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5 Ways to Have More Fulfilling Friendships

Are you getting the good times, love and support you need from your gal pals? These tips can bolster the bonds between you and your crew, even after you’ve lost touch for a while.

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When I tell people that my besties are my high school girlfriends, they’re always shocked. Not only because it’s been almost 40 years (gulp!) since we were in 11th grade together, but also because we’re spread across the United States and the Caribbean and we rarely see each other more than twice a year. Since we graduated together in Kingston, Jamaica, we’ve navigated careers in creative, scientific and medical fields; married and divorced; had children; become doting aunties; lost parents; endured health scares; and shared hundreds of belly laughs and more than a few ugly cries.

Yet somehow, despite the difference in time zones and life circumstances, we’ve remained friends, and not just the Facebook kind. Gilly B, Dr. Mich, Youngie and Soph (their nicknames since 7th grade) have been my wingwomen, my confidants, my conscience and my partners in crime for my entire adult life. And I’ve always assumed that everyone has at least one “fren’ from when” (that’s Jamaican for “longtime friend”).

Addie W. Anderson, an Oak Park, Illinois-based licensed clinical professional counselor and owner of Begin Within Counseling & Coaching Services Inc., says we often meet our “sister friends” early in life, either in grade school, high school or college. “It’s easier to form friendships in these stages of our lives, when we’re not hyper-focused on our flaws and we’re able to be vulnerable and show up as our authentic selves,” she says. And these friendships have real value. “The things we talk about with our girlfriends are different than what we might talk about with the men in our life. Women tend to be more empathic and patient with each other. Men are more solution-focused. Healthy female relationships make it possible for us to show up and be authentic in relationships with our partners, children and colleagues.” But there is a downside, Anderson warns: “As we get older we become more self-conscious and guarded. This makes it harder to develop meaningful friendships.”

But harder doesn’t mean impossible. And you can strengthen your female friendships, whether they’re decades-old like ours, or bonds that have formed in adulthood. Solidify your own sister squad with these five strategies.

1. Make the effort

Like plants, friendships require care and attention, and if left unattended for too long, they eventually die. “We make space in our lives for people who are important to us,” says Anderson. “What better way to show someone how valuable they are than by making the effort to stay in touch?” And it doesn’t have to be an hour-long conversation. Just a quick “hello” text or “how you doing?” voicemail tells your friends you care, even when free time is tight. So if you’ve been thinking about your soror and the wild times you had in senior year, don’t just say you should call her. Step away from your novel or the TV and pick up the phone now!

2. Put connecting on your calendar

“As we get older, we become busier and focused on developing our career and taking care of our family,” Anderson says, noting how these time commitments can make forging lasting friendships harder. My girlfriends and I don’t see each other in person often, but we’ve always connected regularly, usually during an annual girls’ weekend in New York City. (I’m still salty about ’rona wrecking our planned reunion last June.) So when the pandemic began we started a WhatsApp group to share quick updates, and we see each other during scheduled monthly Zoom calls. The point is, we don’t just leave connecting to chance; we put each other on our calendars. Sure, sometimes one or two of us can’t make the call. But we know there’ll be other chances to catch up because we plan them in advance.

3. Talk it out

If you’ve been friends long enough, there are bound to be squabbles, misunderstandings and disagreements. But if you can be honest about your feelings with the friend you feel wronged by, a wrinkle in your relationship needn’t become a rift. “Don’t assume your friend automatically knows how you feel,” cautions Anderson. No matter how well you think they should know you by now, “they’re not mind readers.” True friends don’t let issues fester and they say with love what needs to be said, sometimes even when the other person doesn’t want to hear it. At least that’s how I’m justifying a certain someone’s comments about my Jheri curl back in college.

4. Appreciate each other

Friendship is a two-way, and often winding, street, and if you’re finding it hard to form lasting bonds, Anderson suggests taking a look at your own behavior. “Ask yourself if you’re showing up for people as you would expect them to show up for you. Lead by example. If you want a hug, then give a hug.” Particularly in long friendships, it’s easy to fall into taking each other for granted ­­— something Anderson considers to be a real friendship killer. “Don’t assume that because [your girlfriend’s] always been there that she will forever be there,” she says. “Be respectful of her time. Express appreciation for the things she does. From time to time, ask her how she’s doing and listen!” My friends and I know that if ever we’re in Manhattan, we can probably stay with Dr. Mich. After all, we’ve been crashing there for the last 20 years! Nevertheless, we never assume and always ask. And while we’re there, we make sure to express our appreciation by taking her out to dinner, buying groceries or her favorite flowers. None of these gestures is necessary, per se. But they certainly are nice. And who doesn’t love hydrangeas?

5. Be forgiving

“If we don’t have room to make mistakes in our relationships, then how real are they?” Anderson asks. And I can relate. There were times, particularly in my supersensitive 20s, when my friends inadvertently hurt my feelings. And I have no doubt that over the decades I’ve probably hurt theirs, too. But we’ve always been able to talk about it, and I’ve learned to place more value on their intention, which has never been to hurt me, over the unintended result. Forgiveness, I’ve found, is an essential element of longstanding friendships. So don’t keep score and cut your friends some slack sometimes. Chances are, if you keep your friends long enough, one day you’ll need the same for yourself.