Practical Optimism

The Bull x The Horns: How do I sustain friendships throughout life?

Psychologists Art Markman and Bob Duke discuss how to stay connected with friends in our ever-changing lives.

Q: As I get older, I worry about my ability to sustain friendships with people. I don’t want to lose the people I have in my life now, but I know that it’s natural that relationships change. It worries me that ties to people won’t last, even with added effort on both sides. Do you have any advice?

—Friend for Life

Dear Friend:

Given that human relationships are a critical part of our overall sense of well-being, your concerns are certainly understandable. Feelings of connectedness to family and friends improve mood, enhance motivation, and increase resilience in the face of stress, anxiety, and sadness. We hope, though, that your concerns about what might happen in the future don’t diminish the joy to be had in the present. Taking steps to maintain lasting relationships is a wonderful idea, as long as you make the most of what’s in the here-and-now, and your expectations about the future remain positive and hopeful.

It’s true that the pace of life often makes it difficult to keep up with friends in meaningful ways. In the midst of daily email tsunamis, we may have fleeting, superficial interactions online, but these typically don’t promote sustained feelings of closeness. Many forms of social media are similarly deficient in opportunities to build and maintain close interactions. In fact, many people seem to devote a lot of time on social media to merely observing and commenting on the lives of others. In subtle and not-so-subtle ways, modern forms of communication have created both opportunities for and impediments to relationship building.

There is really no substitute for a real-time conversation.

It’s interesting to consider how the Internet and other cultural upheavals often lead to the invention of new terms of expression to accommodate new realities that spring into existence. For example, there was no need for the term “snail mail” until we could send messages almost instantly online. And now that we can experience many things online and in the cloud, we also need to distinguish between activities that take place in the ether and those that take place “in real life.” And the most important thing you can do to sustain the relationships you care about is to maintain regular experiences in real life.

There’s something palpably different about receiving a handwritten letter or card from a friend, one that the friend has actually held, folded into an envelope, and sent through the mail. And there is really no substitute for a real-time conversation, by phone or video chat or perhaps best of all, in real life. It’s the real-time interactivity of talking that increases a sense of closeness and friendship. When we speak to someone face-to-face in real time, we naturally tune ourselves to them in ways that are mostly unnoticed. We tend to match their tone of voice, speed of talking, and even the words and grammatical structures they use. But even without our noticing, all of that makes us feel closer to them during and after the conversation.

Some of the people in your network of human connections are deeply bound to the many nodes of contact within it. Many of your family members, for example, are connected not only to you but also to many of the other people in your network, and as a result, they are deeply woven into the fabric of your life. Even if you tried to get away from them (!), you would probably end up seeing them and hearing about them, because of the large number of other people in your life who are connected to them.

The people most likely to spin out of your orbit are the people you know who aren’t that well connected to the rest of your network. Those people are what social scientists refer to as “weak” ties. Staying connected with your weak ties requires a little more effort. In fact, you can actually be strategic about keeping in touch with them. You might start by making a list of some of the people important to you who are not connected to many of the other people you know. Put a note on your calendar to reach out to them periodically, perhaps for a phone call or a date for lunch or coffee. Your efforts won’t always be reciprocated, of course. Some of our friends’ lives are such that it’s hard for them to make time for everyone.

That said, it seems important to accept the reality that some of your relationships, despite your best efforts, will ebb and flow with the passage of time. Considering the inevitability of this reality may help you become more accepting of the changes that do take place, while at the same time continuing your efforts to nurture and sustain the relationships you care about most. You might also be pleasantly surprised when people from your past who have drifted away reappear.

Art’s father would often say that life is like a Charles Dickens novel. In Dickens’ sprawling books, there are many characters who play a role for several chapters, then disappear for a while, only to return later and influence the story. Life is often just like that. People who are an important part of your life at a particular time may fade to the background because of where they live, your life circumstances, or theirs. They may not really be gone from your life, they just may reappear in a later chapter.

All of this is to say that sustaining meaningful relationships does require a little bit of effort on everyone’s part, but you can create a sense of positive agency and optimism by initiating in-real-life contact rather than waiting for others to do so. As we said earlier, it is likely that not all of your efforts will be reciprocated, but engaging with friends and family in the present, and enjoying time with those whom you would like to remain in your life, is a positive step toward sustaining connections in the future.

—Dr. Art Markman and Dr. Bob Duke

The Bull x The Horns advice column is authored by psychologists Art Markman and Bob Duke, hosts of the Two Guys on Your Head podcast. This column represents the advice of Dr. Art Markman and Dr. Bob Duke and not the views or opinions of Frost Bank.

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