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Signs of a Healthy Friendship

Dr. Chris and Alisa Grace pose for the cover of The Art of Relationships Podcast.

Friendships come and go, but what are the signs of a long-lasting, healthy friendship? Dr. Chris Grace and Dr. Tim Muehlhoff discuss the signs of a healthy friendship in today's Art of Relationships Podcast. 


Chris Grace:    Welcome to another Art of Relationships podcast coming to you from Biola University. We're able to talk about fun things, topics that are important for all things relationship and one that we've been spending some time on is the topic of friendship. Let's continue that. We were talking about toxic friendships, emotionally safe friendships, places in which we are dealing with things like when we're self-focused or self-aware, attribution theory. Things like that, but one that is really interesting that people have asked questions about is this. It's a simple question and yet there's a lot of complexity to it and it's this, how do I know that I'm in a good high-quality friendship? What's the sign of a healthy friendship?

Tim Muehlhoff:    Before we even get to that, studies are massive in saying isolation from people is detrimental. People in healthy relationships, it affects everything from cholesterol to overall health to your ability to fight off a common cold. So, these social friendships are incredibly important for our psyche, us physically. But a lot of people will often say to us, "But I don't have good friends. I'm lacking those kinds of friendships." So, here are the signs of good, healthy friendships. Here's the first one. You and your friend are on the same page in terms of your basic values and life goals.

Chris Grace:    We call that, in psychology, we call that togetherness or flow. Right? You're in synchrony and I think, Tim, in that one, one of the things we'll notice in the studies that I'm familiar with in our discipline is that, there's this. Being on the same page is almost as if you are kind of in tune with each other at almost a nonverbal, unconscious level. Right? Take a back and forth that you're almost mimicking each other's movements and smiles and laughs and ... So there's this sense that someone will say and walk away in a good high-quality friendship, "It feels like I was with somebody who got me. We didn't talk over each other. We laughed at the same things," and that kind of synchrony is really hard to define but we know it when we have it and it's that togetherness. Like, "Wow, I really like that person. There was something about them." That's the idea of being on the same page.

Tim Muehlhoff:    Yeah, I think that togetherness can cover a lot of different areas. One, when we were on staff at the Campus Crusade for Christ, now called CRU. That's a bond. Right? Everybody's raising their own support. We believe that the ministry is important enough to raise money for. We're all going out and doing evangelism. We're all making sacrifices. Even here at Biola, right? What brings us together is we care about higher education. We care about students. We care about marriage. So there are those big formal things, but there can be informal things like you both share a parenting philosophy together. You share a love of sports. Remember Lewis? Lewis, C.S. Lewis said, "Friends look in the same direction."

So, again caring about sports and not just sports teams but that sports is important. Caring about the arts. A valuing of the arts and stuff like that. So, that kind of stuff is we're on the same page.

Chris Grace:    Lewis said in Four Loves, I remember a quote from him. He talked about, "Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to the other, 'What? You too? I thought no one else but me.'" Remember that idea that we share something. It could be the most mundane, simple, but you have this idea and this sense of they like what I like and that makes me feel good. We have this same kind of passion and interest or at least we have that similar kind of feel. It just makes me like you more because you like what I like and it's reinforcing that way.

Tim Muehlhoff:    We have a friend. We've been friends now for a couple of years but it grows deeper over time, but the opening of the friendship, honestly was, "Have you ever watched the Walking Dead?" And I'm like, "Yes. Yes." And he said, "We love it. People can't get past the zombie part." And I'm like, "Oh, it's so much more than zombies." He goes, "Yeah!" So, immediately you're like, this thing that just kind of brings you together. It could be a hatred of Duke University. It could be a love of UNC Chapel Hill, God's University. I love that. There's just something that we're on the same page, we value the same thing and I think that's really important.

