Cultivate your core values. All relationships are built on values. With every word, gesture and choice, we communicate — sometimes subtly, sometimes overtly — what we believe, what we want, and what we feel is important.For example, when we put up with a friend who subtly mocks us, we communicate that we don’t hold ourselves in high esteem. When westick with a friend who regularly bails on us, we communicate that we don’t find ourselves worthy of respect and commitment. On the flipside, when we help a friend prepare for a job interview, we communicate that they are worth our time and deserve new opportunities. When we cultivate a friend who listens to us empathically, we communicate that our experiences matter.
The quality of our values and the quality of our relationships are deeply connected.
To build new friendships in adulthood, we need to ensure that our values are in line with our goals, so that those values bring people with similar interests into our lives.
Barbara – After years of feeling like she didn’t have a reliable, engaged friend group, she decided to look inward. For years she had subconsciously blamed her friends for being flakey and uninterested in her growth, despite the fact that she felt highly invested in them. Now she was curious to know what role she might have been playing in this dynamic.
With the help of a therapist, she realized how much of their behavior she had dismissed or justified over the years. She had ignored her frustration when they bailed on a weekend trip. She had suppressed her hurt when they didn’t seem to have time to help her through a rough break-up (all the more hurtful, she explained, because she had made it a priority to be there for them in similar moments). She could point to a dozen specific instances in which her friends had disappointed her, but she had failed to express that disappointment, out of fear of driving them away. She suddenly realized how much consistency, empathy and reciprocity mattered to her.
So, Barbara tried something new. Armed with her new insight, she decided to own her values and bring them into her relationships. When one of her friends bailed on dinner plans at the last minute, she spoke up. When another friend phoned in a conversation over lunch about her job search, she asked her why she seemed so distant. She didn’t attack her friends, of course. She just took her own expectations more seriously, and gave her friends a chance to understand them.
Almost by magic, her friendships began to transform. She learned that her friends, while sometimes hurtful, were not trying to hurt her. They were just unconsciously responding to the needs and boundaries she had been subtly communicating. If she didn’t think she was worthy of respect and support, it was much harder for them to know that those qualities were important. Barbara was amazed by how quickly their dynamic shifted as soon as she took her own values more seriously.
But this didn’t happen with all of her relationships. Two of her friends didn’t respond quite as well. Unable to meet her in her new experience, they drifted away. It was painful for a short period of time, she explained. But it was ultimately empowering, because now she saw what a healthy friendship really looked like. That made it even easier for her to build new friendships, which she suddenly had more time to explore.
This is why understanding and enforcing your core values is important.
When we commit to what we believe is important in a friendship — honesty, consistency, kindness, generosity, and so on — we automatically know what we will and won’t put up with in a relationship. We know what we expect from others, and we know what we want to invest in them. We know what the friendship is really “about,” in the deepest sense of the term.
And the beauty of this principle is that it’s self-reinforcing. The more we spend time with people who share our values, the more those values enhance our relationships, and the more those relationships enhance those values.
That’s what Barbara discovered. The more she hung out with committed, curious, empathic people, the more present, interesting and connected she became. The less she hung out with flaky, complacent, indifferent people, the easier she found it to protect her passion and focus in life. But it all began with her values.
Embracing our values filters the right people into our lives. It also keeps the right people in our lives and helps us invest in those friendships the right way.
This is why I find it interesting that so many adults feel that making friends gets harder as they age. The truth is that as we get older, values only become more important. Generosity, kindness, respect, empathy, commitment — all of these become more essential as we age, not less. A friendship between two 20 year-olds that centers on drinking and meeting new people might survive without a ton of generosity or consistency. But a friendship between two 35 year-olds who are mapping out their futures will probably struggle without them.
So, the key is to commit to identifying, cultivating and sharing our values with other people. This is how we signal to other people what we expect in a friendship, and what we are interested in offering. New people might or might not reflect those values, and that’s okay — in fact, that’s an important part of the process. But if we don’t even have a grasp of those values, then we’ll never be able to invite the people we find truly meaningful into our lives, and we’ll definitely struggle to keep them there.
In a world of infinite choice and constant distraction, it’s never been easier to bail on plans. As a result, we’re now living in an age where commitment — good old-fashioned showing up — is a valuable commodity. As it happens, that commodity is also the glue of strong adult friendships.
To make friends as an adult, we have to be interested, we have to be interesting, we have to have something to offer, and we have to share common values.
But before any of those qualities can come into play, we have to commit.
We have to show up when we say we will, especially in the early stages of a relationship. Why? Because the bond that creates that obligation is new and tenuous. By truly committing, we say: I know we don’t know each other yet, I know we don’t “owe” each other anything, but I want to give this friendship a shot, and I’m not going to act in a way that suggests otherwise.
That’s how a potentially great friendship has the best possible shot at becoming actually great. When we act as if it will.
But showing up in the early stages is only half the equation.
We also need to continue to show up, especially as a friendship matures.
