Get Elisabeth McKetta and Cathy Doggett on the phone together and they can’t stop laughing. Soon they are finishing each others’ sentences about events that happened a decade ago. They met as young roommates and have stayed close, despite busy work schedules, growing families, and the distance: McKetta lives in Boise, Idaho, and Doggett in Austin, Texas. "I talk with Elisabeth more than probably anyone who lives in our town," says Doggett. Their weekly phone conversations cover goals and notes from their two-person book club.
The relationship hasn’t always been perfect. There was that time McKetta didn’t return three phone calls in a row, and the time she and her husband accidentally rented their house out on Airbnb when Doggett was scheduled to visit ("Cathy has been a great role model to me on how not to be flaky," says McKetta). But neither can imagine life without the other. Their friendship "enriches my whole life. It helps me see the whole world in a broader way," says Doggett.
It’s the kind of friendship many people would love to have. The problem is that during the busy years of building careers and raising families, "setting aside time for friends can feel self-indulgent or even selfish," says Irene S. Levine, psychologist and professor of psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine and producer of The Friendship Blog. But "a number of studies have shown that friends are vital to our physical health and emotional well-being," Levine says. "They provide concrete and intangible support to make these busy years easier and more enjoyable."
Here are ways to be a good friend, even when you’ve got a lot going on.
Paradoxically, big get-togethers can be easier to prioritize than smaller ones. Jane Theriault, an assistant professor of psychology who lives outside of Boston, gets together with her former sorority sisters annually. They block the time off a year in advance. "The weekend is treated like a huge priority, like a wedding, and we rotate the location based on people’s needs," she says. Now husbands and boyfriends and kids come too. Involving the family reduces the guilt factor, and when significant others become friends, this tightens ties. If you’ve got a friend group you’d like to cultivate, become the instigator of such a trip. Eventually it will take on a life of its own.
One-off events take a lot of effort to plan. Recurring ones don’t. Sarah Baldwin, a university administrator who lives in Kentucky, started a book club in order to see friends more regularly. "I am religious about that meeting," she says. "Sometimes I don't get to read the book, but I always go. It's my once-a-month 7:30 to 10:30 social connection. It's always good conversation and I always leave a stronger person."
Susan Murray, who lives in Toronto, instituted a weekly coffee date with her best friend while she was finishing her dissertation and starting new work. "We are both busy in different ways, but this time is critical. It gives us permission to stop, breathe, and reflect," she says. "Our husbands often say, ‘But weren’t you just out for coffee last week?’" That is, of course, the point—making it regular makes it happen.
Not everyone likes talking on the phone, and scheduling phone calls can be tough. Kelsey Wharton, a writer, says that "with young kids, the evening is never a good time to talk," thanks to dinner, bedtime, and exhaustion. "But my work lunch break is, or a weekend if I know to expect it." Structuring these phone calls can be helpful, too. Wharton and her best friend consider their conversations "professional development calls" as they share career advice.
Baldwin likewise says, "I often use my time at work, when I have child care, to schedule a 90-minute conversation once a month with one of my ‘soul’ friends." She works plenty of nights and weekends, so the time all evens out.
Even if you can’t talk, you can text. A simple "I’m thinking of you" is a much nicer way to pass the time in the Starbucks line than looking at email (again).
A number of friend groups I interviewed also suggested group texting as a way to stay in touch. Theriault’s friends use it constantly. "It works way better than email because it's instant—easy to see and respond."
If you’ve got a few minutes, "a handwritten card, a loaf of banana bread, or a treat bought from a local bakery is a nice way to say, ‘Thinking of you,’ and it doesn't take a lot of time," says Wharton. Everyone loves gifts, especially if they’re given just because.
Facebook can’t replace real human contact. Says Levine, "Friendships require face time and can’t totally rely on electronic communications. Technology is additive, not a substitute."
But if you do treat it as an additive, social media tools can keep friendships going in between visits. Deborah Ring, a Rhode Island-based proofreader, has remained close with five girlfriends from college for over two decades. Spread all over the country, "We rarely get to spend time together in person," she says. But "over the last few years we have used Facebook Messenger to keep in almost daily contact." They use it to support each other and stay close. For instance, "One of the ladies took part in the Arnold Weightlifting competition in Columbus, Ohio, this weekend. Another one of our group traveled with her and sent us videos of her lifts in real time. It was a almost like being there to cheer her on in person."
Helena Weiss-Duman, who works at UC Berkeley, gets together with a group of friends in the San Francisco area for dinner once a month. In between, she always aims to "hit a double or a triple," she says. That means multitasking in a nice way: "You have to do this thing, invite a friend along." If she’s running an errand, or trying an exercise class, she tries not to go solo.
Baldwin notes that she has to eat anyway, so "I almost always have lunch with someone." That’s straightforward with work friends, but she will sometimes invite other friends with more during-the-day flexibility to join her at the university cafeteria.
Not all relationships can last through the busy years, and not all should. But keep in mind that we’re often biased towards meeting new people, when we might gain just as much value (or more) from investing time in existing friendships. Wharton, who has two young children, says, "I love to meet new people, but I have to really balance my interest in starting a new relationship with someone versus maintaining current relationships. Should I really ask someone to coffee if I'm already stressed about when I’d find the time?" Friendships should energize you, so when time is tight, it's best to invest your time and energy in the relationships you know already enrich your life.