Chris Grace:    Here's another one. Good high-quality friendships, healthy friendships, are one in which the other person is present. They pay attention. They are there. So when you are together there is a sense; we talked about this in another podcast about the impact of social media and technology. That's kind of this idea that they are not distracted when they are with you. Now there are times you can both be on a cell phone and you both can be doing something else and you can both be engaged in a kind of side by side activity, but for the most part, a friend and a healthy friendship, is somebody who pays attention to you. They care. They are present. They listen, right? I mean there's a big one right there. If you're not able to listen when you're distracted by something else.

So, I could talk to a friend and one of the things that stands out to me most when I think about this friend is I will make a comment or a statement and I don't realize this but I've said something in that sentence that there's a little bit of ambivalence or a little bit of concern and this friend doesn't let it go. He will say, "Chris hold on. What did you mean by that? You said this happened and tell me more about that. You seemed bothered by it or worried." I stop and I think, "Let's all talk about it and bring it up." Then I realize he was really paying attention. He was listening to the words and the emotions behind the words and drew it out. I love someone like that who can pull this out because I know they're present with me and that's pretty cool.

We always talk about, we tell our kids, "It's always better to be interested than interesting." You know that idea that it's better to be understanding than understood. There's something about listening and being present in a good high-quality friendship.

Tim Muehlhoff:    So, Chris it seems like listening is important to you, can you elaborate on that? No, I've got it.

Chris Grace:    You did awesome.

Tim Muehlhoff:    Let me add one part to that, not only are they present but they make time to be present. We all live crazy busy schedules. We're all crazy running to four corners of the world. Work, church, everything, but your friends you make time for. You just say, "We're gonna do it. This is not a convenient time but they initiated, I'd rather just. But, hey, It's been a while since I talked to this person." You make time and time is a powerful currency when it comes to friendship.

Chris Grace:    Yeah, that's good, Tim. I think there's a piece that for a friendship in which there's also a flexibility as well. I mean that's good. We don't have to plan out, "Hey, let's go get dinner in two weeks and we set a time." It's more like, "Hey, just stop by and call." Somebody that can do that, just drop by, they can call, "Hey, let's go out to lunch real quick. You know. We didn't make any plans." That to me is a sense that says, the other person says, "Yeah, you know what I do want to spend time with you even if it's not necessarily planned out." That adaptability, flexibility is kind of a fun friendship or piece of a friendship.

Tim Muehlhoff:    A key part of that is I feel the freedom to say no. You spontaneously asked, right? But, "Hey. Oh man. This really is a crazy night. We just can't do it." And we don't walk away feeling like, "Oh, I wonder if their feelings are hurt or they're never gonna ask again. Be spontaneous." So, it's that being present, making time, and then I have time to say no if this just isn't working or this really is a crazy weekend. I just don't have any time.

Chris Grace:    That's good. Give me another quality of a high, of a friendship that's healthy. Something else, Tim, that stands out to you if you think about one.

Tim Muehlhoff:    Oh, here's one that I really appreciate. You encourage each other to grow and change. We push each other. That is important. We push each other spiritually. We push each other physically. I'm thinking of the friends that I have where we just sit down and say, "Man, how is your walk with the Lord? How's that going?" We're getting to the age where we don't want to turn into blobs, right? So it's like fight the blobbiness. Go on this hike. Go get your black belt in kung fu, shaolin, karate, kung fu, okay kung fu. Be precise in your answers. We encourage each other and I think that's huge. You want people cheering for you and you say, "Hey, you can take your marriage to the next level. You can write a book. You can start a center for marriage. You can do these things. We want people who push us."

Chris Grace:    I think that's a little bit as well. Built into that is they both, they can affirm you in a way of your efforts and what you're doing and then show appreciation in some aspect by saying, "When you do this I'm really glad to see this. This is really good for you and it sounds like this is," Or they ask you, "Tell me about your time away when you went and you took that time of solitude or prayer." They're curious. They affirm it. They appreciate it and then they, kind of like you said, they push you in it and say, "Well, how is that going? How is your time going?" And they care. That's a sign of caring.

Tim Muehlhoff:    And they have the freedom to call you on the carpet if they need to. "Hey, I appreciate your going for it but, man, the cost. I think this is too much cost. Is this really where you're going to be spending all your time and attention and money?" A friend has the ability to do that. "I know you're all jazzed about this opportunity, you think this is great. Man, what's that gonna cost in the family? What's that gonna cost in your relationship with your wife?" Man, we gotta have the ability to speak the truth in love.

