The Misgivings of Friend-Making

The term social distance has come to characterize our times, with fewer chances to socialize and make friends. But for many, opportunities for friend-making and socialization have always been limited—veiled by the subjective rules of social inclusion.

Two female friends laying in the grass, talking and smiling
Kirn Vintage Stock / Getty
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In the post-social-distancing era, some of us can’t remember how to make a new friend. But for many, making friends has always been a challenge—left as an unfulfilled desire without any clear course of action.

In this episode of How to Start Over, we explore the barriers to friendship formation in adulthood, how to navigate conflict, and why starting over as a better friend begins with getting out of our own heads.

This episode was produced by Rebecca Rashid and is hosted by Olga Khazan. Editing by A.C. Valdez and Claudine Ebeid. Fact-check by Ena Alvarado. Engineering by Matthew Simonson.

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Music by FLYIN (“Being Nostalgic”), Monte Carlo (“Ballpoint”), Mindme (“Anxiety [Instrumental Version]”), Timothy Infinite (“Rapid Years”), and Sarah, the Illstrumentalist (“Building Character”).

Olga Khazan: Hi, I’m Olga Khazan, staff writer at The Atlantic.

Rebecca Rashid: And I’m Rebecca Rashid, a producer at The Atlantic.

Khazan: This is How to Start Over. Today, we analyze a relationship that many of us need more of but struggle to keep around: friendship.

Khazan: Being an introvert, I feel like I never really want to go out, and I never really want to meet new people, and I never really want to talk to people. But once I do, I’m like, That felt really good. I should do that more often.

Rashid: What’s going through your mind before you have to meet up for a social engagement?

Khazan: I’m probably not going to like these people. They’re probably not going to like me. We’re not going to have anything to talk about. I don’t really have anything to say. I’m so boring. Why am I so boring? I decided to become a journalist so that I would not have a boring life. Yet here I am being really boring. I’m feeling kind of depressed. Are they going to pick up on that? And think that is a sign that I don’t like them even more than I already naturally don’t like them?

I will say, I think a great friend can be such a salve. You can feel so known and loved by having a really good friend. I also think that finding and making and keeping a really good friend is very, very, very hard.

Rashid: There’s a certain volatility to friendship that we’ve discussed on the series before. In romantic relationships, there’s a sense of obligation. There are at least some unspoken rules about how it should go. Whereas friendship is so subjective.

Khazan: It’s very awkward to tell a friend, “I will genuinely miss you. You play a role in my life. It’s not easily replaced. I hope I play a role in your life too.” I think people who are really good at making really good friends have this skill and this ability that I am still working on.

Khazan: Julie Beck is my friend and colleague, and a senior editor at The Atlantic. She recently wrapped a multiyear reporting project called The Friendship Files for which she interviewed, well, friends.

Beck: Making friends as an adult is just different than when you’re young. I mean, one of the main ways that people tend to make friends is just: Whomever you’re spending time with is more likely to become a friend. And so for kids that’s school, and for adults that’s often work.

People that I’ve interviewed for The Friendship Files have said that they were really surprised to make some of their closest friends in midlife. You know, they’re like, “I thought the friends I had were the friends that I had.” And then, through whatever avenue it was—you know, for some people it was a parents’ group. For some people, there was a fantasy baseball camp that they went to, and now they’re all best friends with their fellow campers.

There are a lot of people I spoke to who kind of blur the lines of friend and family. For instance, I interviewed this group of stay-at-home dads, and they all parent their kids together, and their families go on vacations together and all of these things.

I also interviewed two couples who bought a house together, and one of the couples has a young daughter, and the other couple that lives with them is really involved in her life. And they have sort of chosen to make homeownership a more communal experience.

Another woman I spoke with was a surrogate for her best friend and actually had her best friend’s babies. And it turned out to be quadruplets. So it was maybe more than she bargained for. But in that case, you know, her kids call the woman who gave birth to them Aunt [Deb]. And she’s super-involved in their life.

Khazan: What are some of the barriers to making friends? I tried to make friends for my personality article. I felt so awkward and basically like a five-year-old on the playground being like, “Do you want to be friends with me?”

Beck: I think much as with romantic dating, and—not to make too many parallels—I think there are slow burns, right? And then there are instant connections. But I think a lot of times friendships, especially as an adult, when you’re kind of fitting things in your schedule, it does end up like dating: where maybe you go on several awkward rounds of drinks, but you kind of like them. But it’s still awkward. But you like them enough to keep showing up, and eventually you get more comfortable and it becomes easier.

Khazan: What are some of the most creative ways that you’ve seen people make friends and keep friends?

