Spending time with a good friend feels easy and uplifting: The conversation flows, hours pass in a blink, and both parties walk away euphoric, thanks to the release of feel-good hormones that come with a few good laughs. However, getting to this point of uncomplicated companionship requires a significant time commitment. Research, published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, shows it takes more than 200 hours of time spent with a person to consider them a close friend. These hours shared over meals and meaningful conversations facilitate deeper connection.
The coronavirus pandemic has driven a significant wedge in these friendships. Social distancing measures, ongoing child-care needs and varying levels of personal risk have made it virtually impossible to accrue the hours needed to develop a relationship. But as friend groups were vaccinated this spring and Americans began socializing with their confidants again, many realized spending time with others wasn’t as effortless as it once was — they were socially awkward — and they were often left exhausted after.
As you emerge from months when you may have lost touch with friends and are eager to reconnect, it's important to think strategically if you want to maintain the level of effortlessness you had before. Here is advice from friendship experts on how to optimize these relationships.
Change your perspective
While friendships are indeed high maintenance — keeping in touch, scheduling time together — they don’t need to be exhausting or scary. Instead of dreading a happy hour meetup, think back on when you’ve hung out with this pal pre-pandemic. Were they tiring? Probably not. “Most of them have gone positive in the past, so there’s no reason to expect that it’ll be any different,” says William Chopik, an assistant professor of psychology and director of the Close Relationships Lab at Michigan State University.
However, if you’re still feeling drained after socializing, you are not broken, says Miriam Kirmayer, a friendship researcher and clinical psychologist in private practice in Montreal. Be compassionate with yourself and friends if your hangouts don’t have the same energy as before. You might need time to warm up again in the social department. “We’re capable of working through this,” Kirmayer says. “It’s not a sign that anything’s inherently wrong with us or anything’s changed as far as who we are in our friendships.”
Because the pandemic interrupted virtually every relationship, you may feel the need to resume all of them simultaneously. This can be overwhelming, both to your schedule and your emotional bandwidth. Instead, be discerning about whom you spend time with right now, Kirmayer advises. Maybe you’re not up for a backyard bonfire with a handful of people, but a one-on-one with the host would be okay. Make plans according to your preferences. “Who do I feel like connecting with right now? Who would it feel good to speak with and connect with?” Kirmayer says. “Have it come from a place of voluntary action as opposed to . . . this feeling of it’s a necessity, it’s required.”
Having choice over how we’re spending our time, and with whom, is essential to maintaining fulfilling friendships, according to recent research published in the journal Personal Relationships. Jeffrey Hall, a professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas and a co-author of the study, published in June, found that when people chose to engage with friends (rather than seeing them in an obligatory setting, like work), they reported feeling more connected and had a greater sense of well-being. Voluntary hangouts can mean grabbing an impromptu lunch with a pal in the middle of a workday or scheduling a call to catch up, Hall says, and so long as each person is choosing to invest time in the other, you’re doing a service to your relationship.
Build a routine
Another way to maintain friendships, according to Hall’s recent study, is to create a routine. Whether a monthly book club or weekly workout class, knowing when and where you’ll see a friend eliminates most of the legwork required in scheduling a get-together. “This means things like old friendships tend to be actually quite energy conservative,” Hall says, “because they’re already people who we know, they’re already people we know like us.”
The frequency of these routine hangouts should depend on how much social interaction you get in your day-to-day life, Hall says. If you live with a roommate or have a partner and children, you don’t need to schedule as many social events — maybe one per week — he says, since you already regularly interact with people. That one social interaction could be a long phone call, a happy hour or a walk with a friend. Likewise, those with jobs in the service or retail industries may not need as many friend hangouts. “If your routine involves children, or a romantic partner, or a job that’s intensely social, chances are your social needs are much lower,” Hall says, “but the importance of having relationships doesn’t go away.”
How close you consider certain friends also affects how often they should be factored into your routine. Robin Dunbar, a British evolutionary psychologist and emeritus professor at the University of Oxford, famously posited that humans can maintain 150 relationships at one time, and that these connections are organized into levels of intimacy: Your innermost circle consists of five best friends, followed by a level of 15 very good friends and a third layer of 50 casual friends. To maintain your relationships with your most intimate five friends, Dunbar says, you should see them at least once a week. “The next layer out, which is your 15-layer of good friends,” he adds, “you only see about once a month on average, or at least that’s the minimum, to keep them in that circle. The layer out beyond that, after 50, which I always think of as your yard barbecue friends . . . they only need to be seen once every six months.”
Make the time meaningful
How you spend time with friends is hugely consequential. Research shows that sharing your thoughts and experiences with each other, called reciprocal self-disclosure, and responsiveness (asking follow-up questions and being engaged) promotes closeness. Unsurprisingly, levity and humor, in addition to more serious conversations, also play a large role in friendship.
Another way of bonding after extended time apart is to engage in exciting activities together. When friends share novel experiences, Chopik says, “your sense of self expands to include them; you start including them more and more in your inner circle in terms of things you like to do and things you’ve done,” a psychological concept called self-expansion theory. By trying a new restaurant or getting your families together for pumpkin picking, you can bond over these experiences and learn more about one another, he says.
While the benefits of friendship are numerous — they help you cope with stress, combat loneliness and provide a sense of belonging — the ultimate goal of these relationships is to enrich the lives of others, Hall says. A key to maintaining our friendships is to think externally: How can you support your friends today? “Relationships are at their best when you know that you’re valuable to other people and what you have to share with them is worth sharing,” Hall says. “When we give ourselves, your time or otherwise, that benefit is what actually makes us feel good: the benefit it gives to other people.”
Allie Volpe is a writer based in Philadelphia. Find her on Twitter @allieevolpe.