Adulting: Navigating Friendships

Brittany new headshotby Brittany Senseman, MA, LPC-S, Principal

We spend lots of time trying to figure out how to do romantic relationships, but what about friendships? We have a lot more friends than we do romantic interests (or at least we should), so it makes sense to spend some time figuring out what a healthy adult friendship looks like.

I’m going to give you a completely oversimplified way of categorizing every single person on the planet into only two categories – yes, just two categories for 6 billion people. Here they are – safe and unsafe. Now, let me tell you what I mean by those two simple words.

In this context, “safe” means a person who loves and accepts the unedited version of you – basically, you can look or act in any way and a safe person will stick around. Now, that doesn’t mean that they won’t have a reaction to your behavior… but we’ll talk more of that later.

An “unsafe” person is everyone who isn’t a “safe” person. Clearly, there are a whole lot more unsafe people than safe people. In fact, you’re lucky if you have 3-5 safe people in your life. Now, there are varying degrees of unsafe people. Abusers are obviously unsafe, but people who can’t keep a secret also belong in the unsafe category. If you have to edit what you say to a person for fear that it will end up on social media, then they’re not safe.

You can still have relationships with unsafe people – you have to; there are too many not to. Those relationships will look different from relationships with safe people. With unsafe people, you won’t be able to share everything at all times. Sometimes you may have to edit a portion of a story, another time you may skip the story entirely, or perhaps you save the story for another day.

As an adult, you have significant control over whom you spend time with, so I suggest you pay attention to your ratio of time spent with safe vs. unsafe people. Unsafe people require more work (and the more unsafe they are, the more work they require), so you want to limit time spent with them. Make sure that you prioritize spending time with your safe people so you can socialize without having to expend much energy.

Notice I said “without having to spend much energy.” Safe people still require energy: they may need you to give them a break or be shoulder to cry on or go grab a beer just as much as you need them to. If you want someone to be available to you, you have to be available to them. That said, a safe person will let you draw a boundary if you just can’t be there. A person who isn’t okay with you drawing boundaries doesn’t belong in the safe category.

Sometimes your safe person may draw a boundary with you. Like I mentioned previously, a safe person will have a reaction to your behavior. If you’re having a terrible day and take it out on him/her, (s)he probably won’t like it! You might end up hearing about their displeasure – and that’s completely appropriate. Just because they’re safe, it doesn’t mean they’re a door mat. It just means that after you’ve taken your terrible day out on them, they’ll get frustrated/hurt and love you anyway. They don’t leave.

Safe people are a gift. I think they’re one of the greatest gifts, so don’t take them lightly. If you have safe people in your life, invest in them and tell them how grateful you are that they exist and continue to put up with you. And don’t forget to work on becoming a safe person yourself.

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