The art and science of friendship

The last couple of years have caused mayhem and disruption in so many areas of our lives, and our ability to socialise and spend time with loved ones has not been spared. While restrictions are now lifting and our movement is somewhat more free, we may find that our friendships have not have sprung back to where we left them pre-pandemic. Our ability to see our friends is returning, but we may feel less willing or able to make time for it.

Or, maybe it’s your friends who aren’t reciprocating your social overtures, or your relationships feel strained or uncomfortable. This enforced distancing from all things social has made many of us reassess our friendships and what they mean to us.

Romantic vs platonic relationships

From a scientific perspective, we need friendships for a whole host of reasons. Numerous studies have found that those who have strong social connections may live longer, and that our psychological wellbeing is linked to the friendships and social support in our lives. Community and friendships are particularly important for those of us who are not in romantic relationships.

In general though, we tend not to invest the same time and effort into platonic friendships as we do in finding, fostering, and maintaining romantic relationships. There are no apps allowing us to swipe left or right for new buddies or social groups, while online dating is a million dollar industry. While couples and relationship counselling is considered fairly mainstream now, most of us have never considered the possibility of getting counselling to improve a close friendship or straighten out a rupture with someone we love platonically. Somehow, we expect friendships to just… run themselves.

Taking a moment (or a few moments!) to think about and work on the friendships we have in our lives is not only helpful, it may be entirely necessary for our wellbeing.

What makes a good friend?

While everyone’s needs are different and there’s no one-size-fits-all list that you can apply across the board, there are a few things that are consistently recognised as important in friendships.

Be a good listener. It’s often much easier to try to fix a friend’s problem, to offer solutions and jump into action, than to just sit, listen, and be present with them in their challenges. And more often than not, what people want is just that: to be heard. Let them vent, and let them tell you if they need something in particular or want your advice.

Be trustworthy. In any relationship, trust is a vital ingredient that once lost, is hard to get back. We need to be careful with any information entrusted to us. It’s easy to get caught up in gossip, or slip up with some fun facts after a few drinks, but we need to remember that our friends’ stories are not ours to share. We need to be honest and kind, and use our words for good.

Be supportive. Even if you wouldn’t personally make that choice. Even if you’re a bit jealous. Unless you genuinely believe your friend is heading down a path that is harmful for their health, be their greatest cheerleader at every opportunity.

Show up. It’s easy to fall into the “too busy” story when it comes to birthdays, important events, or responding to a friend in need. It takes so little to acknowledge someone and make them feel seen and special. Take the time to keep track of special dates and anniversaries and use alerts if it helps you remember noteworthy dates. And if your friend is going through a rough time, find out how you can help.

Am I a good friend?

While we tend to focus more often on analysing whether others are “good friends,” we need to place even more focus on being a good friend! Casting an objective and critical eye over our own behaviour is much harder than judging others.

Good friendships take time and energy to develop, and require sustained attention and nurturing. Once you’ve figured out what you value and look for in friendships, you may need to take a look in the mirror and examine where you measure up (or where you don’t!). If there are things you feel you could do better, or that don’t come easily to you, don’t beat yourself up. Work on them as you would any new skill. Behavioural change and self-improvement come through persistence, attention, and effort.

When it’s challenging

Making and maintaining friendships can be challenging. We may find blockages and challenges related to our own self-esteem struggles, negative biases, and conditioned mistrust can get in the way of healthy functioning relationships. Gestalt is a relational therapy, and recognises our relationships and connections to others as crucial to holistic emotional wellbeing. If you need support on this journey, get in touch with us today, and we’ll connect you with your perfect Gestalt therapist to help you on your own journey to connection and community.

Because according to science, your life may depend on it!