Friendship for Grownups

Carol Heffernan

In childhood you could just ask another kid, “Do you want to be my friend?” As an adult, friendship is a little more complicated than that. Fortunately, there are simple things you can do to move from acquaintances to friends.

If I were flipping through a magazine and saw the title of this article, I’d figure it was written by (A) a therapist, (B) a researcher, or (C) one of those people with a magnetic personality who’s never had a bit of difficulty making friends. I am (D) none of the above. But don’t stop reading. I have a lot to tell you.

Obsessed is a strong word, but it’s fair to say I’ve been obsessed with the topic of friendship since I was young. It started decades ago, when my parents got married and had six kids, one right after another. Years later, my mom went to the doctor with symptoms of menopause, only to learn her fatigue and moodiness were caused by something else. And that’s the story of how I grew up an “only child” with a half-dozen much older brothers and sisters who’d drop by the house from time to time.

As a painfully lonely extrovert living with only my parents, I went to great lengths to make friends. I honed some serious people-pleasing skills and talked to anyone who would listen. If that sounds desperate and awkward, it totally was. But it worked, especially when surrounded by hundreds of peers in school.

What I eventually discovered, though, is that developing friendships is much more complicated as an adult for a variety of reasons. You move, get a job, maybe get married, children enter the mix. Life is constantly in flux.

See if you relate to any of the following:

You hear others talk about being part of a squad/tribe/tight-knit group of friends. You see photos of their squad/tribe/tight-knit group of friends. You feel the sting of being on the outside.

You’ve known the fun of being on the inside of a circle of friends, but you are having trouble finding people you connect with.

You’re not sure how to “break in” socially when everyone already seems established in their friendships.

You’re stuck in acquaintance mode and don’t know how to take friendships to the next level.

You don’t click with many people and are too tired or discouraged to make the effort.

If any of these points resonate with you, then you’re in the right place. Here are five practical suggestions for how to develop the friendships you’ve always wanted.

Keep this in mind: “Friendship is a slow ripening fruit.”

Lest you think I have a beautiful way with words, that’s a quote from the philosopher Aristotle. It’s a good reminder that friendship usually doesn’t happen overnight. Remember when you were young and would ask another kid on the playground, “Do you want to be my friend?” And that kid would say, “Yep,” then you’d skip off together into the sunset?

Fast-forward 20 or 30 years, and making friends isn’t nearly that quick or easy. This is something I forget. I forget it takes time, effort, and follow-up to get to know someone. Here’s what I’ve found helpful: Choose carefully whom you open up to. Pay attention to cues from the other person in your conversations; get to know them instead of doing all the talking. Share experiences to strengthen your bond. Yes, you might have instant chemistry with some, but don’t rule out other potential friendships simply because they take more time to grow.

You don’t have to have everything in common with your friends. 

Imagine we sit down for a cup of tea and a slab of my mom’s famous brownies and I ask your opinion on 25 issues. Chances are, we would not agree on everything. And really, what two people do? Friends don’t need to be clones. Leave room for others who aren’t exactly like you—people who don’t look like you, aren’t the same age as you, who aren’t in your usual social circles. Sure, you might have some friends who share a hobby, faith, or sense of humor. But I can’t overstate the value in opening up to new and different people you want to get to know better. Differences can strengthen a relationship in unexpected ways.

Examine your blind spots.

Over the years, my husband and I have talked a lot about our “blind spots.” That is, our misconceptions of who we think we are, the things we don’t see about ourselves that others can see. One of my blind spots is having unrealistic expectations, which inevitably leads to disappointment in friendships. Realizing I have this tendency has made a world of difference in how I relate to others, and now I can adjust my thinking and set more realistic expectations. If you have a discouraging history with friendships, talk to a counselor or someone you trust, and try to identify any barriers that may be holding you back from meaningful friendships.

Know that different people have different needs.

I’m sure you’ve noticed that people’s expectations for friendship are all over the board. Some want to text and talk every day and get together as often as possible. Others want space. They like to do their own thing and don’t need much contact. Just last week, my friend Jen told me she’s happy getting together with friends once a month. That’s enough for her to feel connected. This balancing act has been a hard lesson for me to learn over the years (remember that bit about my being a desperate extrovert?), but it is a necessary part of friendship.

Start with what you’ve got.

Have you ever thought, I should have more friends. I should try to be more outgoing. I should go to that meeting/party/class even though I’d rather stay home. Instead of paying attention to the “shoulds,” focus on nurturing relationships with those you can truly be yourself around.

If you know a couple of people you genuinely enjoy who will make time for you, that’s saying a lot. Rather than getting caught up in what you wish you had or think you should have, strengthen your already-existing bonds. You might be surprised how gratitude emerges and your relationships deepen.

Today, this week, this month, make the phone call. Celebrate the birthday. Go out for a meal. Go out for a walk. Be vulnerable. Listen. Really listen. Investing in friendships with others—no matter your age or stage in life—is always worth it.

Carol Heffernan is a marketing writer, pastor’s wife, and mom of two who is always ready to welcome friends and family into her home in Wisconsin.

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