Friendships with other women have the potential to either enrich your life greatly or hurt you deeply. But you can navigate the complex dynamics of relationships well if you realize that God wants to use your friendships to help you and your friends grow. Grown-up friendships stretch and encourage both you and your friends to become more mature.
Here's how you can build grown-up friendships:
Be willing to invest yourself in friendships. Realize that good friendships don't just happen; they take time and require risks. Invest the time and take the risks necessary to build solid friendships. Don't settle for just fleeting fun marred by insecurity; pursue relationships that help you connect well with other women and experience deep joy together.
Discover the purpose for each of your friendships. Understand that God has an overarching purpose for all grown-up friendships, which is that they should honor Him by encouraging the people involved to become the people He wants them to be. But ask God to show you the unique purpose for each of your friendships, as well. Ask your friends questions as you explore the potential purpose for your friendships with them, and pray about the information you receive until you discover what God wants to accomplish in each of your lives through your friendship.
Rank your friendships by intimacy level. Recognize that not all of your relationships are meant to be close. Know that, while you're called to love everyone, you're not called to share intimately with everyone. Put your friendships in the proper perspective by ranking them according to whether they're acquaintances (people you know by name and with whom you usually share facts or clichés, such as a cashier at your favorite grocery store), companions (people you talk with about opinions or concerns, and with whom you share something in common, such as a hobby or children of the same age) or close friends (people you trust enough to share your deep thoughts and feelings together). After taking inventory of your current friendships, ask yourself if you're experiencing true intimacy in any of your friendships, or if you're spread too thin by trying to have too many intimate friendships. Identify those people with whom you sense God is leading you to become close friends, and become intentional about doing so while letting go of unnecessary pressure in your other friendships. Make sure that God is your number one close friend, and rely on the love He gives to love other people.
Open your heart, with God's help. Don't close your heart off to people God wants you love. If you're having trouble acting loving toward a difficult person, ask God – the source of all love – to help you by giving you the love you need for her. Be aware of how people press your fear buttons through their words and actions. Once you identify how they trigger fear in you, talk with them honestly about it, with the goal of sharing a loving conversation that will enlighten you both and draw you closer together. Constantly keep your heart open to receive God's love so you can love your friends as He intends.
Set and respect healthy boundaries. Pursue healing from any past wounds that are affecting your ability to build current relationships in healthy ways. Reflect on your emotions and what words and actions trigger them so you can understand how to express them at appropriate times and in ways that are most helpful to you and your friends. Make sure that your physical expressions of affection honor God and bless your friends rather than making them uncomfortable. Recognize that God has created you to be unique. Don't try to become like your friends; embrace your own identity with confidence.
Embrace differences between yourself and your friends. Accept the fact that you and your friends have different personalities and approaches to life. Realize that, instead of causing you to grow apart, your differences can actually improve your friendship if you respond to them wisely. Let go of attempts to change your friends and address frustrations and unmet expectations as they occur. View the differences between you as gifts rather than annoyances. Bring out the best in each other by inviting God to use the differences between you to teach you to love in deeper ways. Ask God what He is trying to accomplish by pulling you and your friends together, and keep His purposes in mind as you work through your differences.
Communicate wisely. Avoid behaviors that erode the trust that must be the foundation of a safe friendship, such as: gossip, criticism, competitiveness, blaming, manipulation, an unwillingness to confront about issues, jealousy, too much emotional intensity, jockeying for position within a group of friends, and talking instead of listening. Create safety in your friendships by allowing each other to open up with each other and share your true thoughts and feelings. Honor each other by recognizing each other's value. Realize when your fear buttons have been pushed, and learn how to manage your emotions so they don't control you. Be willing to seek forgiveness when you've hurt your friends. Speak encouraging words to your friends. Avoid screaming, yelling, threats, and other unhealthy behaviors during disagreements. Create ground rules for your friendships that make it clear what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. Be willing to confront your friends whenever you believe they have wronged you. Learn how to listen well (be empathetic, summarize what was said to make sure you heard it correctly, ask open-ended questions that lead to deeper sharing, and validate your friend's feelings even if you don't agree with them). Rather than harboring negative beliefs about your friends, acknowledge that your perceptions might be wrong and give your friends the benefit of the doubt until you can visit with them to discuss your concerns. Don't make negative comments about other people in front of your friends when those people aren't present to defend themselves; know that if you refrain from doing so, your friends will trust you not to speak critically about them when they're not present. Take responsibility for what you choose to believe about your friends and how you choose to communicate with them; don't blame your friends for your own choices.
Forgive and seek forgiveness. Be willing to forgive your friends after they hurt you, and ask them to forgive you after you hurt them. Know that this is not an option; it's something you must do to maintain healthy friendships. Remember that God has forgiven you and expects you to take His call to forgive seriously. Rely on God's help to forgive and seek forgiveness, no matter what your feelings, and know that He will help you do so. Pursue reconciliation as well with those friends who are willing to restore their friendships with you.
Overcome destructive friendships. Try to prevent being mistreated in friendships by depending on Jesus (rather than other people) to meet your deepest needs, asking God to help you become wiser and more discerning, being willing to trust others after someone betrays you, and seeking out healthy friends. Understand that a healthy friends: brings her own identity to the relationship, supports rather than acts as a caretaker, is honest and truthful but not critical, can make decisions for herself but does not need to make decisions for everyone around her, honors your other friendships while having a clear vision of the purpose God had when He brought you two together, does not try to manipulate you but encourages you instead, believes the best about you, forgives but does not accept recurring destructive behavior from someone who does not repent. Decide to give your heart in close friendship only to women you can trust to hold it well.
Know when to let go. If you have lost a friendship because of another person's choice, accept that you can't control another person and don't try to force a relationship when she doesn't want one. If you're dealing with a destructive friendship in which your friend is mistreating you and won't change, realize that the best choice for you to make may be to let go of that relationship. After a friendship ends, try to learn from the experience by asking yourself: "How could I have done this relationship better?" and "What can I learn from this painful experience and apply to my other relationships?" Allow yourself to go through the grieving process for a friendship you've lost. Ask God to use the loss of a friendship to refine your weaknesses and draw you closer to Him.
Reach out in crisis. When you're going through a crisis in your life (such as divorce, widowhood, a sick child, a death in the family, or your own illness), don't hesitate to reach out to your friends for support. When your friends are going through a crisis in their lives, reach out to them to offer them some of the hope and help they need.
Pass on what you know. Become a mentor (either formally or informally) to younger women who could benefit from what you've learned about building grown-up friendships. Model love in the midst of hurt, offer support in the midst of trials, pray for their friendships, and occasionally include them in fun activities with you and your own friends.
Press on. Persevere through the challenges of struggles in your friendships, knowing that God will use all of your experiences to help you become more and more like Jesus.
Adapted from Grown-Up Girlfriends: Finding and Keeping Real Friends in the Real World, copyright 2007 by Erin Smalley and Carrie Oliver. Published by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Ill., http://www.tyndale.com/.
Erin Smalley holds a master's degree in clinical psychology and has enjoyed working with her husband, Greg, doing marriage intensives and teaching on marital and parenting issues. She currently stays at home with her two daughters, Taylor and Maddy, and her son, Garrison.
Carrie Oliver is the director of the University Relationships Initiative at the Center for Relationship Enrichment at John Brown University and has a private practice as a counselor. Carrie is a speaker at national conferences and women's retreats and travels with her husband, Gary, leading marriage enrichment seminars and parenting workshops.