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By this point in your life, you've got plenty of friends, from the mom you bonded with when your now-grown kids were in kindergarten to the convivial neighbor you met when you moved to your new condo. But how do you maximize the health-enhancing, stress-reducing, fun-increasing potential of your friendships?
Here, five simple ways to get more out of relationships with friends:
Make Your Friendships a Priority
Want to get more out of your friendships? Then make your friendships a bigger part of your life.
Well, duh, as your kids might say. Yet too often, we put friends behind marriage, children, work, exercise and sorting the recycling. When life gets busy, the first thing we offload is time with friends — ironic, since seeing friends is a key to relieving stress.
How to make friendships more of a priority? One tack: Build regular time with friends into your calendar, whether it's an every-Wednesday lunch with your best friend or a Saturday morning hike no matter what the weather. Trusting your friendships to routine, rather than impulse, makes it more likely you'll actually get together and reap the rewards of friendship on a consistent basis.
Don't Just Sit There, Do Something
We don't need research (though there's plenty of it) to tell us that women bond over talking. But you can get more out of your friendships if you pause the conversation and do something together, whether it's sign up for tennis lessons, go on a weekend antiquing trip or simply read the same book.
Sharing activities is positive for all kinds of relationships, research shows, including marriages and adult parent-child relationships as well as friendships. The reason: Doing something fun and novel together expands your repertoire of common experiences, lets you see each other in new ways, plus adds another dimension to the relationship.
What if it turns out you both hate tennis? Then you can bond over that.
Connect With Virtual Friends
With women over the age of 55 being the fastest-growing demographic on Facebook, connecting with old friends and making new ones online can both grow your circle of friends, and give you more opportunities for interacting with them. Via social networking sites, you can rediscover the college roommate who always made you laugh, as well as friends-to-be who share your passion for miniature dachshunds or Hungarian harp music.
Twitter can also be an informal way to bring the chatter of many voices into your living room and keep up with everybody from the politician you admire to the person you met last week at a party. You can ask for advice, solicit support — even attend a twitter party while you watch a shared favorite TV show.
Accept That Friendships Change Over Time
Friendships tend to depend on being in the same stage of life, and once that shifts — you are widowed but your friend is married; she retires but you're still running a business — the relationship can change too. One recent study claimed people of every age replace half their friends every seven years. The lesson: Rather than clinging to relationships you've outgrown, you'll get more out of your friendships if you look for new friends with whom you share more similarities.
Risk the Fight
The longer you're friends with someone and the closer you get, the more likely it is you'll hit the kind of road bumps that can trip up any relationship. Rather than pretending the problem doesn't exist or running away, you'll need to confront the issue if you want to get more out of what is otherwise a valuable friendship.
"Sometimes it's more difficult to have these emotional discussions than not to have them," says Irene S. Levine, a professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine and creator of The Friendship Blog. "But if you bury hard feelings, they can seep out in toxic ways and damage the friendship."
Dr. Levine's advice for approaching a difficult discussion with a friend: Choose a relaxed time, and talk in person rather than on the phone or via e-mail. Be sensitive, don't blame or attack, but don't mask your feelings either. And know that any discussion may just be the first in an ongoing conversation, one that will ultimately lead you to a deeper, stronger friendship that can offer even more in terms of honesty and intimacy.