Everyone knows marriage takes work if it’s going to go the distance. But our friendships need the same kind of care if they’re going to endure. Can we take a page or two from the marriage playbook and apply them to our other relationships? Yes, and here’s the game plan, straight from the coaches themselves.
Build a new game plan. “People grow over time,” says Chanel Dokun, founder of LifePlanNYC. “Allow your friend(s) to change and flourish by asking about new interests and unexpected passions that may be new additions to [their lives].” Travel some of these new pathways with your friends, and you’ll grow too.
Use technology to your advantage. If distance interferes with a face-to-face, by all means use Skype or FaceTime to have quality one-on-one time, says Monique Honaman, relationship expert and author of The High Road Has Less Traffic. “Be intentional about scheduling time for each other. Just as many spouses schedule formal ‘date nights’ with each other, so too should friends be intentional about scheduling time to catch up and reconnect,” she says. “In fact, many of my best friends live out of state, so we meet for a virtual coffee or glass of wine.” Honaman says you should schedule these meet-ups when you have time to focus. “The kids need to be at school or in bed; your spouse needs to be doing something else. Find a private spot and have your conversation!”
Build rituals of connection. Dokun says that you don’t have to have weekly nights out to maintain a friendship. “Commit to a blowout annual celebration of a non-family oriented holiday like Cinco de Mayo or Labor Day where you can routinely spend time together and build memories through the years.” Tara Dixon agrees. “Traditions guarantee plans, and they give everyone a chance to participate, no matter what their interests,” she says. “I also suggest to couples and friends to roll the dice with Groupon. No matter the time of year, you can always find something interesting on Groupon.” From spa days to new restaurants or even high adventure, there are plenty of options. “Once everyone has purchased their Groupon, they are more compelled to follow through using it,” says Dixon.
Ask permission. “One of the biggest mistakes that couples make is giving one another unsolicited advice,” say Ashley and Michael Arn, known as the Love Doctors. “Have you ever come home from having a really crappy day, and you wanted to just vent to your friend about what has happened? Instead, your friend instantly starts giving suggestions to fix your problem. You end up feeling frustrated because all you wanted them to do was listen.” When this happens, show your friend how you want them to respond by doing something called “modeling.” “The next time your friend is feeling overwhelmed and venting about their day, simply ask them ‘I’m sorry you had a rough day. Do you want to vent about it or would you like me to help you find solutions? I just want to make sure I’m here for you in the way you need me,’” say the Arns.
Boldly go where you haven’t gone before. Building on the idea of a shared Groupon experience, Traci Ruble, psychotherapist and founder of Psyched in San Francisco, says that “What every long-term married couple says is some version of ‘we have a lot of comfort and stability but we lost that spark. How can we get it back?’” Friendships can become staid and boring, too. Boredom, over time, weakens bonds. “As we age we tend to pursue routines because they simplify our lives, but a little bit of novelty in our relationships can add a good kind of stress that creates [freshness],” she explains. “If you always meet with your coffee group at the same place, perhaps try a new place. Or maybe do something radically different like go see a play together.” By investing in shared, novel experiences, you spark new vitality, and the shared memories deepen the bonds of friendship.
Don’t take things personally. “Friends sometimes get offended by all sorts of things,” says Jill Whitney. “Like when a friend gets together with another friend without inviting you, or takes too long to reply to a message or loses interest in an activity the two of you used to enjoy together.” None of these scenarios are about you, she says. “They don’t say anything at all about the value your friend places on your relationship. People get busy; people have separate interests and friendships. Value your friend for the changing, evolving person she is.”
Voice your admiration. “Regularly express how you value and admire specific character traits in your friend,” advises Dokun. Hearing praise from our friends is just as important as hearing praise from our partners. “Bonus points for making these declarations in front of others.” Whitney agrees. “With people you’ve known for a long time, it’s easy to take for granted all the good things about them. So take a minute to notice what’s great about your friend, whether it’s his reliability, her ability to make you laugh, his awesome cooking or her thoughtful observations. It’ll mean the world to your friend to be noticed.
“Just as many spouses schedule formal ‘date nights’ with each other, so too should friends be intentional about scheduling time to catch up and reconnect.”
Be vocal about your needs. People don’t know how to mind-read, says Michelene Wasil, yet we continue to assume that the people who love us should know what we’re feeling. “If you are having a hard time, be transparent,” she counsels. “Say something like, ‘life has been really rough lately, and I really need a friend to talk to,’ or ‘I’m having a really bad week; can we reconnect when I’m feeling better?’ Being open with your feelings can help prevent bad feelings!”
Communicate with commitment. With all relationships, “it is really important to communicate regularly,” says Wasil. “Checking in—even if it’s a couple of times a month for friends—is crucial to staying in the loop and feeling a part of each other’s lives. With my couples, I have them schedule times to catch up on the kids, work or even just a daily check-in with each other,” she explains. “The same can be said for friendships: Make it a point to call each other, or periodically send texts or cute/funny messages.”
Be nice for no reason. “Do small gestures for your friends for no reason: drop off a candy bar they love, send them a card, help them with laundry or organizing their house,” says Wasil.
How do you know if you’re spending enough time with your friends? “If you want to see how you are doing with staying in touch with your friends, look at your calendar and at your bank account,” say the Arns. Make sure you invest time and money each week or month on your BFFs. “It doesn’t have to be a lot,” they say.