of youth, you need buddies who you have your back in a challenge. The flaky ones simply won’t see it through. And when it comes to friends who last the distance, one trait stands out above the rest.

Low maintenance, high quality

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Science points to a host of qualities that are integral to keeping friendships alight, including proximity, shared memories and even similar brainwaves. But the crossroads on which all friendships wax and wane is with changing circumstances.

“Friendships are always susceptible to circumstances,” William Rawlins, Professor of Interpersonal Communication at Ohio University, tells The Atlantic. “If you think of all the things we have to do – we have to work, we have to take care of our kids, or our parents – friends choose to do things for each other, so we can put them off. They fall through the cracks.”

As we get older, our lives naturally get more complicated and full. And while many friendships stall at this juncture, the best ones are flexible enough to float on choppy seas.

Being a good friend, then, extends beyond the headline traits we like to place on a pedestal: loyalty, kindness or a similar sense of humour. It may simply come down to not demanding too much when real life gets in the way.

(Not so) great expectations

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A low-maintenance friend should not be mistaken for someone who’s not committed. Rather, they don’t expect the friendship you share to conform to a given set of conditions. The bond you share doesn’t have to look a certain way – or equate to time spent together – in order to be considered genuine.

Rawlins’ research shows that many middle-aged Americans define real friendship as “being there” for one another, even when they rarely spent time together. A low-maintenance friend, then, will relax their expectations of how your friendship is maintained; but with the understanding that you’ll be as close as ever when you do meet, without any sense of resentment.

Of course, this unwritten approach has to be mutual in order to work: one person cannot expect more than the other without creating dissonance.

When the fine line is achieved, however – lying somewhere between not present for every catch-up but will drop everything if required – it sets the stage for a friendship that endures, no matter what circumstances you both face.

“That is how friendships continue, because people are living up to each other’s expectations,” says Rawlins. “And if we have relaxed expectations for each other, or we’ve even suspended expectations, there’s a sense in which we realize that.”

Support versus strain

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Low-maintenance friends aren’t just about cultivating a relaxed dynamic, though. They’re also great for taking a swerve on more toxic elements of friendship.

When we’re young, we tend to fall into relationships that feel exciting and risky. But the very same chemistry may involve manipulative characters; people who subtly undermine you, who judge you or who are unable to support or accept your successes.

Such “friends” love to toy with ambivalence; they ask a lot of you but are unavailable in return. They’re uber-competitive, or seem to relish playing games. Even if they feel fun 90% of the time, these high-maintenance friendships are an emotional drain. And the older you get, the less patience you’ll have for being put through the wringer.

A low-maintenance friend may well have crises of their own that, as their buddy, you’ll need to attend to. But crucially, they don’t add a dose of self-composed drama into the mix. You friendship evolves in simple and straight-forward terms, without the need to test boundaries.

This then forms a mutually supportive raft that will see you life’s pitches and turns; minus the strain of extra baggage.

Maintaining a lifelong bond

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It’s harder than you might imagine to make a good friendship last. Research indicates that true intimacy comes about via an average 200 hours’ worth of meaningful conversations; no mean feat in a world where our attention is constantly fractured by deadlines and devices.

Then comes a tidal wave of other random variables – distance, life events, even the tenor of your smile – that may sway the balance either way.

But if you *can* negotiate the tightrope of friendship politics, the rewards are huge. Satisfying relationships not only make us happier and healthier, they also keep us afloat as we get older and more bruised by outside events.

Little surprise, too, that friendship is one of those things that we notice most when it’s missing. “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends,” is one of the top five regrets of the dying, according to this viral article.

“Many [patients] had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years,” says author and palliative nurse Bronnie Ware. “There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved.”

A low-maintenance friend puts in that time and effort, with a slow, steady and uncomplicated presence. They see friendship as a continuum; a place where closeness is assumed, no matter what happens in between. They’re flexible enough to standby when life gets in the way – and fall back in where it counts.

Images: Shutterstock

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