“We got you.” It’s a phrase we’ve heard used throughout our lifetimes — especially in recent years — as a show of support to someone and let them know you have their back. But it’s one thing to say it, and it’s another to stand behind it with more than just words. Unfortunately, this meaningful mantra has been reduced to feel-good social media posts and GIFs used by everyone from everyday people to celebrities. Which brings us to something absent from the lives of many women, even those who have large social networks and tons of casual acquaintances and hangout buddies: real, close friendship.
Last August on The Michelle Obama Podcast, the “The Gift of Girlfriends” was the topic of conversation during a sit-down between the former FLOTUS and three of her closest friends: Denielle Pemberton-Heard, Dr. Sharon Malone and Kelly Dibble.
“We can talk about the important stuff: what’s going on in the world, in our families, whatever we’re thinking about, really,” Obama said during the episode. “We’re just there for each other when it counts — for a laugh, for a hug, for whatever we need.”
“It it has been so important for me to have Black women in my crew, throughout my life, professionally. Because there’s just a certain relief that comes when you don’t have to walk into your friend group and explain yourself,” Obama added, pointing out the importance of having friends who can relate to you and your life experiences. “My group of female friends aren’t calling me to say, ‘What can I do?’ You guys are calling me to say, ‘How you doin’ girl? You know, let’s talk.’”
Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman, BFFs and friendship experts who initially strengthened their connection over the Beyoncé movie Obsessed and joint vacations, co-host the hugely popular podcast Call Your Girlfriend — which covers long-distance bestie relationships — make the case that women should put friendship at the center of their lives.
Their best-selling book, “Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close,” takes a look at the pair’s personal friendship journey, which they view as one of the most important relationships in their lives.
According to Sow and Friedman, as well as many sociologists and psychologists, true friendship requires both effort and investments on many levels to develop Girlfriends–esque closeness.
Healthy friendships go far deeper than pity party bonding (talking a lot about problems and focusing on negative emotions). They offer feelings of positive connection, comradery and affection, and even come with other fringe benefits: reducing stress and living longer.
In a study published in the journal PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States), researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that friendships are just as important as diet and exercise when it comes to reducing the chances of being obese, suffering from inflammation and having high blood pressure — things can lead to heart disease and cancer.
So, how do we develop friendships that promote a happy, healthy life and overall well-being?
Here are five ways to help establish real friendships.
1. Ask yourself the right questions
Consider the strength of the following areas to determine the realness of your friendships:
Access: How available are they to spend quality time with you — physically or virtually?
Responsiveness: Do they stay in touch? Answer your calls, texts, emails or other communications?
Reliability: Can I count on them if I need something? Remember: actions (and inaction) speak louder than words.
Consistency: Is it an on-again, off-again relationship that takes you on an emotional rollercoaster ride?`
Stability: Are they flaky? Can you predictably count on them for a sensible response?
Bare in mind that these things don’t mean that your friend will always immediately respond or always be available (life happens), but friends who are unresponsive or unreliable probably aren’t close friendship material. If your friend passes this phase, a strong foundation exists to connect with them on a deeper level.
2. Look for openness, honesty, respect of boundaries and support
You don’t have to agree with friends on everything. The important thing is that you can be transparent without fear that differences in opinion will damage your relationship.
You should also be able to call out each other for certain behaviors, set limits to promote better behaviors and apologize for harmful behaviors, which will make you even better friends.
Finally, make sure that your friends will be there for you no matter what you decide to do. This shows they will be non-judgmental allies whose love and support won’t depend on you making certain choices (a sign of a toxic friendship).
3. Make sure you can completely be yourself
To be seen and appreciated for who you are, you have to be your authentic self. That means that although you conduct yourself a certain way at work, home and in social settings, you are always comfortable being who you truly around true friends (no need to pretend to be smarter, cooler or more stylish in their presence). True friends accept you; not expect you to put on a certain face.
4. Test the waters
It may sound contrived, but a great way to determine the depth of your friendships is to make sure you can rely on your friends in a pinch. The next time you find yourself facing a problem, issue or sticky situation, reach out to see if your friend will help. Whether you ask them to be there for you during an emergency or lending a helping hand with planning an event, leaning on a friend is a harmless, low-risk way to see just how reliable someone is, while building stronger bonds with them.
5. Accept that close friendships come in many forms
There is no one-size-fits-all definition of a tight friendship. The degree of closeness people have with friends vary from person to person. Some people need someone they can confide in on the most intimate level; others only require a person to share common interests or passions.
Once you’ve taken a look at these five areas, make sure you’re willing to reciprocate and that they also apply to you.
If so, congratulations! You’re ready to take your friendships to the next level.