Chris Grace:    Good, I like that one. Here's another one that I like. It's this idea that the other, in a healthy friendship, the person is curious about you. They show genuine interest in what you are like or what you have to share and that genuine interest is. The word curiosity is something that I think a good friendship would have and I think that's the other person saying, "Tell me more about that. So, it sounds like this is what you're doing." And they probe and they're curious. They want to know. Where's your heart? What are you doing? How does this make you feel? This sounds like something big for you or this sounds like this is a cool ... That kind of curiosity is really fun because it gives you that opportunity to almost feel like this person has this genuine care for you or interest. That's what curiosity does. I think it's a great sign of a friendship.

Tim Muehlhoff:    As you were saying that, I thought, that's how emotional affairs happen, right? Because I've got this friend, we've been friends forever. I've been married for blah, blah, blah years. I've heard all of this. I know you like a book. I can finish your sentences. With this person, it's all new. This person doesn't know much about me, so every joke is new. Every story is interesting. Then you go, "Man, I want to move on to somebody who appreciates me." That's how an emotional affair can happen in a heartbeat within a marriage. I just thought of that as you were saying that. The fun little first dates are hard to get back when you've been married for 30 something years or you've been friends forever.

Chris Grace:    That's a good reminder for those that are married out there is that notion of maintaining your curiosity, your admiration for your spouse. You know, John Gottman, a researcher talks about that, Tim in a way that says good, high-quality marriages that have friendship as the main component. By the way, he would say that friendship is the key. A deep and abiding friendship is the key to a good healthy marriage, but he would say that the counter that you have to always play is to become your spouse's dream detector. So, he says that one of the keys for couples that he finds that have navigated marriage well and maintain a good solid friendship, even after 30 years, is that they are constantly curious and interested about each other.

They realize things have changed. That we none are static and stay the same. It's always dynamic and that people who are dream detectors, simply stopping and asking your spouse a question like, "So, what's on your heart these days or what would bring you joy? What is something that your dreaming or thinking about?" Becoming that dream detector is almost that counter. So, it's a great way to not only employ a friendship in a marriage but in general, friends would say a good healthy relationship in which somebody has curiosity about you.

Tim Muehlhoff:    And go do stuff. I mean don't stay stagnant in life nor in your friendship. Go do things that you normally wouldn't do and spice it up. That's great for marriage. It's great for friendship. A bunch of us a couple of years ago, went to Jerusalem for the very first time and never done it before and we went and spent like thirteen days together and you learn a lot about each other in those kind situations, but it forms a bond and gives you something different to focus on in the friendship. So, let's not just stay stagnant in our friendships. Let's continue to grow.

Chris Grace:    Here's another one. This one is kind of related to what we talked about. A good friend and a high-quality friendship is one in which you know the other person is praying for you. They are regularly taking time and they might even share that. They might even ask. So, in that part of being curious or that part of being interested in you, there's also that sense of, "Hey, I've been praying for you. Hey, how did this go? Tell me how your event went or tell me how your interaction. Or tell me how school went. How did it work with your child? How did it work with that situation or that job interview? I've been praying for you." Then you know in a good healthy friendship that other person is really praying for you. What an awesome way to have and to be in a friendship in which the other person is faithful to do that.

Tim Muehlhoff:    A great way to check up on each other. Say, "Hey, how can I pray for you this week?" Or I get a text saying, "Prayed for you this morning." That kind of stuff is huge. You know what else I would say a good healthy friendship is, you can have a bad day with that person. That get's weird for people like us Chris because we're professors at a Christian university. We're working on this center for marriage and relationships. So, is it possible to just have a bad day where you just say things that even you know are wrong? I don't trust God. I don't, I wonder if He even cares about what's happening? I'm never gonna make it in this one project. You just need a friend to say, "Hey, you need to blow off some steam." I'm not gonna correct him as soon as falsehood has come out of his mouth. But I think that's important to say I'm having a particularly bad day today and is that okay?