The most creative one I probably have heard was an interview I did recently where this woman decided she wanted to create an arranged-friendship group. Basically like arranged marriage. She came from a culture where arranged marriage was really common and said that she knew tons of relationships that had done really well that started in that model. And she wanted to bring it into friendship.

So I guess what she did is kind of go up to women that she knew casually, or one of them was someone she met at a conference, and just ask them if they wanted to join this arranged-friendship group. And they all said yes. And then they had a ceremony, like they all got together at her house and they had a ceremony where they essentially said, “We are committing to be friends to each other.” And so they started from the premise of, Okay, I’m going to show up for these people whom I may not even really know that well and let it grow from there.

Khazan: As Julie’s work shows, there are plenty of ways to make friends as an adult. But why does it still feel like friendships always fall by the wayside in adulthood—no matter how hard we try? And is there anything we can do about it? Am I the only one struggling to make friends in my 30s?

Khazan: Jeffrey Hall, a professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas, walked me through not only what it takes to make a friend, but how to maintain a good one. Jeffrey helped me realize that being a good friend to others is equally as important as knowing how to keep one around.

Hall: So I generally look at this idea that there is a period of time between adolescence and young adulthood—from basically 15 to 25 years of age—where you are going to get the most relationship partners you are going to have in your entire life.

It’s actually one of the things that’s kind of scary—we actually lose about a friend per decade of our lives after 30 years old. We know from several different research studies that the reason that people tend to actually lose their friends in midlife has to do with really important accomplishments in their lives: They get married, they have children, you know, they find someone they want to settle down with and share their space and time with. They find a career that takes them across the country.

So, study after study has confirmed the idea that those are barriers to friendship—moving away, getting married and having children and becoming really dedicated to your career—all push against the possibility of forming new friendships. So one of the things that’s unfortunate is although we keep meeting a lot of new people at that period of our lives, we don’t necessarily find people who are open to the possibility of friendship at all.

So I think people are responding to the idea that it was easy to make friends, but they’re forgetting that their whole life was kind of built on this idea of easy access to people who might be open to developing a friendship.

Khazan: I find myself more drawn to people who have similar experiences as me. If we have no shared experiences in common, I feel like it’s going to be harder for us to really make those friendship bonds. Have you found that as well?

Hall: I would say that similarity is a crucial, crucial force. It doesn’t matter what time of life; even very small children prefer similarity of activities in bringing them together. But I think adult friendships are different in the ways that you mentioned, because what’s not common is for people to have a shared experience that’s external to them.

I took up tae kwon do seven years ago because my son and I did it together and I liked it so much. I stayed with it. And the people who are there, I see a couple of times a week; most of them are people who’ve been around for several years. I talk to them a little bit, but mainly we exercise together. But I would count some of those people as my friends, and they’re people I don’t have to talk about work with.

So I think what’s kind of important about that is that you can take active steps that aren’t like, I have to pick a friend, which is tough. Instead, you can say, “I’m going to go do things [where] there are people who are going to be there over and over again, and they’re likely the same people.” That’s an opportunity to make friends.

Khazan: I think a lot of people have this idea that “I would like more friends, but it’s really hard to prioritize making friends.” And I’m wondering why it’s so hard for adults to prioritize that.

Hall: I’m cognizant of the fact that this takes a constant level of work. And it’s a kind of work that’s actually not dissimilar to the kind of work you have to put into building really good nutritional habits for your health, or building really good exercise habits. It’s rewarding. It’s extremely good for your life satisfaction, your well-being, and your health in the long run. But it’s still work.

Most of the time we do what’s called “negatively forecast,” meaning we expect something that is going to be much less pleasant than [it actually is] in practice. But then you go out and you’re with them like, “Oh my god, I’m so glad I did that. I am happy that I spent [the time].” And my research would suggest for days afterwards you carry the benefit of having connected with somebody.

Khazan: So one thing I’m wondering about is if there’s any research from you or anyone else on how to tell if someone wants to be your friend. What’s the difference between someone saying “Yeah, I’ll get coffee with you,” and you have a good coffee and you’re like, great, and then you ask them out. Should you ask them out again as a friend twice in a row? Or should you wait for them to ask you? It’s very confusing to me.

Hall: In the United States we’re constantly saying, “Oh, we should get together” or “I’d love to do this again sometime.” And you can’t tell if people mean it. And they certainly don’t follow up, which suggests that they didn’t mean it. So it’s really confusing to actually know: What are the signals that say this person is available to continue to work on that relationship?

