How to maintain a healthy long distance friendship
The idea of friendship day dates back to the mid of the XXth century in America. Originally a Hallmark initiative to sell greetings cards, in 2011, the UN General Assembly proclaimed the International Day of Friendship with the goal of promoting peace efforts and connections between communities.
Friendship, can take on many different forms. Today, we will talk specifically about one of them, long distance friendship, certainly one of the trickiest to take care of. We will discuss this topic from the point of view that psychologist Shasta Nelson presents in her TEDx talk at La Sierra University Frientimacy: the three requirements of all healthy friendships. According to her, there are three common traits that all great friendships seem to share. These are the essential components of a good, deep, involved friendship, and missing one of the pieces of the puzzle in our lives may be why we sometimes experience feelings of loneliness. We will discuss them in the same order she presents, and explain how each of them affects long distance friendship.
Have you ever heard that for every negative thing that happens to us, we need at least another five positive things to balance it out? Well, according to many psychologists, this advice also applies to relationships. We want friendhips because they make us feel good. Of course, it is also important to be able to cry with our friends and talk about the things that aren’t as nice. However, try keeping in mind that 5 to 1 ratio, so that for every time you come to your friend to say something negative, you should also be making five positive interactions that leave them feeling happy and rewarded. In a long distance friendship, this is an important point to not forget to help foster a more consistent interaction.
When we see someone with a certain regularity, we get get to know them and their behaviour, we create patterns with them and this generates trust. Lack of consistency can then make us feel insecure about how to approach someone, like when you meet someone for the first time and you are not quite sure about how to act. Knowing these patterns makes us feel safe.
Consistency is of course one of the main concerns people have before entering a long distance relationship of any kind. However, after some time people also tend to catch on patterns that they use to stay in contact with their friends, just like you would do in real life.
To give you some ideas on things that you could do to have more regular positive interactions with your friends, we will take as a reference the clasification made in the book The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman. As the title says, the book describes five different ways in which people like to give and receive love: Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Receiving Gifts, Acts of Service, and/or Physical Touch. Some of these—specially the physiscal touch—are difficult to have in a long distance friendship, but you can try to make use of all the others. For instance, below here we give you some ideas of things you could do that represent each language.
Words of Affirmation
If your friend values this language, sending them a positive message to tell them how proud of them you are, or that you are glad to have them in your life could really help them feel better bout themselves, and see you as a positive influence in their lives.
Acts of service
What this means might look different in every friendship, however we could say that in general it means being there for your friends. It’s supporting them through your actions, and not only throught words. If you are appart, maybe you can call them to check in the date of an important event, like a celebration, or calling them when you know they are going through a rough time. If you're not sure exactly what your friend wants or needs, you can just ask.
A gift means that we care about someone, know and understand what they might like, too. Of course, you don’t need to break the bank and be constantly giving away gifts, specially since shipping costs can get expensive. Nevertheless, few things say more “I was thinking about you” like a well chosen present.
Quality is quite an essential word in this point. Here, you are going to care more about being fully present for each other during the time you have together. It doesn't matter exactly what you do, just put away any distracting thoughts and be present in the moment. In a long distance friendship, this is where you can get quite creative. For instance, having marathons of your favorite show on videocall, playing games online, a virtual tour of your new place, or just a simple chat with coffee over the phone. You can also plan to see each other in person, which means spending lots of hours planning together prior to the trip, and then all the fun you will have traveling in the company of each other.
Being vulnerable to out friends doesn’t just mean sharing our insecurities and bad experiences with them. It is also about sharing what’s going well, as well as our story, our dreams, and specially being able to communicate our feelings and needs to them. Vulnerability is the third factor that is required to feel fullfilled in a relationship because, to quote Shasta Nelson—“At the end of the day, for us, we want to feel loved, and we only feel loved if we feel known, and we can only feel known if we actually share ourselves”.
I’d like to remind you of the many benefits that friendship has for us. Not only does it enrich our lives, but it may literally be one of the things keeping us alive. Not only have we evolved as a species to live in relatively large communities, but some studies also suggest that being lonely has the potential to influence our physical health in the long run, creating higher risk for high blood pressure for instance*.
Hopefully this helped you understand better the inner mecanisms of a long distance friendship, and how each of the main three points presenteed here are essential to make it work.
To finish, here’s a quote by the world's Ambassador of Friendship, named by Nane Annan, wife of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in honor of Friendship Day in 1998.
"If there ever comes a day when we can't be together, keep me in your heart, I'll stay there forever." — Winnie the Pooh
*Cacioppo, J. T., Hawkley, L. C., Crawford, L. E., Ernst, J. M., Burleson, M. H., Kowalewski, R. B., ... & Berntson, G. G. (2002). Loneliness and health: Potential mechanisms. Psychosomatic medicine, 64 (3), 407-417.