Why is it so hard to make friends as an adult?

Friends standing on top of mountain, observing sun

Maybe memory is too kind, maybe it was more difficult than we remember, but in the sunny haze of retrospect it seems like all that was needed was an honest “Can I pway wif you?”

Or maybe it was even simpler: “Let’s be friends!”

Sure, the friendships could be fleeting and subject to the whims and vagaries of very young hearts, but it seemed so much easier in childhood. Unlike now.

Consider the scene:

(Grocery produce section. A friendly sort makes a comment about the lettuce. You respond. Light, witty banter ensues — purely platonic, uttered in a spirit of conviviality.)

You (after an encouraging amount of chit-chat): Let’s be friends!

Friendly sort: Uhhh…

You: Bye.

That’s simply not how it’s done in adulthood. And in this season of barbecues and Saturdays at the lake, when the assumption is that you should just call up a few friends to join you, well… who, exactly, are these friends? People from work? From church? From AA?

And maybe they are. But the truth is, it can be really hard to make friends as an adult.

“It’s such a common problem, and I think some people are really ashamed of it,” said Andrea Bonior, an adjunct professor of psychology at Georgetown University and author of “The Friendship Fix.” “They think, what’s wrong with me? It brings up memories of sitting alone at the lunch table.”

But it’s not necessarily a matter of unpopularity or congenital nerdiness or any other trauma of youth. It’s just life. Life gets in the way.

“As people approach midlife, the days of youthful exploration, when life felt like one big blind date, are fading,” wrote Alex Williams in a 2012 New York Times story. “Schedules compress, priorities change and people often become pickier in what they want in their friends.

“No matter how many friends you make, a sense of fatalism can creep in: the period for making B.F.F.‘s, the way you did in your teens or early 20s, is pretty much over. It’s time to resign yourself to situational friends: K.O.F.‘s (kind of friends) — for now.”

In Williams’ story, Rebecca G. Adams, a professor of sociology and gerontology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, explained that “as external conditions change, it becomes tougher to meet the three conditions that sociologists since the 1950s have considered crucial to making close friends: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other.”

Proximity, Bonior said, can be tricky. As Americans, we tend to move more frequently than people did even a generation ago. So, you may have friends in your previous city, but in your new one? It’s back to square one.

“All through childhood and throughout high school and college, we have these naturally occurring communities,” Bonior said. “We’re around people every day that we have a lot of in common with, but those things tend to go away when we’re adults. The closest thing we have to those communities tend to be colleagues at work.”

Also, through the course of life, priorities change, said Sally Bedford, a therapist and owner of Grand Valley Counseling in Parachute.

Whereas in college the priority might be to study and party and hang out with friends, in adulthood the priorities may change to cultivating a career and raising children. It leaves little free time for making new friends, she said.

And when we do carve out the time, we bring with us an adult’s bag of quirks and neuroses, habits, worries and expectations.

Aaron Jimenez, a therapist and owner of Foundations 4 Life in Grand Junction, said that a big impediment to making friends in adulthood can be the fear of rejection — and make no mistake, attempting to make a new friend is to go out on a limb.

If an attempt at friendship doesn’t work out, he said, it feels personal, like a rejection.

“But it’s a numbers game,” Bonior said. “Why would you think that every friendship you start is going to be this wonderful thing?”

Another roadblock to new adult friendships is pickiness: With each passing year, we know our minds better, are more clear in our opinions and what we like and don’t like, and can become less willing to humor major differences between others and ourselves.

“Often, it comes down to being right or being close,” Jimenez said. “You can never be right all the time and draw close to somebody at the same time. An important friendship skill is just the idea that everyone is allowed to have their opinion. So, teaching adults how to have friends is a little challenging because they can be set in their ways. But they can keep their ways, they can choose to be right everywhere they go, but that’s not the choice to make if they want to have friends.”

In addition to the give-and-take necessary for friendship, adults also have to be willing to let go of the facade of fabulousness that has bloomed along with the advent of social media. When it seems that no actions are taken without being broadcast on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, when what is presented to the world is carefully edited, a distance between ourselves and others is established, Bonior said.

“It’s this idea that we put our best selves forward,” she said. “But it’s not authentic and nobody’s really putting out there the reality of things. In general, most people are really sort of heavily curating their lives to the point of creating a persona that is not necessarily representative of the emotional reality of the situation. It’s not truly connecting. Maybe it’s fine for the couple hundred acquaintances on Facebook, your old high school lab partner, but you’ve got to put in some real face time. You’ve got to open up.”

But so much of adulthood can be small talk, because the kind of talk that leads to genuine friendships requires openness and the letting down of guards. It requires a certain kind of vulnerability. And it requires work.

“For a lot of us, we think that making friends is something you do as a child,” Jimenez said, “but it’s kind of a lifelong process. We don’t like to think of it that way, most people like to think they have their friends, but friendship takes effort.”

Friendship, as an adult, can mean returning texts in a timely manner and making plans and finding baby-sitters and adding one more thing to already busy schedules. And that’s a lot.

On a recent Reddit thread that began with the question, “Why is it so hard to make friends as an adult?” and garnered more than 7,000 comments, some mentioned that it’s easier just to stay home.

One commenter wrote, “My best friend of over 20 years lives 15 minutes away, and I haven’t seen him in over a year. I think about calling him up to do something, then I just start feeling this sense of dread. It takes so much energy and willpower for me to get out of my boring routine, I just don’t even bother anymore. Then I’m sad I don’t have any friends, but that’s my own fault because I don’t want to put in the effort.”

And it’s hard to acknowledge that effort doesn’t immediately pay off. Laura Fehmi moved to Grand Junction from Denver several years ago after more than a decade of battling cancer. She joined groups, took classes, participated in a knitting circle, began working on her master’s degree in counseling, but made no close friends, she said.

She questioned herself and theorized about what could be wrong and, often, felt very down about it. It wasn’t until she found the Friendship for Your Health group on meetup.com — a group created to build friendships between women — that things turned around.

“First, I met Tammi and Pam at Naggy McGee’s for dinner and a walk around Main Street,” Fehmi recalled. “It was fun and they were cool women! Next, I hosted a game night and there was Tammi, Pam, Stacy, Tanya, Millie and Coral. We played a game, had barbecue and potlucked the rest. So far, the majority (all I have met face-to-face) are single women over 35 who aren’t interested in activities focused on meeting men! They all embrace the idea of having women friends as part of a healthy life!

“I just joined the Grand Valley Outdoors meetup.com group two weeks ago and posted and hosted my first ever activity for any meetup.com group: a hike on the Palisade Rim Trail on Monday morning. The four GVO members who hiked with me were kind, interesting and looking to forge new relationships while getting some outdoor exercise in our beautiful Rocky Mountains!”

While there is no magic formula for making friends as an adult, Bonior said, it helps to put yourself in situations of meeting people with similar interests, engaging in meaningful conversation, being a good listener, remembering what they say and “being bold enough to suggest doing something together,” Bonior said. “What’s the worst that’s going to happen? If you’re never going to suggest getting together, it’s never going to happen.

“Yes, it’s scary, it’s an effort, but the rewards are so vital. Friendships are so necessary, such a wonderful part of our adult lives,” she said.


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