This is where adulthood can also get in the way of making new friends. Because as we get older, we tend to accumulate more and more responsibilities, which make it harder to be there consistently for other people. We bail more frequently, and other people “totally get it.” Which only reinforces the cycle.
But this is the difference between making a new friend and developing a friendship: the degree to which we commit to showing up, especially when we’re needed.
It’s this consistency of presence that determines the quality of a friendship, that keeps it alive. It might be a phone call on a tough night or a yearly road trip to bond and reflect. It could be swinging by the hospital after a surgery or picking up someone’s child from school. The needs of every friendship are different, but the principle remains: We have to be there consistently for a friendship to remain meaningful, valuable, and real.
So how do we ensure that we show up?
The answer to that question brings us to our next principle — one of the most important values we can hold in developing new friendships.
Commit to honesty.
As we saw earlier, social norms don’t value honesty as much as they used to. We break plans more easily, bail on promises without regret, and put up with similar treatment from other people. (As we’ve also seen in the Values section, when we expect and allow that treatment, we tend to invite people into our lives who will continue to disappoint.) Our word just doesn’t mean what it used to.
But that deficit of honesty is also the key to building strong friendships in today’s world.
When we are honest about what we want in our friendships, when we are realistic about what we can offer, and when we protect that honesty as a core value, then new relationships have a much higher probability of succeeding.
Because the less honest our society is, the more powerful our personal honesty becomes. We’re starving for authenticity and truth, even if we don’t realize it. So when we receive it in a relationship, especially these days, it means so much more. Because it’s rare.
When we struggle to maintain a relationship, it’s usually because we haven’t been honest with ourselves about our interests, priorities and feelings.
In general, we rarely try to hurt or disappoint people. More often, we commit to plans or expectations that we haven’t fully thought through. We haven’t honestly reflected on which relationships we find truly important, so we end up committing to all of them. We do this to preserve our options, or maybe because we like the idea of honoring our commitments. But we often do so without committing to the people and plans we find truly valuable. If we did, we wouldn’t bail, because those people and plans would be aligned with our values, desires and needs.
Dishonesty is the greatest barrier to meaningful and lasting friendships.
When we deceive ourselves about whom we want to be friends with, we create the perfect conditions for flaky behavior, superficial connection and emotional disappointment.
This pattern often comes from a benign place, but it has devastating consequences for our relationships. Especially when the other party believes that our flakiness or superficiality is a true reflection of our character (or, even worse, of theirs) — a classic example of how the fundamental attribution error can damage our relationships as we get older.
On the other hand, when we’re radically honest about whom we want to be friends with, we create the perfect conditions for meaningful connection and emotional fulfillment.
If we’re authentic about what we want, need and value, then that honesty will promote productive behavior — like showing up, being generous and leading with kindness — and avoid the need for dysfunctional behavior, like bailing, phoning it in, or keeping people at a distance.
So what does radical honesty mean in practice?
To get very tactical about this for a moment, it means a handful of practices and principles in our relationships, including:
- Accepting that we sometimes don’t feel strongly about certain people, including people we used to feel strongly about in the past.
- Starting and maintaining relationships with people based on our positive goals, values and needs, rather than on other concepts, such as hope, insecurity or history.
- Recognizing those moments when we do feel strongly about someone, and making the commitment to honor those feelings by following through on plans, communicating how we feel about them, and behaving in a way that reflects those feelings.
- Learning to be comfortable saying “no” to people and plans when they don’t align with our desires, values and needs.
- Deciding to show up and honor the commitments we’ve made to other people, and removing any clever justifications we’ve developed for acting contrary to our goals, values and needs (e.g., being “too tired,” avoiding social situations, creating false conflicts, and so on).
Honesty is a practice. It’s a value that we make real with every thought, feeling and action. It begins by saying: This is the kind of person I want to be. When we do, we invest in our friendships — especially new ones — with an intention that gives them the best possible chance of succeeding. And we empower the other person to do the same.
This principle is the difference between an adult friendship failing and succeeding. It really is that simple. But we have to truly commit to being honest first.
Of course, that isn’t always easy. In fact, for many of us, it’s harder than maintaining flawed relationships! This is because we’ve been taught to discount authenticity and to accept deceit in ourselves and in others. But once we really commit to authenticity, we find that the fear of honesty is so much smaller than the frustration of weak (or no) relationships. Because when you get down to it, honesty is the only way into truly great relationships.
Like honesty, vulnerability is in serious decline these days. There have never been more reasons or more ways to stop showing up and hide, in all sense of the term — behind text messages, with Facebook likes, or through humor, substances or beliefs. It’s hard enough to be vulnerable at any age, but adults tend to default to invulnerability as they get older, often without even realizing it.
Vulnerability is the state of being our authentic selves with another person. That could mean opening up about your feelings, sharing your goals, voicing your opinions, or expressing your needs. It’s what we commonly refer to as “opening up,” but in a way that creates intimacy and connection with other people.
Vulnerability is the lifeblood of great friendships.
Without the intimacy that vulnerability creates, true friendship is impossible. There’s nothing to connect to, and there’s nothing to connect with. Meaningful friendship depends on that availability and inner substance.