When I was a young adult, I loved the song “Did I Happen to Mention” by Julia Fordham. In the song, Fordham laments the potential loss of her lover and sings, “I need another good friend like I need…a hole in my head”—a sentiment I probably agreed with at the time. After all, I had lots of great friends. But compared to a romantic partner, they seemed less important somehow.
That kind of thinking may be common, but it’s very wrong-headed, writes psychologist Marisa Franco in her new book, Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make—and Keep—Friends. Our friends are important to our happiness and well-being, she argues, and they often fulfill us even more than other relationships can.
“We choose our friends, which allows us to surround ourselves with people who root for us, get us, and delight in our joy,” she writes. “Through friendship, we can self-select into some of the most affirming, safe, and sacred relationships of our lives.”
The benefits of having close friends in our lives are multiple, says Franco. They make us feel whole, increase our ability to be empathic, and help us to figure out who we are. Friendships are important for healthy aging, too. And they benefit society as a whole, as friendships increase trust and cross-group friendships can decrease prejudice.
Yet some of us make friends more easily than others, depending partly on our “attachment style”—how secure or insecure we’ve learned to feel in relationships. If we assume we are worthy of love and trust friends to provide it (a secure attachment style), it’s likely we’ll have many warm, supportive friendships. But, if we fear abandonment from others, we may act clingingly (anxious attachment style) or act as if we don’t care and withdraw from others (avoidant attachment style). Franco helps people identify their own attachment style (or that of their friends) and gives wise advice for how to prevent an insecure attachment style from torpedoing promising relationships.
If you’re unsure how to make friends or deepen intimacy, Franco has lots of tips for you that can help.
Take the initiative
It’s obvious that you won’t make friends if no one takes the initiative to connect. But it can seem daunting to do that, especially if you assume friendships need to happen organically, without effort (an attitude likely to stymie friendship) or people won’t like you if they get to know you (a fear that is likely overblown).
Friendship takes effort, but it can happen in a number of ways. Franco suggests that if you’re more introverted, reconnecting with an old friend you haven’t seen in a while may work well. Or, if you’re more extroverted, you can pay attention when you experience moments of connection with new acquaintances and take a step toward building friendship—maybe asking if they’d like to get coffee sometime.
“We have to put ourselves out there and try. It’s a process of reaching out over and over again,” writes Franco.
To that end, it can be good to join groups or classes that meet more than once, so that you have multiple opportunities to take the initiative. Anticipating more regular contact with someone can be important for building friendships, too.
Increase your willingness to be vulnerable
This is an important part of friendship that too many people ignore. We feel closer to people when we are vulnerable with them, sharing our fears, insecurities, or regrets. And we can grow in intimacy by responding well when others divulge their own foibles to us.
“Understanding and feeling attuned to others’ vulnerability is a key to developing and deepening friendships—and missing those cues can jeopardize them,” says Franco.
People may be fearful that others will judge them if they share things they feel ashamed of. But research suggests the opposite—you endear yourself to others when you share intimacies with them, as long as you don’t overshare or use vulnerability to manipulate someone. This may help explain why the famous “Fast Friends” exercise, where two strangers ask and answer 36 increasingly personal questions, works so well.
One warning, though, says Franco: If you are vulnerable with someone who is avoidant, they may not react as well as you’d like. “Since they are more uncomfortable with emotion, when others are vulnerable, the intimacy, trust, and love inherent to the interaction may be eclipsed by their discomfort with feelings.”
Let people see your authentic self
Being your own authentic self, writes Franco, is when “we aren’t triggered, when we can make intentional, rather than reactive, decisions about how we want to show up in the world.” In other words, it’s not about “telling it like it is” or being brutally honest even if it means putting others down. It’s feeling safe enough to access our higher self and being congruent with our values.
For achieving more authenticity with others, Franco suggests practicing mindfulness, which helps you to access and accept your moment-to-moment experiences. In this way, you can know your inner self better and be less prone to acting defensively when you feel uncomfortable, and more resilient if someone rejects you.
However, while being authentic can build friendships, it may be difficult to be yourself when faced with prejudice. “In a perfect world, we would all be loved in our most authentic form, but in the real world, privilege plays into whose authentic self is welcomed and whose is rejected,” writes Franco. It’s important to “decouple rejection from self-condemnation” and, when necessary, to vet people before bringing your whole self to the relationship.
Be productive with your anger, when it’s needed
All close relationships can involve conflicts or hurts that need repair. So, it’s important to use anger wisely in these situations. Franco recommends letting a friend know when you’re upset with them and why, but with a focus on preserving the relationship (anger born of hope) rather than lashing out with blame or punishment (anger born of despair).
“Anger of despair is the destructive force we typically associate with anger. Anger of hope, however, is a healing force that can deepen friendships, one that we should embrace,” she writes.
That means not letting things fester, but expressing upsets by saying how much you value the friendship, using “I” statements, and admitting fault for your role in creating the conflict. Friends who work through conflict are closer because of it and have more satisfying relationships.
Act with generosity
Generosity can be the social glue that ties people together, and the same goes for friendship. People who are kind and generous are more likely to have many friends and have greater well-being.
Franco recommends performing acts of kindness to cement friendships—like sending a hand-written card, baking a treat, offering to pick up someone from the airport, or letting someone borrow a jacket. Just be sure that you aren’t sacrificing yourself by offering too much generosity to too many people. Otherwise, you may burn out—or cause your relationships to suffer.
Giving with an agenda—to make someone love you, for example—or having generosity only go in one direction probably won’t result in friendship. In those cases, it may be best to cut ties or set your expectations lower for that friendship.
On the other hand, Franco says, you do need to show up when a good friend is in crisis—even when it’s a sacrifice.
“For friendship to flourish, we need to know if we call a friend crying because we got fired from our job at the nuclear power plant, they won’t text back, ‘I am currently unavailable,’” she writes.
As James Taylor once sang, “Shower the people you love with love. Show them the way that you feel.” That includes your friends. Showing affection is a sure way to make someone feel valued.
Yet some people may fear expressing affection for a friend, worrying that it will be unwanted or misconstrued. This may be especially true for men in cultures where homophobia is rampant or where men are raised not to feel their feelings for other men—or even women.
Still, research shows that outward expressions of caring are an important ingredient in friendship for everyone. You may need to tailor your affection to your friend’s tolerance for closeness—physical or emotional. But people like people who like them, and showing affection communicates that you like someone—while withholding it can be a relationship killer.
“The more you show affection, the more likely you are to not just make friends, but also deepen the friendships you already have,” writes Franco.
All in all, Franco’s central message is that we have the power to strengthen friendships, if only we invest in them. And it’s worth it, because when we value our friendships, we can transform our lives for the better.
“Don’t wait for a calamity to rock you into realizing friendship is priceless,” she writes. “Engrave friendship on your list. Make being a good friend a part of who you are, because a deep and true core that needs to belong lies within us all.”