What Does It Mean To Be A Good Friend?
Offering What We Can, When We Can
I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a good friend, as I’m sure many of us have over the last year. Many of my friendships are from past places—I’ve bounced around cities for most of my adult life—so I’m no stranger to long distance. Still, it’s not always easy to get phone dates on the calendar or gifts are in the mail on time. I’m even guilty of sending copy-and-paste text messages to multiple friends at once: “Hi! Thinking of you! How have you been?”
No one tells us how challenging friendships can be after youth. Making new adult friends can be even harder. I can’t be the only one who reminisces about the simpler days of sleepovers and shared lockers, right?
Perhaps we need to cut ourselves some slack. It’s not that we don’t care about our friends, but rather that relationships require effort and intentionality—something I’m personally low on these days. Many of us can’t physically be together right now, and we’re having to pivot, to reimagine our friendships in a new way. Digital communication fatigue is completely normal, as is plopping on the couch instead of responding to missed calls.
But what if being a good friend isn’t about how much time we spend with someone or how often we’re available? What if, instead, a good friendship is built on a foundation of intentionality and offering what we can to each other, when we can?
This doesn’t come without practice. Love is a skill, and it’s something to be cultivated, explains author Alain de Botton in an On Being podcast. “And it requires forbearance, generosity, imagination…[it] is rocky and bumpy at the best of times, and the more generous we can be towards [our] flawed humanity, the better chance we’ll have of doing the true hard work of love,” he says.
I’d suggest this same grace is also foundational to friendships. These relationships ask us to show up and be present while simultaneously understanding we—and our friends—are ultimately flawed.
Is it essential to discuss our relational needs and expectations with our friends? Of course. Clear communication and reliability are pillars to healthy friendships. But as de Botton points out, the sooner we accept everyone’s limitations, the better it will be for our relationships. This takes the pressure off of everyone involved, especially in a pandemic, when communication can flounder.
In this way, perhaps being a good friend also means the willingness to stretch alongside another person. Being and staying in friendships challenges us as individuals, says Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman, the hosts of Call Your Girlfriend. It’s ultimately up to us how much we’re willing to endure together.
“No friendship can be on autopilot or totally static for very long,” says Friedman.
When I think about how lasting friendships require an evolution, my mind goes to one of my closest friends, who I’ve known since high school. We used to drive around in her Pontiac Sunbird, eating fast-food and belting out Top 40 lyrics. Now she has two kids and lives in the suburbs; I work full-time and live in a bustling city, in an apartment with my partner and dog.
My friendship with her has had to shift in numerous ways throughout the years. Sometimes, the growth has felt natural, intuitive even, like leaning into the wind. Other times, it’s been painful, requiring hard conversations and emotional work from us both. During the pandemic, we’ve struggled to connect, our new work-/teach-from-home schedules never overlapping. But every time we choose to stretch together, it only makes our relationship stronger, healthier, and more resilient.
Good friendships are also unique, and we can’t replicate them, even when we want to. “Every single friendship is very different and is governed by its own boundaries and its own points of stretches and straining,” says Sow. “You can’t really apply everything that you do in one friendship to another friendship that you’re in.”
Sometimes when we stretch, we break—and that part of friendship can be required, too. A good friend is both a safe place to land and a person who challenges us to grow and confront our shortcomings—even across distance. We all need people in our lives who can point out when we’re getting in our own way. Discernment is required here, because ultimately we must decide what’s best for us. But a good friend can be like a compass when we’ve lost our way.
And, sometimes, our friendships point us away from one another. The pandemic may be showing some of us that certain friendships were near their end—distance has made this clearer. But this can be a characteristic of a good friendship too; nothing lasts forever (isn’t that how it goes?).
While a hard friendship isn’t necessarily a bad one, it’s worth pondering what the relationship offers and what it costs. Gently ending a friendship, while difficult, is okay. It doesn’t mean either person is a bad friend—just an old friend, to now exist in memories and occasional “happy birthday” texts. Good friends say goodbye when it’s time.
Wherever you’re at with your friendships right now, please remember we’re all doing the best we can. If you feel shame for prolonged silence, you’re likely not alone; your friends may even feel it as well. The good news? We can hang up the shame and pick up the phone. Or send a text. A simple “I have little energy right now, but I love you and hope you’re well” will do. Good friendship is ultimately about intention, honesty, and offering others a safe space to go quiet for a while and rest when it’s needed.
How are you navigating your friendships during the pandemic? And what do you think it means to be a good friend? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. x
Kayti Christian (she/her) is a Senior Editor at The Good Trade. She has a Master’s in Nonfiction Writing from the University of London and is the creator of Feelings Not Aside, a newsletter for enneagram 4s and other sensitive-identifying people. Outside of writing, she loves hiking, reading memoir, and the Oxford comma.