The Art of Friendship Maintenance

Kat Nicholls
By Kat Nicholls,
updated on Feb 13, 2020

The Art of Friendship Maintenance

Struggling to pencil in that catch up with a friend? You’re not alone. Maintaining friendships is an art, not a science

When it comes to keeping up with our friends, we all have the best intentions. Often however, life simply gets in the way. I have a group of girlfriends who I’ve been close to since college. We bonded over a mutual love for Avril Lavigne, but as it turned out, our friendship had more staying power than Avril’s music career.

Since then we’ve followed each other around the country, visiting our respective universities and at some point almost all of us have lived with each other. Time spent with them makes me feel rejuvenated and lifted - they feel like family.

This is the beauty of long-standing friendships you see. When familial relationships get tangled and messy, escaping to the embrace of your chosen family can be a saviour. And indeed, having a strong social network is imperative for both our physical and mental health.

Our friends really do lift us when we’re low. They show us glimmers of light when everything around us feels dark. We’re given space to talk, rest and reflect in the company of those who know us best. This doesn’t necessarily mean they’re easy.

Even with the best of intentions, obstacles can pop up. Life can muscle in, getting in the way and making relationships trickier to maintain.

Over the years, life has plucked members from my group and sent us further and further away from each other, with one friend settling in Switzerland. When these moves first took place, our efforts to stay in touch were valiant. Interestingly, I was better at keeping in touch with my friend in Switzerland than I was with my friends in Southsea. The ocean between us somehow pulled us closer together. It gave us a reason to talk more – we couldn’t hop on a train to see each other whenever we wanted to.

With my friends still in the country, however, communication slowed. Even though I could hop on a train whenever I wanted, I did so less often. Not because I didn’t want these relationships in my life anymore, but because the friendships felt bulletproof.

I’ve always seen this particular group of friends like a collection of beautiful cacti, sitting on my windowsill. Never demanding much attention, always there and content with sporadic watering. The odd ‘How are you doing?’ message sent on Whatsapp, the occasional emoji reaction to an Instagram story.

At one point, a friend said to me: “I see so much of what you’re up to on Instagram stories that I forget I haven’t caught up with you.” We talked about the fact that stories tell mere snippets of our lives, and that there’s nothing quite like a conversation to feel nourished.

Just like cacti, these friendships need attention. Taking their hardiness for granted, and expecting them to always be there, can lead to months without water.

In retrospect, it’s easy to see why this happened. When there’s a lot going on, making time for friends can feel low on our priority list. Especially when those friendships have been around for years. Like the cacti, you think to yourself ‘oh, I’ll water them next week’ and before you know it, the leaves turn brown, and the soil dusty.

What can we do to maintain and nurture our friendships?

I reached out on Instagram to see how others do it and, especially for those in long-distance friendships, the internet seems to be a key player.

“My best friend and I have been living more than 500km apart from each other for 7 years now and our friendship is still going strong. The internet helps a lot as we are constantly in contact via messaging.

“We're both into watching sports and have dates when we watch it together while texting or being on the phone. We also try to talk on the phone at least once per month. And last but not least we make time to visit each other several times per year. Once a year we try to go on a wee adventure together where we hike or cycle for a few days - just the two of us.”

Equal Opportunities officer Alice tells me. I have to agree, the various communication tools we have do help.

A few weeks ago, my friends and I reignited our group Whatsapp chat, catching up with what we’ve all been up to. While this was lovely, at this point it wasn’t quite enough so I met with a couple of them for dinner. We went to a Thai restaurant, ordered so much food our waitress giggled, and spoke for three and a half hours. We were the last people in the restaurant and our desire to not part ways again was palpable.

When we did say goodbye however, I felt like a cactus that had just been given the perfect amount of water. And this is the beautiful thing: when you nurture your friendships, you nurture yourself.

This nurturing has a ripple effect too. A study that followed participants for 20 years found a link between the people’s happiness and the happiness of their social networks – it pays to take care of each other.

To ensure this nurturing continues within our group, we’ve booked in a weekend to all get together. Our plans so far revolve around food (there’s a reason we all get on so well), and a pampering trip to a spa. We’ll have the heavy and difficult life-things to discuss of course, but also, we’ll have time to escape it all, too.

We’ll sing along to old favourites in the car, make jokes in the sauna, and make more waitresses giggle with our extravagant food orders in restaurants. I have no doubt that this short stretch of time will be like fertiliser for our friendship.

As we continue to grow and evolve throughout adulthood, I’m sure there’ll be more challenges thrown our way. Editor and writer Sarah Fraser shared her advice with me on this, to include each other at every stage.  

“For me and my long term friendships, it’s always been about including one another at every stage. When my best friend had her baby, even though I didn’t have children, she welcomed me in at every stage and let me help her. Other, less solid friendships have fallen away as friends have had kids because they maybe assumed I wouldn’t understand or didn’t want to burden me... always lean on each other, is the answer I think.”

A key takeaway here then is this: don’t forget to water your cactus. Your long-standing friendships may be tough, they may withstand more than the delicate new orchid on your coffee table, but they still need attention.

Nurture them, nurture yourself, and watch as you all flower out of nowhere.

If you're finding it difficult to navigate your friendships, you may find it helpful to work with a coach who can support you in nurturing yourself and your friendships.

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