Friendship is the hallmark of a the presence of a social support system. Civilization did not advance due to rivalrous fighting between warring groups — it was only through collaboration and cooperation that communities were formed and civilizations developed. Humans have always needed others in their lives in order to survive and thrive regardless of the geographical location or historical period — or a person’s chronological age. Research continues to support the health benefits of social support systems and the presence of friends in our lives (Mendes de Leon, 2005). In fact, individuals who maintain their social connections with friends are likely to outlive those individuals who withdraw from their social circles as they age.
Not only do alliances and social connections offer protection and access to goods we cannot provide ourselves, they also offer a satisfying emotional connection that allows us to feel that we have a place of belonging and fulfill our need to matter to others. Friendships are the social connections that we choose to establish and willingly invest in maintaining simply for the pleasure of another’s company. Some people consider their friends to be their “family of choice.” They can offer us comfort and acceptance when we need it the most as well as provide a hug or a shoulder to lean on when the world beats us down or we are just in a funk.
While many of us might wish that we had fewer friends or less people with whom we felt obligated to stay connected, there are also many of us who long to feel more connected and to have more people in our lives on whom we can count. Making friends does not always come naturally for everyone.
There are times in our lives that we may feel especially lonely or in need of a trusted friend. This might be when we enter a new stage in life, such as a new school, a new job, or move into a new town. For those who consider themselves shyer than others, it can seem especially daunting to reach out and make the first overture in a potential new relationship. Yet we have to allow ourselves to imagine that others may be just as reticent to reach out as we might be, ourselves. Here is an overview of the ways in which friendships tend to form and the most likely ways to find that new best friend you need.
There are three ways by which we typically find new friends:
- Shared Activities
- Life Events
- Propinquity, or proximity, to potential friends, which is an environmental factor. Investigated over fifty years ago, the proximity theory describes our tendency to become closer friends with individuals to whom we are more closely physically or functionally situated. In fact, for the most part, the greater the exposure we have to a person, the greater the positive feelings we have towards the person. This means that you are most likely to become emotionally closer to people with whom you come into contact on a regular basis. This might be the women whose desks or cubicles are closest to yours, or the woman whose path you cross on your daily walk, or the person in the apartment right across the hall from your own.
- The second path to new friendships is through involvement in shared activities, which is considered a situational factor. Women who were interviewed for this book gave a myriad of scenarios of friendship development that began via structured and casual activities. These include work settings, classroom settings, church settings, support groups, volunteer activities, and social clubs, among others. Not only do shared activities bring us into close proximity with others, they also include parallel or shared tasks or pursuits with potential friends. These might involve classroom or professional projects, social events (i.e., steering committees for community events, leadership roles in an organization, etc.). Several of one woman’s closest friendships were initiated through her involvement in a twelve-step program for family members of substance abusers. She noted the strongly positive tone these friendships could take even after the sharing of details of the abuse suffered at the hands of family members. She noted that she and her new friends were re-building their lives and building friendships concurrently. She also elaborated on the sense of belonging and intimacy she could allow herself with friends who had experienced similar childhoods; thus, they could enjoy a deeper level of self-disclosure with one another than they might with other friends.
- The third path is through life events. These situationally-located events may range from the kind that bring great happiness, such as meeting other moms-to-be in a natural childbirth class, or bring sobering changes to our lives, such as a support group for widows. While we may be exposed to new people and new places that provide opportunities to find new friends, it is often life events that set the stage for these opportunities. New jobs, new schools, new life phases from marriage, to childbirth, to divorce are all life events that may introduce us to new people who may become friends. Life events place us in positions where social support is sought, and in finding this support, we are building up our social networks. The life events that brought our interviewees into new friendships were as diverse as being left by their husbands, giving birth, adopting children, returning to school, moving into a new town, and coming out as a lesbian in mid-adulthood, among many others. Each of these events, and others like them, will move us further along the path to finding new friendships based on fresh aspects of ourselves that come into our awareness and bring influence on our lives.
As we grow into the “next stage” of life, however we define this, we may lose some of our existing friendships and feel the push to forge new alliances. The changes we witness in ourselves and our networks may alter our social identity and our own perceptions of our core identity. If left unchecked, we may start to limit our social outlets and social networks to only those friends who share this particular facet of our identity. For instance, a new commitment to fitness may find you ignoring your “pizza and Lifetime friends” to spend time with only your “vegan muffins and chai tea” friends. Maintaining balanced perceptions of our multi-faceted and ever so slightly shifting identities allows us to maintain diverse social networks.
Each of these three pathways to expanded social circles – proximity, shared activities, and life events – provides unique opportunities to create new connections with potential friends. The actual development of new friendships relies on our interest and motivation for forging new bonds, yet whether new friends are found through serendipity or necessity, similar phases or stages are involved in the process of friendship formation.