From the time we’re old enough to pick up a picture book, we start getting lessons about what makes a good romantic partner. We see princesses falling for handsome princes who are brave and strong. Then we graduate to rom-coms where the girls are witty and cute and the guys are good-hearted and a little clueless. We start to gossip with our friends about crushes and kisses and more. We spend so much time seeing examples of love stories all around us that by the time we go on our first date, whether we know it or not, we already have lots of expectations that help us assess whether this relationship is something we want or not.
We don’t, as a culture, spend as much time reflecting on our friendships, but I think we should. After all, we put hours of time and energy into these relationships. Often, close friends are lifelong partners that we don’t acknowledge to their fullest potential.
Here are some moves I think we should steal from our cultural dating playbook and apply to our friendships.
Look for commitment, acceptance, and reliability
Does this friend show up when they say they will? If you let them know you’re having a hard day, will they make time to talk at some point? Do you do the same for them? Can you see this friend joining you for dinner with your mom?
Most importantly, can you be yourself in this friendship? Check in with yourself about whether you have to censor certain parts of yourself around certain friends. Obviously, different sides of our personalities shine with different friends, but you shouldn’t feel like you have to act a certain way or risk being rejected.
Check in on the relationship
Pay attention to what makes you feel connected in your friendship–maybe it’s good conversation, sharing cute animal memes, or testing out new recipes together. Once you know what’s meaningful to the two of you, you can be intentional about how you bond.
And when you feel disconnected, don’t be shy about bringing it up! Friendship relationship talks? Yes.
Something therapists often tell couples is that they should never expect one partner to be able to read the other one’s mind. Often, when we know someone really well and they do something that makes us mad we think, “You should have known that would bother me.” However, no matter how close we are to someone, we can never know for sure what is going on in their head unless we ask directly.
This same rule applies for friends. So if your friend didn’t congratulate you after you got a big promotion and you’re feeling hurt, talk to them. Let them know what hurt and ask them why they responded the way they did. Don’t assume.
Assess what both of you bring to the friendship
How do you feel when you actually spend time with this friend? Do you laugh? Do you feel energized? Or are you counting down the minutes until you’re back at home, netflixing in pajamas?
You want to surround yourself with friends who bring out your best side.
You want friends who get excited when you’ve accomplished something big.
You want friends who can listen to your problems without being too pushy about how you should fix them.
You should also know what your friend appreciates most about you. What do you bring to the table? This is a two-way street, after all.
Take care of each other
You’ve probably heard about the five love languages in romantic relationships. Well, use them in your friendships as well! Figure out what makes your friend feel most cared for. Here are some ideas for your friends of all different love-language types.
Words of Affirmation: Make sure you let this friend know how they’ve inspired you. Tell them when you think they did something really well. Let them know what you appreciate about them.
Quality Time: Make sure you spend one-on-one time with this friend. They will want to connect with words, share what’s going on in their life, and listen. Don’t invite other people last-minute to your hangouts without asking this friend first.
Gifts: Get creative! If your friend likes to read, make them a bookmark. If they like music, curate some playlists with music you’re listening to right now. Pick up some pretty fall leaves for them on your walk over to their house. Gifts let them know that something reminded you of them as you were going about your day.
Physical Affection: If you’re comfortable with physical affection, make sure this friend gets lots of hugs. Sit close to when they’re telling you about something that’s been upsetting them. Don’t be afraid to reach out your hand and let them know you’re there.
Acts of Service: For these kinds of friends, lending a helping hand goes a long way. Bring takeout over to their house after they get off of work really late. Help paint the wall in their new apartment. Take them to the airport when they’re going out of town. They will appreciate and remember how generous you are.
Know when to break up
Know that sometimes it isn’t anyone’s fault that the relationship isn’t working. Sometimes people change and grow in ways that make you incompatible. If you and your friend have grown apart, don’t keep hanging out with them out of a sense of obligation.
Remember that you can be heartbroken over a lost friendship. Be brave enough to break it off when it’s not working but compassionate enough to allow yourself time to miss that person and heal.