While more attention is often paid to familial and romantic relationships, strong and healthy friendships also play an essential role in providing support, joy, and understanding to individuals throughout their lifespan. It’s important to not only have friends we can count on but also to act in ways that make us great friends to others. In other words, it’s at least as important to be a good friend as it is to have good friends. The first step is to identify which qualities tend to promote strong friendships; the next (and admittedly harder step) is to put these traits into action in your relationships!
The first quality of strong friendships is that they are reciprocal in nature, that there’s a give and take in the relationship where both people feel heard, valued, and accepted. Close friendships generally develop in relationships where both people are genuinely drawn to each other and invested in each other’s well-being; they enjoy discussing and engaging in their overlapping interests, but also respect and appreciate each other’s differences. Similarly, strong friendships are ones in which people celebrate each other’s successes and are there for each other in times of setbacks and struggle. Just like a great conversation involves taking turns as speaker and listener, close friendships must be flexible enough to support each individual as they experience the ups and downs of life.
Another quality of strong friendships is that they tend to be built on a foundation of common interests and values. Of course, it’s rare that any two people share ALL of the same interests and values and there are some great friendships in which individuals have limited commonalities. While it’s possible to build friendships on a foundation of gossiping, partying, small talk, or other superficial interests/activities, these relationships tend to be more vulnerable to problems and less likely to withstand the trials most friendships face over time. In the short term, it may only be important that friends have fun together, but in the long term, common values that color the way we see the world often facilitate closer friendships that are more resilient to the relational issues that often creep up.
Strong friendships also tend to promote safety and trust in the relationship. Individuals that are open-minded, respectful, and loyal tend to develop deep friendships because they cultivate a sense of acceptance that allows the other person to fully be themselves, to be open about who they are, what they want from life, the mistakes they’ve made, and the thoughts/feelings they experience. Close friends also act in ways that send the message that they are reliable, dependable, and respectful. Just as these qualities are essential to a healthy romantic relationship, they are the soil from which strong and healthy friendships eventually bloom.
While it’s important that friends accept each other as they are, it’s also essential that close friends challenge each other to be their best selves. That means being a good listener and providing honest feedback when your friend requests it or you recognize a potential need for it. Encouraging unhealthy behaviors and giving people advice you think they want rather than advice you believe they need does not serve you, them, or the relationship itself. Part of being an authentic person and quality friend is knowing how to compassionately provide honest and critical feedback in an attempt to support your friends in reaching their goals. Inauthentic feedback only serves to delay and limit progress; it may feel like the “nice” thing to do in the moment, but ultimately it robs the person of an opportunity for insight and growth.
The other quality that strong friendships tend to have in common is that both people put effort towards maintaining the relationship. Staying connected takes work, especially as individuals get older, busier, and less likely to see each other in the setting in which they first met, such as school or work. Social media and forms of electronic communication such as text and email certainly help people stay engaged in each other’s lives, but close friendships still require intentional effort to remain close. Thankfully, small acts, such as spontaneous or regular check-ins, can go a long way in demonstrating investment in each other’s lives and for maintaining an open line of communication that is essential for strong friendships. If there’s a rupture in the relationship, good friends also take responsibility for their actions, they own up to their mistakes, make repair attempts, and work to avoid creating similar issues in the future.
Strong friendships take work to build and maintain, but for most people, they’re worth the investment of their time and energy. As humans, we are social creatures, and we benefit greatly from providing love and support as well as receiving it. If you’re happy with the quality of your friendships, it’s likely that you already engage in many of the attitudes and behaviors described above; if not, take a moment to honestly reflect on how you might be able to cultivate more of these traits. Friendships can last a lifetime, but only when they’re strong enough to stand the test of time!