Chris Grace:    In a friendship like that, that's a good healthy one, you don't feel judged in that, right? You feel like you can share a feeling or a thought. You talked in another podcast before about, you know can I share heresy with you. It's during a time in which you're just, you realize and you know deep down, this friendship will survive that. It's a good one because you're not feeling judged, right? You're feeling instead validated so much that you realize sometimes we're just gonna have a bad day and we're gonna talk about it.

I remember a friend, I was having a particularly bad week and so, sitting there talking with somebody and I remember it all came to this point and we still talk about it. Oh, yeah. I remember that day and it was that moment in which I just simply unloaded some things that I had been carrying with me related to something that was going on in a situation and I probably said a lot of things in there that I would never say to anybody else. I would never talk about, but this person held that in. It wasn't quote, unquote normal, you know, our day to day kind of conversation. But I was just able to unburden myself with this and that person held on to that. And they kept it and they knew that really I would probably end up not feeling those same kinds of things and regret it but to know that they have held it there is almost like we could share something as well.

You go through a hard difficult time and that person kept you in that trust and they surrounded you without judging and saying I know it's a tough time. They just listen. So, maybe that quality too sometimes of just listening without really saying anything. I wonder if another quality of a friendship that we really want is when we do share our tough things or we are feeling bad or off. Instead of trying to correct. Instead of judging. They just simply listen and say, "This sounds really hard."

Tim Muehlhoff:    That's a delicate dance. The first time you do that with a friend, just say, "Hey, okay. Are you gonna embrace this? Are you going to allow me to voice a doubt? Things that I would even talk myself out of in a couple of days. I just need a place that I can vent. Sometimes that's not your spouse depending on the issue it might be that you need another person that you can talk about in a way that they can provide reassurance. Maybe your spouse, it'd be hard for them to hear it. Or maybe they need to hear it in a more polished way, right now it's too raw, right? So, I think that's important is can I be at my most raw point with you? I think it's important.

Chris Grace:    It leads to maybe a related quality, Tim in this and that is that the other person. That both of you are willing and able to share your feelings and thoughts with the other person. There are times in which we're judiciously careful with who we share with but in a good friendship, for the most part, there's a good equal, give and take. I do get a sense of your heart. You do share your feelings and your thoughts. It may not be all of them and to the extent that you were talking about there might be some situations that we maybe are careful. But as a general rule there's this willingness to share and you get to see that vulnerable side and that makes the other person seem more human or more real I guess.

Tim Muehlhoff:    Here's one I think kind of is interesting. It's not awkward when you catch up with this person. I was on Facebook the other day, thank you for being the techno savvy person I am. A friend from college sent me a message. I howled out loud and Noreen said, "What are you reading?" He simply said this, "Have you heard any good funeral dirges lately?" That's all he said. So this guy was my roommate, Christ. I'd come home my senior year, just tired. All you want to do is get back to your dorm room, lay down.

So, as you're walking down the hallway you hear Beethoven's death dirge. It is a somber and heavy and you realize that's coming from my room. That's my room. So, my roommate, Dave would play these dirges and I would just be like, "Ah, it's so good to be home." But we joked about it. Said, "Dude, we gotta cut back on the death dirges, okay?" So, for him just to write that it was like time had just gone by. So that's a fun quality when you can catch up with people really quick and it's like time doesn't mean anything. That's kind of a special relationship.

Chris Grace:    Yeah, we have good friends that we haven't seen, they live in a different state now, and it's probably been maybe two, three years since we've seen them and maybe a good year since we've had any meaningful conversations with them. We read into it in an airport and it feels just like you saw yesterday and you catch up on the little details. It's just that sense, and we walk away going we may not talk to them for another six months but they're there. They're friends and they continue to be.

