The Invisible Rules of Engagement (How to Keep Friends & Deepen Relationships)

Post Series: The Top 3 Reasons Friendships Implode (And How To Avoid It)

The best of my friendships are found in that sweet spot between shared interests & values, great communication, and aligned “rules” of engagement. That is, once we meet the criteria of being friends, the depth is dictated by the degree of match between our secret invisible criteria for successful relationships.

It is definitely possible to maintain and nurture thriving relationships with many different types of people, and some will cost you more energy than others. Some friends may feel “high maintenance” to you because their expectations are different to yours. That means it takes more effort for you to engage with them because it doesn’t feel natural, or like it flows. To be clear, if you only have friends who are “easy”, you’re probably a bit of a dick. Some of the greatest opportunities for personal growth and joy come from navigating the complexities of a challenging (and rewarding) relationship.

What, then, are the rules? And who makes them?

The ‘rules’ are ultimately a guide to the friendship framework that feels natural to you. They guide how you behave, without any outside influence or effort. No one makes them, as such, they are a reflection of the family you grew up in, the people around you, and the cultural expectations you’ve been socialised in.

Some people have many rules, and they tend to be less behaviourally flexible and have either a narrow selection of potential friends, or their friendships tend to the superficial. Some people have very few rules and have incredibly wide & varied friendships.

I tend to sit somewhere in the middle. For me it’s about balancing the joy & connection I get from people, with the energy costs and time investment that it takes to support that. That that might sound cold, please understand that it comes from many years of learning what is sustainable for me. Through understanding these rules I am now able to maintain my emotional & physical energy, maintain stability in my life, and avoid the highs and lows that I used to experience by over stretching myself.

Rule 1 – How can I miss you if you won’t go away (frequency)

I utterly adore my friends. I have sought, attracted, and nurtured some very special relationships with people who fill my heart with joy. Even so, I’m a bit of a lone wolf. A social “thing” once a week is well enough for me, whether it is coffee, dinner, or even some kind of activity with people I don’t really know. Like, if I went to a gardening workshop I might not want to catch up with a friend.

This can be a bit tricky, sometimes people feel like we have lost touch or that I am not taking care of them, on the most part it works really well. I don’t have any friends who want to see me weekly (I’m just not that into you!)

My ideal frequency is a 90 minute face-to-face catch up every 3 months or so, which means I stay in touch with all my friends and don’t get too peopled out. Many other people like to be social three times a week or more. There is no right amount, only your amount.

I manage this in my relationships by being clear “You know, it works really well for me if we catch up every few months, what kind of interval do you prefer? What makes you feel loved, and also is manageable with your workload and commitments?

Rule 2 – Am I ever going to see your face again? (type)

I am the original Have-A-Chat, and so I love to stay in contact with my dear friends by phone or text. We aim to have a quick chat fortnightly, and then every other month, a good long chat. My Love Strategy is auditory*, and so as long as I can hear you, speaking to me warmly and with pleasure, I know I am loved. Text is great too!

For people whose Love Strategy is visual*, it might be better to do a facetime or Skype call, or even to send a letter or a gift. For a friend with a kinaesthetic* Love Strategy, it will be important to spend time together, or perhaps do an activity.

Ask yourself (and your friends) do you prefer phone, face to face, facetime, text, email, or snail mail? Or is there some other type of connecting & catching up that you prefer?

*Click here for more about How We Sense Our World

Rule 3 – It’s a coffee, not an endurance race (length of time)

It is important to manage expectations around time, and to be clear on how long you and your friend desire to spend together. Do you like to have a three hour coffee? Or is 45 minutes a good length of time for you?

You can measure this easily by noticing when the irritation starts creeping in… for some people that is never! I have extended family who are happy to spend every minute of every day together, and they never feel the need to cut the encounter short. I max out at about 2 hours.

I’ve had to do a lot of work to realign my own expectations at social events: dinners and “special” events have invisible social expectations of a minimum of 4 hours. (Trust me, I’ve checked this rigorously!) Leaving before then is seen as poor manners.

Make sure to check in each occasion, and set the expectations. My best friend and I make sure that we are clear on our available time each time we speak e.g. “ I have 15 minutes while I’m driving and I thought I’d call and say hi” or “do you have time today for a longer chat? Or can we make a time for later this week?” Check when you are booking a meeting, “how long would you like to make that?”.

Many people enjoy a much higher frequency of contact, they may be in touch daily or weekly with friends and family. I’m totally cool with that! That’s just not how I roll.

Rule 4 – Don’t come to me, I’ll come to you. (where)

Does this person always expect you to travel to them? There is a delightful & delicious friend of mine who lives in another state. She is one of the few people in my life who takes the time to come and see me, for the sole purpose of coming to see me. That means so much to me, and I notice that as we travel & reciprocate time for the purpose of time together, that our relationship deepens.

Then there are people who visit “on the way” to other places, people who take into account the distance between our homes, and those who always want me to go to them. I’ve friends who have become acquaintances for that reason – one of my ‘rules’ is that we equally visit each other’s locations, or at the very least meet in the middle.

Notice your own location expectations; How far do travel for your friends? Do you prefer people to come to you? Do you have an invisible ratio of you to them? Again, it’s neither here nor there what you decide, it’s the articulation of that decision that is crucial.

Rule 5 – An intimate dinner for twenty… wait, what?! (#of people)

I’ve been upset and surprised before when I’ve visited friends and they have plans that include other people. Or I’ve gone out for dinner expecting three friends and there’s been a rocking party of 30! At the time I subscribed to the dramatic response “Who even does that?!” and now know it is completely my responsibility and choice.

Great communication means that you talk about expectations & preferences, and adjust your plans accordingly. Go, or don’t go. Choose your own adventure!

Which do you prefer? A few people? Tens of people? A crowded pub or event with loads of strangers? It’s all good, my lovely, whatever floats your boat!

All in all is all we all are

We all have different desires, needs, and lives. You can, of course, have great relationships without that understanding, but it’s a rare and lucky coincidence.

Building adult relationships relies on you defining & maintaining your own boundaries. That is, if you feel that someone else’s rule is too much, you will need to choose whether that fits with your own energy & space requirements. Have the conversation with your friend. Explain why it is that you have a different need, and be graceful and conscious that they may decide that they want to maintain a different boundary. As in, you know what? This relationship is too hard/ not rewarding enough and I don’t want to maintain it at all, or will prioritise it less.

The rich tapestry of friendships and relationships that makes our lives fulfilling, means looking for different perspectives and challenging yourself to grow. What that means, is that you must know thyself, and make decisions that support your health & happiness.

 

PS – Whenever you’re ready, here are three ways I can help you build stronger friendships

  1. Follow The Sugar Doctor on Facebook.
    It’s the place I post tips & tricks for improving relationships, from the boardroom to the bedroom.
  2. Grab a free copy of my Friendship Blueprint
    It’s the blue print to understanding your preferences, articulating your expectations, and navigating friendship. Just email tara@thesugardoctor.com.au and put “Blueprint” in the subject line.
  3. Work with me Privately
    If you’d like to work directly with me to take your relationships from good to deeply fulfilling, just email tara@thesugardoctor.com.au and put “Private” in the subject line. Tell me a little about your relationships and what you’d like to work on together, and I’ll get you all the details.

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