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A healthy friendship can be the greatest, most rewarding part of any life — an absolute necessity for most (if not all) of us to find happiness and fulfillment.
Healthy friendships do a lot more than guarantee you have a plus-one for concerts. From checking in when we seem quiet to making us feel special on birthdays, friends who keep things healthy and supportive can keep us afloat when the seas get rough, welcoming us into port in ways that make us feel truly special.
But unfortunately, not all friendships are healthy. In fact, some people may believe they’re part of a friendship when in reality, the relationship is so unhealthy it meets the criteria for abuse.
It might take years to realize a friendship is unhealthy. Some people have never had a healthy friendship, and some struggle to see that a relationship they depend on is neither friendly nor healthy.
Whatever brings you here today, it’s important to understand that healthy friendships don’t have to fit any mold. You can have healthy relationships with someone you see every day or haven’t hung out with in years. You can have friendships where you know everything about each other or practically nothing.
But healthy friendships do have standards. They have to follow certain rules — otherwise, they’re no longer considered healthy.
Keep reading for insight into why healthy relationships and positive social connections are important, the signs of an abusive relationship, how to develop strong friendships and how to set healthy friendship boundaries.
The older we get, the more difficult it is to define a friendship. Liking the same bands and movies may bond two people together when they’re younger, but as adults, a mutual disdain for Susan in accounting can have the same friendship-forging effects.
If we have to boil a true friendship down to a single word, it would probably be “support.”
Friendships are important because they’re a source of respectful support. A healthy friendship is a place not just where you can go to seek support but also where you want to go for support. It’s a place where you can be honest and open while trusting you’ll be heard and that your confidence will be kept.
A friendship can be formed on just about any basis, from a mutual love of Taylor Swift to a mutual hatred for the pop star. But to be a true friendship and not just a shared opinion, the relationship must meet certain criteria.
Demonstrate mutual respect
Have a connection in which not everything needs to be explained
Be a place to seek help and support
Invite and welcome sharing
Be full of trust and not judgment
Be understanding and forgiving when conflict occurs
Be something you want to invest time and energy into
Allow you to feel like you can “be yourself”
Have clear and enforced boundaries on both sides
If your friendship has most of these qualities, it’s likely a healthy one. But friendships don’t need to be perfect — conflict happens from time to time, and you can’t expect to always agree on everything.
The point isn’t to never have conflict (which generally marks a very weak relationship) but to be able to work through it in a safe and respectful way.
Aside from surprise political or ethical differences, most of where that conflict will come from is boundaries. You need to learn to set and enforce your own to keep your friendships healthy.
Boundaries are important. They’re how we separate someone else from ourselves — a literal and metaphorical line of demarcation. Some people set very loose boundaries or none at all. Others set a large number of specific boundaries, but neither approach is necessarily better than the other.
You don’t have to agree with another person’s boundaries, nor do you have to share the same boundaries. But for a healthy friendship, you need to respect the other person’s and have yours respected.
The most important step in setting boundaries is the final one. But the second most important is this: you have to figure out what they are.
Consider your friend to understand what this might look like. Maybe you have a friend who had a harder time trusting people as a kid or felt bullied. Maybe you have a friend who was sexually assaulted when they were younger — they may have a different idea of what feels safe when it comes to casual human touch.
Knowing your boundaries helps you define what does or doesn’t make you comfortable. It may take some time to figure this out (we recommend working with a mental health professional if you’re struggling), but until you know what you want, you can’t move on to step two.
Predictably, step two is telling other people what your boundaries are. This should be done without accusation or judgment, and it should be done clearly.
If your boundary is that you don’t like hearing people talk about you behind your back, don’t mince words. Tell friends it’s a deal breaker to hear that your secrets have been shared. Let them know trust is crucial when spending time with you and that if you don’t trust them, you can’t feel safe.
This is the most certain way to ensure healthy friends never cross a boundary. Why? Stating how and why you feel should be extremely important to them.
Oh, and make sure to leave room for compromise. While protecting yourself is important, there are plenty of instances where a boundary can be too rigid or need refining.
You might find that a boundary you and a friend have struggled with is really just the product of miscommunication — or a consequence of you breaking one of their boundaries. In a healthy friendship, talking will lead to solutions, even if you have to talk several times.
Setting boundaries with your friends isn’t about the rules you have. Everyone will have different boundaries. The challenge isn’t in having them — or even in expressing them. It’s about enforcing them.
Now, most people wouldn’t assume enforcement to be a critical aspect of healthy social connections. But enforcing boundaries and accepting when they’re enforced against you is really most of what a friendship is.
You need to let people know when they cross a line, and eventually, they’ll learn not to cross it.
At a certain point, if a person refuses to respect a boundary, they’re not worth keeping around.
When we argue someone’s boundaries — even with the best intentions — we’re essentially attempting to judge or control a person for what makes them feel comfortable. That doesn’t sound very friendly, does it?
If your friends refuse to respect your boundaries even after you’ve made them clear, they’re not healthy friendships, and it’s time to move on.
There are many reasons a person may not respect boundaries. Some are based on trauma or other personal experiences, and some are based on narcissism. But all are the other person’s responsibility.
If your friend continues to cross or disrespect a boundary, they’re effectively saying they lack respect for it — and you.
That’s not healthy, and the unhealthy friendship should no longer be welcome.
Healthy friendships can be the hallmarks of a meaningful and fulfilling life. They can be the difference between success and failure in every area of life, helping you crawl out of a hole at your lowest point.
But a relationship is only reliable for these kinds of perks if it is healthy.
If you have toxic relationships that are no longer supporting you or your goals, it may be time to make changes. But before you go mass-blocking your most frequently texted contacts, it might be best to talk to a mental health professional first.
A mental health professional can help you walk through your feelings and the conflicts you’re having with friends. They may reinforce your belief that these relationships aren’t healthy, or they may suggest other perspectives that could help you see your interactions in a new light. They might even note signs that your conflict with friends is really just a symptom of something else, like depression or anxiety.
Point being: no matter what kind of support you need in navigating your friendships, a mental health professional can provide it.
If you’re ready to talk to one, consider our online therapy platform. It’s available 24/7 and can connect you with a professional from wherever you have an internet connection.
A therapist isn’t a friend, but they can be the sort of reliable connection you need when you’re looking for support. Ask for that support today.
Kristin Hall is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with decades of experience in clinical practice and leadership.
She has an extensive background in Family Medicine as both a front-line healthcare provider and clinical leader through her work as a primary care provider, retail health clinician and as Principal Investigator with the NIH.
Certified through the American Nurses Credentialing Center, she brings her expertise in Family Medicine into your home by helping people improve their health and actively participate in their own healthcare.
Kristin is a St. Louis native and earned her master’s degree in Nursing from St. Louis University, and is also a member of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners. You can find Kristin on LinkedIn for more information.
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