Tim Muehlhoff:    We're part of a marriage group. We talk about this. We think it's so important to have that kind of community. We had one in North Carolina as well, so Noreen and I went back to North Carolina to do a FamilyLife marriage conference and so we got the group together. We had not seen each other for probably ten years because the whole time that we've been here in the west coast. Man, we were howling, laughing. It was so fun. It's not that people were bitter. It's not that we have a conversation, "Hey, I kind of wish you would have stayed more contact." We probably could have done a better job, but man, just sitting there with the fire going after a meal and we were telling these stories and catching up on kids. It felt really fun and I could see myself going back in a year or two or three and time doesn't change the special bonds that we have. I think that's great.

Chris Grace:    Yep. Here's one more that I think is really important in a friendship and one that is that they, a person that you're friends with has a way of maybe even serving or affirming or showing affection in ways that are meaningful to you. So, there might be something that, I think this, we had Gary Chapmen on our podcast and he talked about the five love languages. But I think a good friend intuitively figures out or knows that this is meaningful to this person. Right? This is the kind of thing that is in some ways, easy for them or they enjoy that. So maybe it's time together. Or like you said maybe it's cleaning your house or whatever it is. But it's meaningful to you and they know what that is. Maybe it's a note or maybe it's just words of appreciation.

Tim Muehlhoff:    Or the thing they love the most. We have some friends whenever it's a busy week, it's just craziness. We give them chocolate covered popcorn. You know that popcorn that has chocolate sprinkles. Oh, Chris, it is unbelievable. We tell the story. The very first time we said, "Hey, let's send it to this couple. Let's just drop it off on their porch." We actually bought a case of it. It never made it to them. We ate the whole case. Michael said to me, my oldest son, he said, "Dad, can we just open one?" I was like, "Yeah, there's four." Let's open one. Well, one became three in a heartbeat and Noreen walked in and said, "Hey, that was for Doug and Deb." And it's like, "Well, man. Sorry."

Then Michael and I are sitting alone with each other. We're watching sports and Michael goes, I go, "Mike, I can't do it. You open it. I'll chastise you for and we'll both eat it because done. So, he opened it. I said, "Mike, Oh. C'mon. That was the, now that joke is part of it but anytime that they're going through a tough time, we get them chocolate covered popcorn. So those fun things that you just know, "Hey, this is special." And it's an inside joke a little bit. Those things are really nice intimate moments

Chris Grace:    Yeah, and knowing that—

Tim Muehlhoff:    Mine's money, Chris. Mine's money. Just hard cash.

Chris Grace:    Or whatever it might be.

Tim Muehlhoff:    Chocolate sprinkled cash.

Chris Grace:    For some, it could be just time.

Tim Muehlhoff:    No, money. Money.

Chris Grace:    Well these are all things that we can encourage in each other, in our friendships, in our relationships. We can also use this as a gauge to am I good at this? Even as we're talking, I realize and think through, "You know, there are some things that we do well or I do well and then there are others that I really need to work on this one." I think for all of us we have to find those things that can make us good friends. Am I the kind of friend that I would want to be a friend with.

Tim Muehlhoff:    And just as a quick aside, this is a great precursor to the question we also get, "Should I marry this person?" I think this checklist, right Chris? Could just sit down and say, "How many of these do we match up or is it all just about physical affection or romance and we're not clicking on these areas?" I think that's, for people that are interested maybe getting engaged, this is a great list.

Chris Grace:    Yep, it is. I'll tell you what. Let's do this. Let's spend some more time on this topic. How about if next time we tackle the topic of relationships and friendships that can occur within a, even in a marriage, cross gender friendships and how about a dating and just friendships, when people say, "You know, I'm friends with this person, but it's just starting to turn romantic. I'm not sure I really want that." So, those cross gender friendships occur while we're just friends, you know-

Tim Muehlhoff:    Even in marriage. Can I have an opposite sex friend? That's interesting and what would be the guidelines. Something like that could happen.

Chris Grace:    Let's tackle that in the next podcast.

Tim Muehlhoff:    Sounds good.

Chris Grace:    All right. Well, hey. Thanks you all for joining us and—

Tim Muehlhoff:    Remember cash.

Chris Grace:    The Art of Relationship podcast at where you can leave cash for Tim or for the center. So thanks for joining us.