Wright Foundation | January 4, 2016

Let’s Make Friendships Mean Something This Year!

Remember when you were a kid and your best friend lived right next door? I’ll bet you thought they were just like you—you had the same interests, liked the same toys, and went to the same school…

As we get older, our worlds expand, and our interests, values and goals change. We find ourselves less connected to those who are close to us simply because they live next door. We demand more meaning from our relationships. We need friends who elevate us.

We may have allies at work who propel us forward and who we work well with, but are they really our friends? Just because we have simpatico relationships at work, that doesn’t necessarily mean we share common interests and values, or that we’d like to spend time with our colleagues when outside the office. Allies bond around a common objective. Friends bond around common values.

As we get older, it can be more difficult to make friends—not because they aren’t available, but because we aren’t willing to settle for a friendship that’s simply based on liking the same football team or enjoying the same movies. Those friendships can still exist in our lives, of course, but they aren’t the real, truly meaningful ones.

Why Do I Still Connect With My Old Friends?

Chances are you still have a few things in common with your childhood friends, plus, it feels like old times when you see them. You grew up together, so, almost like siblings, you can find yourself picking right up on conversations, inside jokes, and shared memories every time you get together. This familiarity is comforting and it goes without saying that you probably do share some value commonalities, seeing as you have similar backgrounds.

That said, our childhood friends have probably journeyed on different paths. They may not be as connected with us on a deeper level, so we can find ourselves feeling like we’re back in the same old “boxes” and reverting back to limiting behaviors from when we were kids. As we get older, we need to connect with people on a deeper level. We require more from friendship. We want friends who will help us with our personal growth, who teach us, and who keep us on a forward trajectory. We want new friends who don’t feel like dead weight, pulling us back into old patterns.

It’s easy to feel like those first friendships were our closest and that we’ll never find such loyal friends again. In truth, when we’re younger, friendships are based on intimacy and loyalty, but now we want friends who are loyal to higher values we both share (not simply friends who have your back against the neighborhood bully).

Being honest with others and expressing your values to them can help you engage with new people and find commonalities. It can feel strange and uncomfortable at first, but reach past that to really see each person in the true light of who they are. Express yourself honestly and openly and you will draw in those who share common values and integrity.

When Friends Have Problems

Everyone goes through tough times and it can be painful and hard to watch. If your friend is going through marital struggles or a personal crisis, we can often want to distance ourselves lest their “bad mojo” somehow spill over into our own lives. And it’s true: when a friend has marital problems, it can stir up feelings about your own relationship. It’s not uncommon for a friend’s divorce to taint your marriage.

There are ways to let your friend know you care about them. Listen and hear them out, and don’t allow their problems to become your problems. Keep your perspective and don’t let relating to them become a free-for-all to bitch about your own spouse. Be honest with them and express your concern. If a friend is struggling with an addiction or some behavior that doesn’t reflect your values, let them know while you don’t like what they’re doing and you won’t be a part of it, you are there to help when they’re ready.

Unfortunately, we can’t change our friend’s behavior, and in cases of substance abuse and other self-destructive patterns, we can even become so involved it drags us down too. Be sure you don’t fall into drama and swoop in to “rescue” your friend. Ally yourself with others who are also concerned for their well-being (friends, their spouse) and let them know while you won’t enable their behavior, you’re certainly supportive when they’re ready to make a change.

If your friends have a difference of opinion from you or a political stance you might not agree with, engage with them and let them know why you feel the way you do. It can feel a little frightening at first to say, “Hey, this is what I think and I don’t agree with what you’re saying,” and as we all know, some acquaintances can’t stand up to that. Real friendships based on mutual respect can handle differences of opinions. However, some of my best friends have been part of some of my most heated political and social debates. As long as you’re honest and you respect that you might not always see eye-to-eye (but you do know they’re coming from a place of shared values), express your opinions freely.

Patterns in Our Friendships

Maybe you find you seek friends of the opposite gender or you don’t feel as comfortable opening up to male friends as you do to females. Perhaps you’re a woman who feels competitive with female friends and friendships can become more about one-upping than about supporting and growing.

Look at your parents and your siblings, and where you fall into patterns with them. Are you seeking female friends because you’re the oldest and you fall into the pattern of wanting to connect with your mother—looking for the feeling of primacy and importance? Do you feel threatened by friends of the same gender because they might be competing for attention from your spouse who is your best friend, similar to the way your siblings competed for attention from a parent?

Doing your own work can tell you a lot about your friendship patterns and what’s important to you in your relationships. You can learn a great deal about what personality traits you seek in friends and what patterns you fall into simply because they’re familiar or comfortable.

Sometimes, we reach a point where we’re ready to move on from a friendship and downgrade it to an acquaintance. That is perfectly natural, and it happens often without much fanfare or discussion. If it’s important for you to express your feelings to the friend and explain why, bring it up. More often than not though, the discussion won’t lead to change or fix the relationship. If a friendship has truly lived past its prime, allowing some distance and moving on can be the best thing.

As you examine your relationships this year, make time for those that bring out your best and help you grow. Spend time with people who challenge your mind and your emotional intelligence. Friends should make you stretch yourself and you should bond around your mutual values.

Learn more about your relationships by joining us for More Life Training workshops. You’ll learn skills to engage your social and emotional intelligence, connect with others, and be your best self.

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Wright Living is a division of the Wright Foundation for the Realization of Human Potential, a leadership institute located in Chicago, Illinois. Wright Living performative learning programs are integrated into the curriculum at Wright Graduate University.