“The only way to have a friend is to be one.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

The teen I was talking with yesterday was perplexed. “How come I can’t keep friends?” she wanted to know. “I’m nice. I’m decent looking. I like to do stuff. Why don’t people want to hang out with me?”

“How much do you work at it?” I asked.

“What do you mean work? I mean, friendships aren’t supposed to be hard. They’re supposed to be, like relaxed.”

We have work to do. This young woman has over 500 friends on Facebook but has no one to go to the movies with and she really, truly doesn’t understand why. She hasn’t learned the basic fact of friendship: To make a new “friend” (especially on Facebook) is relatively easy. To keep one takes commitment.

Yes, commitment. Real friends are obligated to each other in a meaningful way. To be a friend is to accept the gift of another’s trust with the appreciation and trustworthiness such a gift deserves. It requires the willingness to devote time, energy, and thought to the other person’s needs and desires as well as to our own. The reward is a rich and satisfying relationship that can last a lifetime.

To the teen, I say: “Think about it this way. You know that car your family just got? Nice, isn’t it? Well, it will only stay nice if you take care of it. That means not being too rough with it, taking care of minor problems before they become major ones and doing routine maintenance like oil changes. Right? When you do, the car is reliable and is there for you when you need it.

“Friendships are like that. You need to take care of them to keep them going. You can’t be too rough with them. You have to take care of minor problems before they balloon into major ones. You have to do routine maintenance like keeping in touch, doing thoughtful things and never taking the person for granted. When you do, the friends are reliable and you are there for each other in an important way.”

Here’s the “owner’s manual” for the care and maintenance of friendships:

  • Keep in contact. Good friends don’t let a lot of time slip by without connecting. Long conversations are often interspersed with quick texts, fly-by hellos, and email check-ins. Friends are woven into the fabric of our lives in a regular way. A friend wants to know about our life and wants to have opportunities to share in it when it’s possible. Yes, there are some friends who lose touch for decades and pick up right where they left off. But in the meantime, they lost all those years of each other’s company and all those opportunities to deepen the relationship.
  • Don’t keep score. Friends don’t worry about who made the last phone call or invitation or who gave the most expensive birthday gift. They have confidence that over the long run everything will balance out, sometimes in unexpected ways. I remember talking with a teen who wouldn’t call her friend to go to the beach because she thought it was her friend’s turn to invite her to do something nice. Please. There are lots of reasons why people legitimately can’t return a favor, an invitation, or a phone call immediately. Sometimes one friend’s life is just less complicated than the other’s. There are likely to be periods of time when one or the other has more leisure, more money, or more time. Friendship doesn’t wait for life to make everything exactly even.
  • Do keep it balanced. Good friends feel equal in the relationship. When a friendship is healthy, roles shift easily. They share stories. They listen attentively. They treat and are treated. They look to each other for wisdom without feeling inferior for doing so. They share their opinions without feeling superior. Neither person feels taken for granted, put down, or put on a pedestal. True companions in life walk side by side.
  • Be loyal. Friendship requires loyalty. Friends don’t talk about each other in negative ways with others. They don’t repeat rumors or gossip that would hurt their friend. They stand up for each other and watch each other’s back. Good friends can relax in the knowledge that their frailties and faults are accepted, even loved, and aren’t fodder for gossip with others.
  • Remember their birthdays. Little things really do count. Good friends are thoughtful. They remember important events in their friends’ lives and acknowledge them in some way. They show up to share in the ordinary as well as the celebrations. Regular small gestures of friendship, such as stopping by their desk with a cup of their favorite coffee or offering to do an errand, are thoughtful ways to say, “You’re special”.
  • Deal with conflict. Conflict is inevitable in any human relationship. Friends don’t let minor problems fester and grow into big ones. They give each other the benefit of the doubt. They work on maintaining the relationship even when they disagree. That means being willing to be uncomfortable and to work through a problem rather than bail.
  • Be a fan. Real friends celebrate their friend’s achievements and don’t feel diminished in comparison. They let each other know how much they appreciate each other. They admire things about each other that are admirable. They encourage each other’s efforts to grow. They cheer each other on.
  • Follow the Golden Rule. People who have long-term friends abide by the “golden rule.” They do their best to treat their friends as they wish to be treated. They pay attention to their friend’s good qualities, help with their struggles, and accept them for who they are. They do their share to care for and maintain the relationship.

All this takes thought, time, and, yes, work. Although we can have hundreds of “friends” on Facebook, most of us can be truly committed to only a few very special people in our lives. These are our “best” friends, the people who share our life journey and who enrich us in a special way.. Like caring for anything we treasure, doing the maintenance is its own pleasure. The reward is a relationship that continues to be as delightful and interesting as it was when it was new.