When something bad happens, when we get sick or go through big disappointments or major loss, it’s only natural to want someone to be there for us. Someone to just listen to us or hang out with us and remind us that life goes on.
In other words, a true friend.
But what really makes a true friend? Why do we feel closeness with some people that time and distance never diminish?
A concept in Japan, kenzoku, translates literally as “family.” It refers to a friendship bond between people with similar commitments and similar destinies. It implies a kindred spirit and deep connection.
Why these kind of bonds form is hard to answer. But it is clear what kinds of qualities these true friendships do have.
1. The friends usually have good communication. This is a quality that at the core of any good relationship. Both the people are clear, open and genuine, and problems don’t get swept under the rug. Conflicts are dealt with directly.
2. They take on problems along with you. A true friend can look beyond a smile and can tell if you’re in pain, maybe by body language or the look in your eyes. They accept you as you are and will forever be there. They also are there for each other when times are good, which is not all that easy sometimes.
As Oscar Wilde once said, “Anybody can sympathise with the sufferings of a friend, but it requires a very fine nature to sympathise with a friend’s success.”
3. A good relationship is based on give and take and consideration of each other. Kenzokus give, rather than just take, from the friendship.
4. They make time for each other, whether it is convenient or not. Real friends always put a high value the time they spend together. Although their lives may be busy, they make time to stay in touch.
5. They believe wholeheartedly in each other. A true friend can feel your passions and understand your vision for the future. They cheer you along the whole way and believe that you will get there.
For example, in one study on the rewards of friendship, participants stood in front of a hill, some alone and some alongside a friend, then were asked to guess how steep it seemed. With a friend at their side, they estimated that the hill was less steep. Another study had all participants stand alone. Some were told to think about a friend. Just having a friend in mind again made the climb seem less intimidating.
6. True friends accept each other unconditionally, “warts and all”. They give each other the freedom to be themselves, as well as the freedom to change and grow. No controlling each other, judgement or criticisism.
7. Unlike casual friends or acquaintances, true friends listen carefully, with no compulsion to give advice. Often people don’t need or want advice, they simply want a listening ear, someone they can vent to. A real friend can also sense when a word of advice would be welcomed, and at those times know just what to say.
Why are True Friends so Hard to Find?
As we get older, it is not uncommon to find that making a good friend becomes harder and harder. It turns out that there is a reason for this.
Developmental psychologists study the typical sequence of a person’s emotional development. In early childhood, friendships are usually based on the sharing of toys, and the joy to be had from doing activities together.
Expectations for a best friend become more and more complex as a child gets older.
A 1975 study pointed out three stages of development in friendship expectations. In the first stage, children emphasized shared activities and the importance of geographical closeness. In the second, they emphasized sharing, loyalty and commitment. In the final stage, they increasingly desired similar attitudes, values and interests.
So the more we develop as individuals and grow over our lifespan, the more our expectations for a friendship.
And the workplace, where many adults spend the majority of their time, brings its own set of problems.
“The workplace can crackle with competition, so people learn to hide vulnerabilities and quirks from colleagues. Work friendships often take on a transactional feel; it is difficult to say where networking ends and real friendship begins,” Alex Williams writes in a 2012 New York Times article.
In the same article, sociology professor Rebecca G. Adams explains further:
“As external conditions change, it becomes tougher to meet the three conditions that sociologists since the 1950s have considered crucial to making close friends: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other. This is why so many people meet their lifelong friends in college.”
But it’s not all bad news. As they get older, many people find they become closer and closer to the few friends they do have.
And some people actually have an easier time making friends as they get older. They feel more comfortable with themselves as they age, and making connections with others can get easier.
So don’t give up hope. At some point in the future, you just may find yourself with the most solid group of friends you have ever had- one that keeps getting bigger and bigger.
After all, it is possible to make deep friendships at any point in your life.
1. Rath, Tom.
Vital Friends: The People You Can’t Afford to Live Without
Gallup Press: September 2006.
2. Sparks, Glenn (August 7, 2007).
Study shows what makes college buddies lifelong friends.
3. Bryant, Susan.
“Workplace Friendships: Asset or Liability?“.
4. Williams, Alex (13 July 2012).
“Friends of a Certain Age: Why Is It Hard To Make Friends Over 30?“.
The New York Times. Retrieved October 25, 2012
5. Kumashiro, M., & Sedikides, C. (2005).
Taking on board liability-focused information: Close personal relationships as a self-bolstering resource.
Psychological Science, 16, 732-739.
Photo credits, top to bottom: Cheryl Holt, Barry Pousman/Flickr, Jena Postma, Phil Coffman, Jena Postma