WAfyWF: How to make friends as an adult

Dear Friends

I took a little break from the advice column, but I’m back today to answer two questions that are in the same vein. Also, here’s your regular reminder that the question form is still open, and you can find it via the “Questions” link at the top of the page.

Ok, let’s do this!

  1. How can I be better at making friends? I appear to be affable and friendly, but I’m not good at moving past pleasantries to establish actual connections. I’m definitely an introvert at heart, so social interactions that are easiest for me are usually some sort of “work”, whether that’s derby or real life work. As long as I have a purpose and reason to talk to someone, okay, I can do it. But…like figuring out how to talk to a person to befriend them, I have no idea where to start. I also have some trust/confidence issues when it comes to new relationships, like, what do they think of me? And then I obsessively unpack every interaction we’ve had trying to figure out if I’ve said anything stupid or ignorant. I’m at a point in my life where I feel like I know a ton of people, but I don’t have any close meaningful connections.
  2. I read your post about being passionate and emotional. In your experience, how has that effected your relationships with others, your parents, partners, your friends in the past? How does it effect how your view making new friendships/relationships in the present or future? I find that the older I get, the harder it is for me to open up and make new long lasting relationships. People come and go so fast, that often times I find it pointless to make anything but surface friends. The kind of “friends” you have small talk with but don’t really get deep into personal information. Don’t get me wrong, if any of these friends asked me for help, or were in need, I would 100% be there for them. However, if it were the opposite, and I was the one in need, I’d feel like I’m burdening them to ask for anything. Thanks for listening!

These two questions are not exactly the same, but they’re similar enough that I wanted to answer them together, if only to point out to both askers how they are not alone. So many of the questions I’ve gotten have been centered on human connection, whether with your partners or your broader community, and I think one of the most powerful things to understand about that need for connection is that it’s universal. We all need to feel connected, we all need a place where we can be vulnerable, we all need to know that others accept us, and we all suffer when we feel isolated. I hope that fact alone will help everyone reading this to understand that it’s okay to seek connection overtly, to ask people for their time and attention when you need it, to reach out to potential new friends, and even to make friendly small talk with random strangers. Yes, we have to be mindful of one another’s boundaries, but we don’t have to enforce isolation on ourselves. 

I’ll start with question one, but I’m hoping this advice is all applicable to both writers. If not, feel free to filter out the parts that aren’t helpful to you. 

It sounds like you both have the social skills to get along in groups, and you understand how to keep a conversation going, but there’s vast uncharted territory between acquaintanceship and friendship. 

Navigating that space in between is a matter of putting yourself out there enough to invite the other person to also take a step toward you. If you ask them to hang out after work some time, you’re making yourself a little bit vulnerable. Then, in conversation, you’ll need to share a little bit of yourself — we exchange information about ourselves almost like currency. If you let me see a little bit into your life, I’m more willing to share a little of my own. If you tell a silly story about something you did, I might try to come up with one of my own to share. Gradually, we become friends.

So, here’s what you do. Pick someone you’d like to hang out with. It helps if you already find them interesting or have something in common. It’s also useful if you’ve had a few casual conversations with them socially, so you know you’re capable of talking together. Next time you’re chatting up Janet at the water cooler, make a friend date to continue the conversation after work. Like any date, this might start off feeling a little awkward. In the flow of conversation, you might sometimes have silences. That can be kinda weird, but being human is weird, so just try to embrace it.

I like to go on casual friend dates with a lot of different people just to get to know them. Some of these people have turned into close friends who I trust with life’s hardest stuff. Some of them have become more casual friends who I love to catch up with now and then. Unlike romantic dating, very few friend dates end with either of us feeling like we never want to see each other again. The stakes are far lower. 

As for obsessively unpacking everything you said — I. Feel. That. First of all, you gotta trust your own good intentions. Take a deep breath and repeat after me: Baby, you’re doing the best that you can. You have to say the “baby” part and address your inner self in the kindest voice you can. I have been known to occasionally message a person after an interaction if I feel like I said something questionable. Most of the time, the response is, “I really wasn’t bothered. I didn’t think you meant any offense.” But every now and then, someone might say, “Thank you for saying that. I appreciate that you took the time to think it over,” or something along those lines. There’s nothing wrong with keeping yourself honest if you truly feel you’ve said something you shouldn’t have. Just try not to let that kind of thinking consume you. IOU: One blog post on how to apologize when you think you’ve hurt someone (even if the other person hasn’t asked for an apology).

It’s important to remember that close, meaningful connections take time. In romantic relationships, our hormones trick us into thinking we have that closeness when what we really have is what poly people call New Relationship Energy (NRE). (It doesn’t just happen in poly life, but poly people talk about it the most.) NRE is when we feel very excited about a new person, the air is romantically charged, and the sexual arousal that goes with it adds an addicting kick. Sometimes we can’t get enough of this new person, so we call it being “in love,” and think we’re very close before we know anything about them. Close friendships take longer to form because we don’t have the same hormones driving us to spend every waking moment together. Sometimes, when the NRE wears off, we find that we’ve developed a different and much deeper closeness to our partners. Other times, the NRE wears off, and we realize our values and priorities are completely different from this other person’s. But with platonic friendships, we take our time and are deliberate about getting to know people, learning how they work, what their priorities are, and how our lives might intersect favorably. Platonic friendships are far more intentionally constructed and can be incredibly beautiful for that reason. However, they absolutely take time. Don’t feel bad if you don’t immediately have a new best friend. Instead, think of your social circle like a garden — you’ve got lots of lovely wildflowers and a few perennials perhaps, but you’re ready to plant and cultivate a couple rose bushes or some heirloom tomatoes. You’ll have to learn what kind of soil they take, how often they need water, etc. It will take effort to really get the blossoms you want. 

Question two adds that aging is a factor in how we view our friendships, and I believe this to be very true. What I look for in people now (at age 36) is different from what I looked for in my teens or 20s. Also, my peers have changed. Many of my peers have children while I don’t, which means the activities we have the time and energy for are different. Most of my peers have lives that are very full and demanding, too, which means just finding time to hang out with anyone is challenging and usually involves a tedious process of comparing calendars and feeling guilty about not wanting to give up the only afternoon in three weeks that I’ve got a little time to myself. And yes, people do move through our lives quickly sometimes — especially if you live in a metropolitan area where people often move for work and then leave again in a couple years. But we do live in the age of the internet, so it’s not impossible to stay in touch with someone if they really make a space for themselves in your heart. Not all friends are local.

A challenging aspect of maintaining friendships as I get older has been finding the balance between reaching out regularly and keeping healthy boundaries around my own time and mental space. There’s no way in hell I can stay constantly close and in touch with every person I’ve ever met. There are tons of people who I consider to be friends who I only talk with occasionally. I’m always happy to hear from them and we have sincere, positive feelings for one another, so I count them as friends. I don’t feel guilty about not texting them every day. I don’t necessarily respond to every message immediately. But I do care, and I let them know. When my bestie crosses my mind, I send her a text to say sup. Every now and then, I’ll send a random post card. In other words, the people I consider to be my closest friends are not always the ones I spend the most time with (although some are), but they are more importantly the people for whom I’m willing to make an effort. So if you, find that being an adult makes you feel like less of a friend, ask that mean voice in your head to hush, and just send someone a text message to let them know you care. 

And a final note about asking your friends when you need something. Ask. Ask directly. Ask for the specific thing that you need. So many of us are afraid to ask for what we need, when what we need really isn’t too much. IOU: One blog post all about asking for what you need. This topic has been common to many of the questions, so it’s probably something we need to talk more about.