Danny sent an email the other day with the ‘rules’ for friendship, and it got me thinking about mine.
Friendship has long been an obsession of mine. I have a clear memory of being about 9 and watching the other girls at school chatting and having fun. Maintaining friendships looked so effortless for them, whilst to me it felt like they were speaking a language I didn’t understand.
I told myself that day I had to work out how the whole thing worked.
Ultimately, I've learned there is no pattern to spot or code to break. You can’t reduce human relationships to a set of rules we all agree on. Who knows how neurotypical brains understand it all? It’s probably just another fully automated process for them.
But over the years – mainly in my 30s and 40s – I’ve developed a few personal guidelines that have helped me to make real friends and not get hurt. Do they resonate with you or do they sound completely ridiculous?
1. True friendship takes time
I would love if we could strike up instant friendships like kids at the playground. You sit next to someone reading the same book on a train, smile, share your life stories and your phone numbers and it’s a done deal. I’ve picked up (from my own experience and from watching my kids) that around age 9, social skills take a leap and our approach to friendships gets more complex. At this point autistic kids can get left behind.
Between meeting someone you like and becoming proper friends there’s a process of becoming friends which I reckon takes about three years. During that time you build up a raft of shared experiences, get to know each other properly, and develop trust in each other.
You can’t rush this process. It takes its own sweet time.
People – you, me, everyone - we just want to feel heard, so listen to your friends and ask questions about the things they say. Someone I know took many years to break it to me that I never listened to him. In fact, all I ever did was joke around because I thought that was my role. Once I started letting him finish his sentences and actually asked him questions, we finally became real friends.
Show your friends you care by checking in to see if they are okay at the beginning of each text, call or meet up. This works in every situation where you interact with another human. Write your email then go back and put “I hope you are well” or “How you doing?” at the beginning before you click send. It might feel fake but if you don’t do it you’ll end up sounding meaner than you actually are.
3. Don’t overshare
If you’re like me, you might be tempted to share everything you can about yourself with a new friend. I used to think it would speed up that get-to-know-you process, but I was wrong. It made me sound self-obsessed. In fact, I was literally completely self-obsessed.
For your own safety, keep your most personal experiences, beliefs and desires private until you know you can trust the other person with them. At the beginning of the friendship, they don’t know you well enough to remember the finer details of the things you tell them. If you expect them to remember, you’ll be disappointed.
Don't go on about yourself. Don't over share. If you want to talk about something, mention it then wait and see if the other person is interested enough to ask questions. Listen actively and answer their questions.
4. Trust yourself
Until I was about 35 I didn’t know I had likes and dislikes. I didn’t know what it meant to ‘be myself’ because I didn’t have an identity of my own. I thought I was open-minded and up for anything, unencumbered by self-limiting beliefs. The reality was I lacked boundaries and didn’t know how to keep myself safe.
A good rule of thumb is not to say or do things you feel uncomfortable with just because a person you really like does or says them. They are not automatically right just because they seem more together than you. If you lack confidence (like I did) it’s likely everyone seems more together than you.
Grant yourself permission to question whether something is good for you or not. Have courage to say no and the right friends will respect you for it.
5. A friendship is not a contract
People don't owe you invitations, phone calls, texts or anything else just because they said (or implied) that they are your friend. You don’t have the right to tell them how to be your friend, and you should never expect them to choose you over other people, no matter how much it hurts if they do.
If you stop feeling good after seeing them or resolve to be different so they will like you more, step back a little. If it happens again and again, perhaps try some gentle and specific feedback like, “The other day when you said my hair looked stupid, I know you were joking, but actually it really hurt.” Prepare for them to be embarrassed and feel stupid, but if they get angry with you or dismiss your feelings, take it as a red flag.
If the other person consistently doesn’t give you what you need, they just aren't the right friend for you. The important thing to remember here is that it's no one's fault, you're just not a good match. You shouldn't change yourself for people and you shouldn't expect people to change themselves for you.
6. And if all else fails…
Find other people who share your special interests and talk about nothing else
Do you give yourself guidelines like this? I’d love to hear them.