Good social connections and friendships can give us a sense of belonging, make us healthier and feel nourished. But as we grow older, we often become more selective about who we allow within our inner circle. Fair-weather pals are traded for those with staying power, as we swap quantity for quality.
This so-called “social pruning” goes hand-in-hand with the litany of adulting pressures that tend to kick in at the onset of your thirties. It’s surprising how the vaulting bar to friendship shifts up a notch when you’re not mainlining tequila in a dorm at 3am. Even if you are, you’ve learnt life lessons by now on what it is in a relationship that feels like it fills up your cup rather than diminishes it.
It’s best to look to strong and simple friendships for a grounding influence in your life and, when it comes to friendships that will last the distance, these traits stand out above the rest.
Friendships wax and wane through changing circumstances
Science points to a host of qualities that are integral to keeping friendships alive, including proximity, shared memories and even similar brainwaves. But the crossroads on which all friendships wax and wane is 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,” he says.
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 survive choppy waters. Being a good friend extends beyond the traits we like to place on a pedestal – loyalty, kindness or a similar sense of humour – and it may simply come down to not demanding too much when life gets in the way, instead expressing compassion and understanding.
A low-maintenance friend will relax their expectations
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 spend time together. A low-maintenance friend will relax their expectations of how the friendship is maintained, with the understanding that you’ll be as close as ever when you do meet and 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, it sets the stage for a friendship that endures, no matter what circumstances you both face.
High-maintenance friendships are an emotional drain
“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 realise that.”
Low-maintenance friends aren’t just about cultivating a relaxed dynamic, though. They’re also great for personal growth. 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.
We carry out patterns based on core beliefs that we haven’t quite shaken off. Such dynamics can toy with ambivalence. They can 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.
It’s harder than you might imagine to make a good friendship last
And the older you get, the less patience you’ll have for being put through the wringer. A low-maintenance friend may well have crisis 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. Your 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 through life’s ups and downs, minus the strain of extra baggage.
It’s harder than you might imagine to make a good friendship last. Research indicates that true intimacy comes about via an average of 200 hours’ worth of meaningful conversations. Then comes a tidal wave of other random variables – distance, life events, and consistency – that have potential to sway the balance.
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.
Friendship should be a continuum where closeness is assumed
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 dying patients, according to accounts from a nurse. “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, most importantly, fall back in where it counts.
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