Back in college, I remember watching Friends on television occasionally with my dorm mates and thinking, “Oh my God, is that what life in my 30s will look like? I can’t wait to be 30.” Little did I realize that those moments of my life would be the closest to Friends that I would ever get — people around the same age with common interests living in close quarters and sharing life together. I realized my naivety pretty quickly after I graduated when I found myself living back at my parents’ home desperately looking for ways to spend my weekends. Those nights filled up with dates, work, and, eventually, child rearing as I got older. But that loneliness and longing for a tight-knit community never left.
Making friends as adults is one of the most challenging tasks and I still have not figured out exactly how to do it. I don’t mean that I find meeting and getting along with people difficult. I mean making those rich and deep friendships that used to come to easily during our youth. Those kinds of friendships where you can stay up late into the night talking, laughing, crying, dancing, texting one another at a moment’s notice to hang out; I mean making friendships that are organic, easy, intimate and full of trust — friendships that can only be formed through a significant investment in time. Perhaps that’s the challenge of adult friendships — the lack of time that is a necessary ingredient for forming those kind of friendships.
There’s also so many factors and steps in creating adult friendships that I just despise and want to forego altogether but are indispensable to the process. Shortly after I completed graduate school, my husband and I moved to a small town in southern California and I met a woman in a pilates class whom I immediately connected with. Asking her to hang out with me outside of the class felt like an exceedingly awkward and intimidating gesture. “How do I do this without feeling like I’m asking her on a date?” I wondered aloud to my husband. But there really was no way to make it feel less awkward or less like a date. Even when we finally did get together for lunch, we found ourselves asking the same questions that are usually exchanged on a first date: Where did you grow up? What did you major in? How do you like your job? This is all normal getting-to-know-you conversation, of course. But it is hard for me not to feel that it is forced and not a natural part of making friends.
And then there’s the weeding. When you meet people outside of specific and enclosed environments such as college or camp, the probability becomes higher that the friendship may not be a good match. There are two reasons for this. College and camp are self-selecting environments. They have specific ethoses and cultures that draw certain demographics so we enter these insular environments with an already-existing bond of shared values and interests. Second, we consciously or subconsciously vet potential friends by observing them distantly in these enclosed environments. We also vet them through the opinions of our peers. If others I know and respect think someone is interesting, kind, intelligent and cool, then I might try to get to know them better. But since graduate school, I have been without these proxy tests for compatibility. Meeting potential friends happens with less context, shared social connections and chances for observation. Whether it is a fellow mother at the playground, a library patron with one of my favorite books in hand or someone behind me in the checkout line at the grocery store, I have precious little to go on. There have been numerous instances when I initially invested in a person without knowing who she is, where she comes from, what her interests, values and personality are like only to later try to figure out how to politely end the relationship. As always, breaking up is hard to do.
This weeding is important because it goes back to what I was talking about earlier about the importance of time in cultivating good friendships. Our time is limited — especially if we have full time jobs, a spouse and children. If I invest in a friendship, I have to make sure that it’s worth all of that time and energy. So as I’ve grown, my standards for friends have become much higher. It’s not that I think I’m better than others, as I’m sure many wouldn’t feel like I’m worth their time. It’s simply that my own time is limited. I want to make the most of the resources I have, not just engage in one social fishing expedition after another.
And speaking of spouses, I noticed that the time it takes to make new close friends nearly doubled or tripled after I partnered up with somebody. The probability of a friendship match happening precipitously decreases as you add more people into the mix. It’s one thing if I get along with an individual by myself. It’s a completely different thing and a rarity for two couples to get along fantastically with one another, or even just one person to get along with a couple. I’m drawn more to thoughtful and introspective types while my husband is drawn to gregarious and witty types. Then, of course, it’s just as important whether the people we are befriending like both of us as well. This is not to say that I no longer cultivate friendships on my own or that I never leave the house without my husband. Far from it. But long-term close friends need to be able to fit reasonably comfortably into one another’s lives and families and not be compartmentalized. I want friends I can truly share my whole life with, not just some curated segment of it.
In spite of all these complications, we have managed to eke out a few friends over the years. There aren’t many of them but they have come into our lives slowly and naturally. A piece of advice I have found incredibly helpful is to do what you love and there, you will find who you love. This applies to romantic partners as well. If you love to run, join a training group. If you’re spiritually inclined, join a faith community. You get the idea. This is by far the best way to make good friends because strong friendships are almost always grounded upon common interests.
My adult friends and I still may not have those stay-up-late-into-the-night-laughing-and-dancing times but we have come pretty close. Those moments hold a very special place in my heart. I think that’s the best I can really hope for at this phase of my life. We are all balancing multiple responsibilities in our lives and friendships, whether we like it or not, take a backseat to our careers and families. Many would argue that this is the way it should be although there have been numerous social analyses about the decline of social events and gatherings from previous generations and its negative impact upon our happiness and health. I’ve come to accept this current state of affairs while at the same time, creating as many opportunities for building community as much as my schedule and capacity can manage.
And eventually, something delightful will happen. Kids will grow up, they will go school, where I’m sure, friendships with fellow parents will occur more naturally. And then, they will go off to college or move out of the house. Our time will open up more and more as time progresses. Pilgrim Place, a well-known retirement community in the adorable town of Claremont, California, is fondly known as the “place where nobody dies” because residents live so much longer than they expect due to their close knit and dynamic community. As one friend who is now a resident there told me, “It’s like being in college again! Except this time, we all have our own apartments instead of sharing them with one another!” I very much look forward to that time of my life. But for the moment, I have come to acknowledge that it’s just plain hard to make good friends as adults. This realization helps me to value and prioritize the few good friendships that are in my life and to even, in the midst of a busy schedule, invest in new ones continually. It’s worth all of the effort, awkwardness and patience because rich friendships simply make us happier people.
This essay was also published on Medium here.