By Jesse Sanchez
We all come to this college equipped with certain knowledge and experiences, but a lot of wisdom about relationships has to be learned for the first time. One of the most challenging things to learn in college is what it means to be a good friend.
We all start with various ideas of what it means to be a friend. Our families and past friends from high school and even earlier have shaped our ideas of what people are expected to do for one another. Fortunately, friendship is actually well-researched. Psychologists have asked questions of what makes or breaks friendships. Everyone has their own styles and preferences, and communicating those is part of the friend-making process.
It’s easy to participate in relationships passively, but thoughtfulness is what builds healthy bonds. Getting past the nervousness that prevents deep sharing and direct communication is hard, but that’s how the deepest bonds form.
We should have common interests with our friends but it’s also important to have overlap in values. For example, if one of your friends thinks that career ambition should be put above all else and you believe that mutual emotional support is most important, there may be some frustration when you realize that your friend is never going to be what you think a friend should be.
On the other hand, different friends fill different places in our lives. I read an article recently that claimed that often, too many expectations are actually why friendships fail.
There are core components of friendships that are just about universal. With that, there are surefire ways to build a weak friendship. Some mindfulness can can help us realize a connection could be better or might even have to be parted with.
We don’t often think about our relationships as technical matters although there are skills necessary to foster positive relationships. A class on conducting oral history interviews gave me major insights into what it means to actually listen to another person. It’s too common to mistake actively analyzing what others are saying while they are speaking as listening.
Being mindful, which we associate with meditation, is found to be much more effective in truly listening. Learning to turn off your internal voice is difficult but the challenge is worth it. Learning to experience the presence of another person lets them know you value them and grants you, the listener, a fulfilling experience.
Expectations are really difficult because everyone has them but simultaneously feels like they are not allowed to have them. There’s an easy answer. We are allowed to have them within reason. What is a friendship if we don’t do things for one another? That doesn’t necessarily mean tangible things or favors. Usually, what we really need from friends is a listening ear and active engagement that gets us to feel good about ourselves, not necessarily giving specific advice or solving each other’s problems.
Another valuable tool is empathy. No one can ever truly know how another feels, but we can get pretty close by decentering ourselves. Knowing that someone else is experiencing hardships and that they may even react to those experiences in ways we don’t agree with gets us to a new level of human experience that can feed our utopian dreams.
It’s all too common to get caught up in the idea that we are all competing and that friendships are only serving needs. With that mentality, everyone is disposable. No one has truly succeeded and gotten to a place of feeling successful in their life by approaching relationships primarily as practical partnerships.
Equally important to building healthy relationships is recognizing when it’s not a match. It’s hard to maintain a balance between saying to yourself that you have certain qualities and expectations that deserve to be met because you are a quality friend, and saying this person has their reasons for being who they are. I am not necessarily better than them. We have different values that are incompatible.
I am even allowed to hold the opinion that my approach to relationships is healthier than a former friend’s approaches may have been. It’s important not to fall into the trap of absolving oneself of all accountability in any failed relationship. There are always two sides to the coin.
At the end of the day, we only have a handful of close friends. Holding onto a mismatched friendship can seem like the easier thing to do than to end that friendship and potentially have to find a new person to fill that space in your life. It’s not even a matter of some problematic dependency but one of knowing that we all need friends.