Thirty-six questions and four minutes of eye gazing is all it takes for two strangers to fall in love, psychologist Arthur Aron, of the Interpersonal Relationships Lab, found out more than 20 years ago.
Earlier in 2015, writer Mandy Len Catron replicated Dr. Aron’s experiment with equal success, suggesting that developing a bond with another person is “easy”. The tricky part, it turns out, is keeping these bonds strong.
Relationships are created not through inexplicable synchronicities, but practical circumstances. In the 1950s, social psychologist Leon Festinger studied friendship patterns in a university campus housing complex and discovered that people were most friendly with those who lived next door, next most friendly with those living two doors away, and least friendly with those who lived at the end of a corridor. In the 1970s, Griffitt and Veitch paid participants to spend ten days in a fall-out shelter, and found that those with similar attitudes and opinions on highly salient issues liked each other most at the end of the study. These studies consider proximity, exposure, familiarity, and similarity as the most important factors leading to friendship formation.
What they don’t explain is why some friendships quickly dissolve, whereas others can last from childhood till death. What are the factors that matter most when it comes to making people stick to each other?
Debra Oswald from Marquette University has extensively studied the maintenance of long-term friendships. She asked close friends to describe the types of behaviors they engaged in order to maintain their friendships, and identified four main types:
- Interaction: friends who stay friends engage in activities together, such as going to the movies or playing sports.
- Positivity: friends “for life” make the relationship positive and enjoyable, frequently using humor to lighten things up.
- Supportiveness: lifelong friends care for each other and the friendship and provide each other with emotional support.
- Self-disclosure: the best of friends engage in meaningful communication. They share private thoughts, dreams, and hopes for the future.
Make sure that you fully commit to these four friendship maintenance behaviors, and you should feel more satisfied and committed in your relationships. Best friends engage in these behaviors all the time, whereas close friends perform these most of the time, and casual friends only sometimes.
A common element to all of these behaviors is communication. Communication, it seems, is the glue that holds relationships together, and research specifies what good communication looks like: it’s reciprocal, encourages intimacy, and supports social identity.
Researchers Carolyn Weisz and Lisa Wood showed the importance of social identity support by following a group of college students from freshman through senior year. As previously shown, overall closeness, contact, and supportiveness predicted whether a good friendship was maintained. However, when the researchers controlled for these three qualities, only a single factor — social-identity support — predicted whether a friend would ultimately be elevated to the “best friend” status. Our best friends are people who boost and contribute to our self-esteem by validating our identities as members of certain groups: religious, ethnic, sports, or activities groups. They understand the importance of social identity for our own well-being. They do not have to necessarily be members of the same social group: it is enough for them to understand our affiliation to these groups and support us.
Meeting people is easy, but how do we maintain long-lasting, quality friendships?
- Be physically present. If you don’t live close to your friends, make a point of visiting them and planning activities together.
- Be positive. Make your time together fun for both.
- Be supportive. If your friend is going through some tough times, let them know you’ll be there for them and show your support.
- Support the identity your friends want to assume: Are they passionate football players? Go cheer them up at one of their games. Or all of them.