It’s Complicated

There are numerous challenges to making new friends in adulthood. Not only is making new friends harder as we get older but sustaining friendships can be hard as well. And, after college and beyond, most people don’t get to be part of such a diverse, built-in social network.

Source: Hannah Rodrigo/ Unsplash

This is particularly significant since the research shows us that strong social support is linked to healthy aging and positive health outcomes. Yes, we need solitude to nurture our creativity and our spirits but we also need rich, deep, meaningful connections. Our mental and physical health depends on it. Importantly, research also suggests that elderly people are healthiest when they regularly interact with, and have friends from, all different age groups.

We see the best health outcomes for heterosexual married men who have relied almost solely on their wives to meet their emotional and relational needs. And this is also why for women, and especially straight women in this case, the subject of friendship is so important because since women tend to live longer than men, they then tend to rely on their friends, usually other women, for companionship for many of the activities they might have previously enjoyed with their male partners. So, it is in our best interest to be thinking about how to nurture our friendships and to cultivate this as young adults.

The social psychologist Sherry Turkle who studies our intimacy with machines says that our online presence often means that we are connected to an ever-widening circle of people more than ever before and that this may result in a sort of “friendship lite” with lots of surface connection but not a lot of face to face meaningful time together.  We might have over a thousand friends on Facebook and hundreds of followers on Twitter, Insatgram and Snapchat but there are likely fewer friends with whom we truly want to spend our time. We might have deep affection for our best friends or our oldest and most cherished friends yet those are the people we may wind up talking with and seeing less often because of all our time at work and our preoccupation with time online with our acquaintances and more superficial connections. This paradox is powerful.

Another challenge and problem is that women in their twenties and thirties often resort to meeting new women friends in much the same way that men “do” friendship with other men—over activities like a running or cycling club, a team sport, a yoga class, etc.  But this may not lead to depth of emotional intimacy. These spaces are regarded as less threatening both for finding friends and for finding dating partners and an easy place from which to say “Hey, wanna go grab a drink sometime?” The thought is that if two people both enjoy the same activity, they might have other things in common or at least can pursue more of that original activity and passion together. The drawback is that this can sometimes feel forced and unnatural.

What I have found in my own experience is that when I look back on the friendships that are the dearest to me and that have produced a sense of sisterhood or brotherhood, we did not meet by trying to. For example, four years ago, I attended a fashion show at a department store and saw a woman wearing my favorite jacket that I also own but she was wearing it in a way that looked more interesting than I did so I approached her and told her.  We wound up standing there for an hour talking about her daughter as a first year student trying to adjust at college, which we both had a lot to say about since she is a therapist and I am a professor, we talked about meditation and a bunch of other things; we exchanged numbers and got together and she remains a true sister-friend. The last place I would have expected to find one of my most soulful friends would be the mall, and yet there she was. When we both least expected it. Deep friendships depend on some sense of spontaneity, and that was present in that first meeting. Her daughters joked that she had quickly developed a crush on me, and I couldn’t stop talking about her either, but it’s because there really is such a thing as friendship chemistry. It can be magnetic.

Another issue that poses real challenges to friendships, especially for women are in their twenties and thirties, is how they handle and negotiate choices and priorities around marriage and motherhood. Many things cause that to be the case—some women will choose to not have children, others will choose to cocoon with their partners and children, and some will want to include their children in all activities without realizing that will affect the dynamic of conversations and friendship intimacy.

While one might think young mothers risk social isolation, many report fulfillment in making friends with other new moms through breastfeeding support groups, specific groups for stay at home moms, or through libraries, parks and daycare. Still others complain that connecting through children is not enough—that there need to be more adult reasons that nourish and sustain the relationship.

Also, when people are new to living together with a dating partner or spouse, or become new parents, they are usually much less available for impromptu dinners out, long, meandering phone calls later into the night, weekend get-togethers, trips with friends, etc. Single friends may get impatient with the other person’s lack of availability or feel left behind. And married friends don’t always want to hear about a single person’s latest date or more spontaneous rhythm of life. The single person may be rendered immature and the married person more boring.

During this period of life, people are making different choices for how to spend their time and resources. Some people are using the decades of the twenties and thirties to attend graduate school, others are traveling extensively, and still others are settling down, buying houses and starting families. Inevitably, these different decisions can dramatically impact people’s ability to do things together. One person may be earning a robust income and wanting an adventurous travel partner while the other is eating ramen noodles in graduate school. In cases like this, even choosing a restaurant to meet at can feel stressful. The sense of power disparity can affect each person’s sense of themselves and their perception of the other person and create a chasm. Each person can feel a certain level of shame or guilt.

Other issues can cause divisions and especially in this current time—for example, politics have created a wedge in people’s relationships and can also be a determining factor for if people feel they can, or even want to try to, connect.

Also, with the pressure in one’s twenties and thirties to launch a successful career, time is a precious commodity and people generally get pickier about who they want to spend time with; they may also be starting the process of liking the skin they’re in and enjoying their own company more which is a good thing. So, sometimes I hear women say that if they are choosing between a person that might bore them or who drones on and on, or who has different values than they do, they are likely to choose to Netflix and chill on their own.

Interestingly, some women report feeling “maxed out on friends” and unable to find time and space to fit even more people into their schedules. In this situation, friendship becomes just one more thing on a seemingly endless to-do list.

Because of career pressures, people in their twenties and thirties are generally more on the move and literally may pick up and move across the country. So staying friends with people can be trickier when geographical proximity is lacking. Despite all the devices we may rely on to stay in touch, sometimes we simply cannot replace the feeling we get when we are in the company of our friends and can reach out and hug them, touch their arm as we talk, watch them laugh, etc. Those I have interviewed in their twenties and thirties report using all sorts of apps to stay in touch with long distance friends such as Skype, FaceTime, WhatsApp, house party yet rely on them far less to find new friends.

And people can get tired of making plans that are not due to materialize for weeks or months; that can simply be unsatisfying. It can also feel overly planned, rigid, and almost transactional, relying on a few hours together just a few times every few months for essentially catching up but not transcending that. This also explains why research shows that the older we get the more we can feel drawn back to relationships forged much earlier in life with people who know the backstories and with whom we can pick up where we left off without as much of the surface catch up.

In a day and age where relationships may look more superficial and fleeting, there tends to be more ghosting; just as teenagers are more and more frequently backing out of prom dates at the last minute if they get a better offer, adults are making plans and when the date comes up reporting relief when they have to cancel or when the other person backs out. There’s a sense of wanting to control how we interact and under what specific conditions. But, this also limits how we experience friendship since at the very same time we often yearn for durable and reliable friendships.

We might assume that making friends should be much simpler than finding dating partners but the opposite is often true. While sexual intimacy may be a big draw in a dating situation and is often used to forge and deepen emotional intimacy, friendship has no crutch to rely on. It has to be interesting, reliable, spontaneous, fun, trustworthy, deep and rich all on its own. 

Deep friendship means grabbing some immediacy together. And it also demands that we reveal a certain amount of vulnerability. This is not a quality that is at all prized on social media and so people in their twenties and thirties, while just as vulnerable as ever, are understandably reticent to reveal that.

Finally, quite noteworthy is the fact that there is the continually growing phenomenon of only children, many of whom come of age intuiting by necessity that friends are the family we choose, and it might be through them that as a society we can better appreciate the powerful role of friendship in our lives.


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