Many of us know someone who has maintained friendships over time and distance. Perhaps you have an uncle who still talks to his Army buddies 10 years out, or your parents still keep in touch with college friends from 20 years ago.
As a young adult, I often looked on those friendships with envy. We all want to be known and loved.
I grew up as a military kid, which meant I was great at meeting new people, but I had no experience maintaining relationships over time. Much of my young adult life, including college, has been dedicated to learning how to cultivate enduring relationships. I’m not an expert yet, but I’ve learned a few things about how to pursue long-term friendships.
It’s true that we can’t control how long relationships last, but we can certainly practice being a good friend. And as we do these things, God may bless us with friends for a lifetime.
Initiate and Respond
This is going to sound like the most obvious tip in the world, but if you meet someone you want to be friends with, initiate contact. Ask about having lunch, or shoot a friendly text.
Don’t be a stalker, and don’t pursue people who won’t pursue you back. But in my experience, most people need to do more initiating, not less.
Most people need to do more initiating, not less.
And if someone initiates with you, respond. If you struggle to respond to texts, try not opening a text or DM until you’re ready to reply. Or set a reminder in your phone for a time when you know you’re free to respond.
Even if it’s a person you weren’t trying to become friends with, respond. Some of my closest friends are people I never would have expected. In retrospect, I’m so glad I gave them a chance.
Listen and Ask Questions
You’ve probably heard the saying, “You have two ears and one mouth, so you should listen twice as much as you talk.” It may be a cliché, but the principle is good. Make it your goal to be a listener in conversations. You’ll learn about your friend, and you’ll make them feel valued.
Is your new friend a little quiet? Prompt conversation with some questions. You can start with basic things like “Where are you from?” and “What do you study?”
But then ask something interesting but not too invasive: “May I ask, what’s your religious background, and does that affect you today?” or “What kind of kid were you in elementary school/middle school/high school?” or “When you imagine your life five years from now, what do you see?”
Finally, ask follow-up questions. If she tells you she’s the only girl with three brothers as siblings, ask, “Wow, what was that like growing up?” If she mentions she might join the fencing club, ask, “Cool! Have you fenced before? What do you like about it?”
Demonstrating your interest in someone else will help the person trust you and will help her feel valued. This is a worthy goal even if you never become her friend, but, often, she’ll return the favor and express interest in you too.
Move Toward Difficult Things
While these skills are most useful in the beginning stages of friendship (although you should practice them throughout), the real secret sauce of the deepest relationships is their endurance through tough things.
As a college student, you may not have experienced the worst of life yet. So, when your peer tells you she’s just lost a parent, or been diagnosed with a debilitating disease, it makes you uncomfortable. You may fear you’re going to say or do the wrong thing. Or you wonder if you can really support this person when she’s facing something so huge.
These feelings are not uncommon, but the result is that we pull away from hard things and, without intending to, pull away from the relationship.
This is a double whammy, because at the moment when people need friends the most, they find it hardest to ask for help. Your friend’s trial becomes the ultimate test of your friendship.
It’s more important to show up and feel uncertain than it is to be perfect.
If you want to make lifelong friends, you’ve got to lean in. Google the terrible diagnosis and educate yourself, then go ask questions and listen. Send flowers when something bad happens. Make her a meal or, if you can’t cook, ask if you can bring takeout. Sit with your depressed friend, even if you have no words to say.
It’s more important to show up and feel uncertain than it is to be perfect. Often, you can ask someone how to offer support. If she doesn’t know, turn to a pastor or campus staff or a parent who might have ideas. But the point here is to love your friend at her lowest. That will bond you in ways nothing else can.
Christ, the Perfect Friend
Think about this. God did not wait for us to initiate with him. He sent Jesus while we were still his enemies (Rom. 5:8). God is always listening to us, and often asks us questions he knows the answer to, in order to help us grow and to open a relationship with him (see Jonah 4; 1 Pet. 3:12).
God has moved toward us in every difficult thing.
And God has moved toward us in every difficult thing. He came as a human and experienced every level of pain the human life can produce, even death. Then, Jesus came back to life and left earth but sent his Holy Spirit. This means that, if you are a Christian, God is with you through everything you will experience.
It is because we are already loved and secure that we can offer friendship to others. Extend the love of Christ to those around you. Lifelong friends will appear.