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Relationships

How to Be a Good Friend (And What to Look for In Others)

| 07/31/2022

Illustration by Sophi Gullbrants

From children’s movies centered on the princess marrying the prince, to adult social events that exclude folks who aren’t coupled, our society draws a stark distinction between romantic love and friendship. Typically, romantic love comes out on top. 

Yet, according to Candrea Davies, “The conversation around healthy friendships to me is the conversation around healthy relationships.” Davies is a licensed clinical professional counselor at AnnodRight, a therapy group by and for black womxn. She says that healthy and loving friendships and romantic relationships largely require the same foundations: shared values, mutual support, and empathetic listening.

Because we’re taught to prioritize romantic relationships, it can feel much harder to make friends as adults. Forming adult friendships can also be more challenging because, according to research, we’re more self-conscious of the possibility of judgment or rejection. 

Yet there’s another, potentially positive reason that forming close friendships feels more difficult now than it did in grade school: “Friendships change in adulthood because we begin to know ourselves more,” says Davies. In childhood, “We are trying to figure out who we are, and so we build friendships based off of some external things.”

As an adult, building friendships that resonate with our values can be more challenging, but can also allow us to reflect on and affirm what is important to us.

Many of us have lost friendships over the course of the pandemic. We may have fallen out of touch due to isolation. Or we may have realized that our previous friends actually don’t share our values, or don’t wholly support our marginalized identities. This realization can be painful, but it can also be an opportunity to build relationships that more deeply support us. Here are some tips for nurturing good friendships. 

Look for Shared Values

In contrast to the simple commonalities on which we form friendships as children — ”Oh you like the color red? I like the color red. We should be friends,” says Davies — solid adult friendships depend on shared values. Davies also suggests that it’s not enough to simply agree that qualities like trust are important to us. We also need to define what those values look like in action.

“We have to agree on what trust is. We have to agree on what support is,” says Davies. As with romantic dating, we can observe how a new friend acts toward us and other people in their lives over time. If that person consistently treats people in a way that resonates with their stated values, that produces trust. 

You can also simply discuss values that are important to you with potential new friends. “As corny as it may seem, you can ask somebody, “Hey, what does trust mean to you?’” says Davies. “It will spark a great conversation.”

Date Your Friends

We’re familiar with the concept of dating a romantic partner — getting to know them in a way that unfolds over time. We can take a similar approach to making new friends.

By getting to know a new friend with intentionality, we can identify shared values and learn more about our own intimacy patterns. Davies suggests that most of us weren’t taught many of the skills required to sustain close relationships: “In the same way that we’re not taught healthy relationships, we’re not taught healthy boundaries.” Good friendships can be a safer space to build healthy boundaries.

We can also become better friends by learning how to validate other people’s experiences, including negative ones. “Validating people in how they feel is not a typical learned behavior in many households,” says Davies. “Emotions other than happiness, joy, and celebration are [considered] invalid.” 

For many of us growing up, negative emotions were not to be expressed, or were expressed by lashing out. This difficulty in processing negative emotions can lead us to feeling unsupported or being unsupportive in friendships. Instead of avoiding negative emotions or moving into an accusatory mode, we can expand our ability to process negative emotions with compassion.

Uplift Each Other

Building genuine, caring intimacy is a political act. Many feminist value systems, particularly the Black feminist practice of abolition, emphasize care as a means to build support beyond harmful state structures. 

For queer and trans people, as well as women and femmes — especially Black, Indigenous, and people of color — loving friendships with people who share our identities can be fundamental to our wellbeing. “It’s very important to feel validated, especially as a black woman,” says Davies. 

Meaningful friendships can be deeply sustaining in a system that teaches us to do disproportional emotional labor for cisgender men. “There are certain systems that support that viewpoint of, ‘Men have the final word, men control the narrative,’” says Davies. For example, men are taught that it’s “weak” to open up to other men, so many rely exclusively on women or feminine partners for emotional support. In contrast, when men build genuine friendships with each other, it can transform an entire community. 

Practice Solidarity

It’s vital for people who have more privilege to learn how to interact supportively with friends and community members who have less privilege, especially when it comes to race. “The typical white household, they stay away from those uncomfortable conversations about race and political views,” says Davies. This denial is one of the strategies white people use to distance ourselves from the discomfort of processing white privilege. White people must question how our enactment of whiteness harms folks of color and impedes our ability to form caring and egalitarian relationships. 

We can become a better friend in general — and especially to anyone marginalized in a different way than we are — by practicing empathetic listening.  This requires “believing somebody when they say something about their experience and how they feel,” says Davies. “Believing them and keeping a curious stance of, ‘Okay, I don’t understand that. Tell me more.’”

Friendship gives us space to practice relating to other people in egalitarian, mutually caring, and socially just ways. It enhances our wellbeing and our romantic relationships. And it helps us ask a revolutionary question: What if we treated all people with the kindness and respect that we expect from our closest friends?

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