5 Ways to Make (and Keep) Friends in Adulthood, According to a Relationship Expert
The days of finding easy friendships in a locker buddy or soccer teammate are long gone. So how do you create those meaningful relationships with your girlfriends while also juggling career, marriage, children, bills, and general #adulting? It may not be as hard as it seems.
Looking at our culture from the outside, we may notice a distinct change after our high school graduation. It's as if we have collected all the friends we’ll ever need, and now it’s time to find the perfect romantic partner and live happily ever after. Dating sites and hookup apps abound, but that doesn’t help us navigate the awkward infancy stage of platonic adult friendships from “You seem fun, we should hang out!” to a strong, loving bond. The Letter Code author and leadership psychologist Dr. Krystal White shares some advice for taking new relationships from acquaintance to BFF.
“There is a lot of research showing the benefits of having friends,” says Dr. White. “This epidemic of loneliness that’s perpetuated in our culture costs us in terms of life span, happiness, self-confidence, stress levels, even our immunity against illness. It’s said that not having any friends can be as unhealthy as smoking ten cigarettes a day,” Dr. White says. She also points out that there’s a biological imperative to living in tribes, so having at least two close, reliable, supportive friends is literally hardwired in our brains.
For most of us, the act of meeting new people isn’t the hard part. It might be your neighbor’s sister at a dinner party who shared a hilarious anecdote, or someone you met and connected with at a volunteering event. It’s what comes after that that can be difficult (and uncomfortable) to overcome. Dr. White shares five tips for building lasting and meaningful friendships.
1. Recognize when you’re not being yourself.
“Most of us in adulthood develop masks of how we want others to perceive us, which builds a wall against intimacy,” explains Dr. White. “We spend so much energy faking it that we often don’t have any left to authentically connect with someone else. Keeping that mask on just seems easier.” The mark of a true friendship, she says, is someone with whom you can be your true, authentic self. Letting this wall down takes bravery, confidence, and more importantly, an awareness of when that wall is up in the first place.
2. Be vulnerable.
It’s OK to admit you’re not great at making new friends, and that you want more. You may be surprised at how many other people are in the same boat. “When people share just a little bit of realness, it inspires others to open up as well,” Dr. White says. Sharing something authentic about yourself doesn’t need to be negative or embarrassing, but it still takes courage. Trust that others will recognize your vulnerability and share their true selves with you in return.
3. Make it a priority.
Be aware that cultivating a friendship with someone new might not feel good when you start, but it will feel good in the end. “It’s like going to the gym, or pushing yourself through a long day at work,” Dr. White says. “When you follow through on a commitment to a friend, you’re almost guaranteed some benefit.”
4. Continue to invest.
Friendships require input to continue to grow stronger, and Dr. White suggests making those deposits on a monthly basis to maintain a healthy balance. “Consistency and communication are necessary,” she says. “If hanging out with someone feels good, then do it again! It’s your responsibility to follow through. Own the things that make you feel good. Then do it again in two weeks so neither of you get derailed with other life stuff.” Dr. White recommends planning four social engagements per month, with half as backup plans in case something comes up and you (or your new friend) have to cancel. “Give people the benefit of the doubt if they cancel the first or second time. People get nervous, and it takes energy to make it work.”
“Friendships warrant time and space in our schedules. It should be part of our culture to prioritize friendships, which isn’t always the case. The people in your inner circle, in whom you’ve invested the most, are the ones who know what skeletons are in your closet, and who will show up to the hospital, to help with a sick child or dying parent rather than just sending a text or Facebook message.”
5. Trust the process.
“In the end,” Dr. White says, “these are human relationships we’re talking about. The process isn’t linear, and there will be times when it doesn’t feel good or there are conflicts. Tolerate the uncomfortable because it’s a sign of self-awareness and reflection, which can often be the toughest part of a friendship.” We often assume that conflict is a reflection of the other person, but really it’s about yourself, says Dr. White. In this way, friends act as a sort of mirror. “True friendships require grit and a little bit of conflict and working through it. You have to be tolerant of your friends, and especially tolerant of yourself.”