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Lessons for Life

How to be a healthy friend

You can nurture and navigate your friendships so they last a lifetime -- here's how

Jen Weigel

July 23, 2013

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Romantic relationships may come and go, but is it possible to have a friendship that lasts a lifetime?

"People don't pay friendship the kind of attention that it deserves," said Mark Matousek, author of "Ethical Wisdom for Friends: How to Navigate Life's Most Complicated, Curious, and Common Relationship Dilemmas."

"Many of us think a friendship will just run on its own but that isn't true. When we give them the focus and attention they need to thrive, they are the relationships that are most likely to endure."

We asked Matousek to share his tips and wisdom about keeping your friends close. Here's an edited transcript of our conversation.

Q: Is it possible for friends to come and go?

A: Sometimes friends will just fall off, and for me, it's the two-message policy — you try twice to reach the person and after that you have to let it go. You can't force a person to want to be your friend. Also, you're asking for rejection. Acquaintances might disappear and come back but close friendships very rarely just fall off that way and then reappear except for extreme or extraordinary circumstances. As long as we communicate — if a person has a new relationship or a new baby or they're going through a tough time — we have to let people have their lives. We tend to blame people for their lives or hold them hostage to our needs. That's something that friends don't do. Letting our friends know that they're on our radar is really important. Especially when the world is so busy. To reach out and call someone is really important to maintain intimacy in a friendship.

But real friends don't just disappear. If they do, sometimes we do need to let people go. Friends are our chosen, voluntary family. They're not the ones we're stuck with. But the truth is, sometimes people just aren't as interested in us as we are in them. It's part of growing up to accept that.

Q: What if you have a friend who refuses to grow up?

A: That's tricky because we can't mind our friends' business and if our friends feel they are being judged by us, that does nothing for the closeness. But if you see a friend who is acting inappropriately or is getting in their own way in terms of growing up or their ability to be close to you and supportive of you, it's absolutely valid to bring it up in an unoffensive, non-threatening, unaggressive way. Present it as a question: "Have you thought of taking off the surfer shorts and taking the bong out of your office?" That kind of thing.

What do we do if we are attracted to a friend? Do we tell them about the romantic feelings?

It's almost always a bad idea to sleep with friends just because it introduces an awkward element. It's a breaking of the platonic contract. I'm not saying it can't be done…but generally it's a terrible idea. Often one person is more attracted to the friend than the friend is to him or her and the person who is attracted more ends up getting hurt and often can't circle back to the way things were before. And if you want to tell them, do it in a way where you're not flirting or coming on to the person, you're just putting it out there as a point of interest or a matter of fact so that you can make it conscious. It's when we bury them and pretend like it's not there that it starts coming out in crooked ways and we act out in ways that may be unskillful or unloving.

What if we can't stand our friend's spouse?

You can't possibly like all the people your friends are involved with, so your job is to honor your friendship and give as much support as possible and give them feedback if they ask questions, but not to interfere. What ends up happening is they come to you complaining about their spouse, you jump on the bandwagon, and then they make up and you're out. They always will know you don't like the person they're with and that's a real hard thing to get over. Keep your mouth shut unless you're asked because you just don't know what's going on behind closed doors. It's so easy to editorialize from the outside. But if the person is in physical danger, that's completely different. Then you do an intervention and you speak out. But if it's just garden-variety emotional problems or your observations, it really is better to keep it to yourself.

You say that gossip can be a good thing, can you explain?

We are hard-wired to pay stories forward — that's why language developed, so we could watch one another's backs. So gossip historically has a moral and ethical function. In friendship, we often feel this desire to share information...for two friends to talk about a friend they're mutually concerned about is not necessarily a bad thing at all. Gossip is really just story telling and communication but you don't want it to be malicious or share secrets.

Is it ever OK to lie to a friend?

Yes, but it depends on the circumstances. I think a "white lie" is fine. If a person is having a moment of insecurity, and you're not telling them something that's going to lead them seriously astray, I don't think it's bad to say, "Yeah, you look great!"

How has social media changed friendships?

It has magnified insecurities and it has trivialized the whole idea of what a friendship is. Social media is largely a popularity contest. Friendship is a private thing. So what you share on Facebook is not what we would share privately with each other. Being someone's friend is not just sharing information on a timeline — it's something particular and personal and precious.

jweigel@tribune.com

Twitter: @jenweigel