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When my husband and I left London for Scotland 16 years ago, I blubbed like a child. It wasn’t my job, our home, or even the heady pace of city life I’d miss dreadfully – but the friends I’d met when I’d arrived in the capital as a wide-eyed 20-year-old from the sticks.
‘Good friends go through all the important life stages with us,’ observes psychotherapist Rachel Shattock Dawson. ‘They are what family used to be. My daughter has a photo frame inscribed with the words, “Friends are the family you choose for yourself”. Such a lovely idea.’
So, how to manage that precious inner circle when we barely have time to juggle our jobs and families? Here’s how to keep those friendships thriving for life.
1. Clear the clutter
I’ve been a terrible Facebook addict in the past, and decided I was wasting time interacting with people I barely knew, when a month had flown by without a proper chat with my close friend Jen. However, I’ve grown closer to former colleagues Peter and Andy; when I shared Mum’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis on a status update, both messaged me privately with advice. So: meaningful Facebook friendships = good. But life is too short for a zillion acquaintances’ random snaps.
2. Close friends deserve time
So how to make time for the friends who matter? ‘Planning ahead is essential, otherwise it just doesn’t happen,’ says Caroline, a 49-year-old business coach. Thankfully, my friendships continued to flourish despite our move. Getting together takes planning, but in my group we reach a point at which we ‘need’ to see each other. ‘Friendships do require time,’ says Rachel Shattock Dawson. ‘You tend to get back what you put in. Understanding that it’s a two-way process – and that the give-and-take need to be roughly in balance over the course of the years – is what makes our relationships flourish.’
3. We respect each other’s busy-ness
However, true friends understand and respect each other’s time constraints. No one has ever chastised me for letting contact slip during particularly hectic periods. According to a Relate survey, seven out of 10 of us manage to hook up with friends about once a week. The study suggests that our friendships benefit our marriages too. And these connections become even stronger as we grow older. It seems we rate our mates highly – apart from our partners and mums, they are the people we trust the most. One friend and I remain close via our ‘Monday Missives’ – the weekly emails we started back in 2008 when the recession first bit and, as freelancers, we were both experiencing wobbly patches. Other friends recoil at the thought of emails: ‘Too pressurised,’ one exclaimed. ‘I’d rather curl up with a glass of wine and call someone.’ This astounded me. I am allergic to talking to anyone on the phone post 7pm.
4. Hey, I’m thinking of you
I love the ping of an out-of-the-blue text. It means such a lot to open a message along the lines of: ‘Know you’ve lots on, hope all OK, thinking of you’. ‘I’m a big believer in the regular text,’ says Julie, a 52-year-old health professional. ‘It’s a quick way to let people know you’re thinking of them.’ In fact, the long-distance nature of my deeper friendships has turned me into as voracious a texter as my teenage offspring.
5. It’s fine to step away…
Where our personal relationships are concerned, most of us have definite no-nos. Mine is the type who delivers snide comments, thinly disguised as concern. This woman and I had a tentative friendship, but I realised her presence was dragging me down. It’s handy to remember that we don’t have to befriend everyone who crosses our path. And, while I have never actively ended a friendship, I have let certain connections – the energy drainers, the raging cynics – fade away.
6…But life’s too short to end a true friendship
‘There are times when friends’ needs may try your patience,’ says Rachel Shattock Dawson, ‘and accepting this is what makes you a “keeper”. There will be times when you need to lean on them, and they should be there for you, too.’ Although certain friendships of mine have dwindled over time, I have never fallen out with a close buddy. However, a relative of mine regularly ends friendships of decades standing. There’s a minor cross word – and they’re gone. I once glimpsed her address book, in which a couple of names had been scrawled out. I’d be heartbroken to be scribbled out of a close friend’s life.
7. Adopt an open-door policy
‘I’ve often heard people saying they don’t have time for new friends,’ says Rachel Shattock Dawson, ‘but we should always be open to the idea of making new connections.’ When we moved to Scotland, I joined a local writing group. We are now seven close women buddies, including a pharmacist, a gardener and a full-time poet, with ages ranging from 36-71. And, as we recently left the countryside for a flat in Glasgow, I’m now on the lookout for new friends again. While I’m well past the school gate stage and don’t go out to work, I’m confident that like-minded souls have a habit of finding each other.