I think in some ways, one way to think about it is that it kind of doesn’t matter. And what I mean by that is that if you had a good experience with someone, and you by choice went and had coffee with them and you enjoyed that interaction, you should do it again. Like, it kind of doesn’t matter whether or not they initiate or you do.

One thing I’ve become very sensitive to as I’ve studied these things is that there’s a large group of people who really, really appreciate being asked but are really terrible at asking. So I think in some ways, it’s good not to get too caught in our own heads about what’s the right set of protocols and instead recognize that prioritization of it simply means you keep doing it, even if it’s not perfect.

Khazan: Doing things even if it’s not perfect is not my strong suit, but I will aspire to that. So one of your most interesting studies is about the number of hours that it takes to actually make a friend.

Hall: So I did two studies. One looked at this idea of people who had geographically relocated in the United States, usually for work, sometimes for other reasons, and asked them in the last six months. The other study I did was on college freshmen here at the University of Kansas, and I got them within two weeks of when they arrived at KU. I looked at kind of a natural progression of friendship over that time.

So it takes somewhere between 40 and 60 hours to develop casual friendships. And one really critical thing I want to get across is it is not the case that 40 to 60 hours with somebody means they’re your friend. Absolutely not.

In both samples, there were cases in which people spent hundreds of hours with someone and said, “This is just a work mate; we’re not friends,” or “This is still just an acquaintance, even after all of that time together.” Time is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for developing friendship in my argument.

Khazan: How much should you tolerate friendships that have serious flaws? How much are we kind of supposed to unconditionally accept or love our friends?

Hall: You know, one argument is the very definition of a friend as being there when they need us. So if they need you and you’re able to be there for them, you know it may make an enormous impact in their lives.

So in some sense, I think it is important to keep in mind that too much discourse that says that we should only focus on ourselves and our own needs and otherwise may kind of muscle out the realities that there are people who are struggling with serious issues of loneliness and isolation.

So, too much self-focus may forget the idea that what really makes people happy in the long run—in the life-satisfaction kind of way, not in the near-term, “it feels good” kind of way—is kind of enduring through another person’s struggles.

Khazan: Should you ever break up with a friend? And if so, what is the right way to do that?

Hall: I think people should break up with their friends. There are certainly transgressions beyond the pale. The most common ones are true violations of your privacy or your confidentiality: you know, basically sharing your secrets with other people.

Drifting away is actually pretty normal in friendships, and I know people hate being ghosted. But I’m of the opinion that a lot of times [it’s good] to be kind and still compassionate toward another person, but not necessarily being like, “Here is a letter of my grievances, and I want to address them.” I’m not sure that that necessarily is going to get you where you want to go, and it may just end up being something that in the long term says things more directly and more hurtful than you may have ever wanted them to be said.

Khazan: What’s the best way to do conflict resolution within a friendship?

Hall: Open communication about the things that hurt you, especially if there was something that they could apologize for or something that they may have not intended. It’s good to start out with this idea of, “Yeah, I’m hurt and I don’t want to lose your friendship over this, but it’s been bothering me.”

You want to give people an opportunity to explain themselves and treat them with the trust and integrity that your friendship deserves: meaning you want to give them the benefit of the doubt that they didn’t do it intentionally or hurtful, but may have done it neglectfully or in a way where they weren’t paying attention to your needs, which is human.

However, if it comes to pass during that conversation, they don’t wanna take any responsibility for it, or they start kitchen-sinking you and start blaming you for all the ways that you’re wrong—that may be a pretty clear moment in which that relationship can’t be repaired.

But if it’s really something that they actively did to hurt you, that’s a little different, right? That’s different than if they’re bad at keeping in touch or they’re always talking about themselves or they’re kind of, you know, not being fully present because they’re distracted or really not available to me in the way I’m available to them. Is it worth being something to actually bring up? Because chances are, any conflict is a two-way situation.

Khazan: What are some universal principles of friendship that you’ve learned by doing this project? What can we do to be better friends with each other?

Beck: I kind of landed on six things, so six forces that help people to form friendships and maintain them throughout the years. Accumulation is the most obvious one. Just simply the amount of time you spend with people.

Attention, which is really just paying attention to when you click with someone. Many of the people who I spoke with found friendship in unexpected places. For instance, there was a woman who stayed friends with her ex-boyfriend’s mom for 30 years, and they’re very close.

And then I also added intention. You really have to deliberately act. I think a lot of times we have to court our friends a little bit, woo them a little bit. And even once they’re established, we still need to put that effort in to make sure that they continue to grow.

Another force that I noticed in a lot of friendships is ritual, just the effort of scheduling things. And that can be as simple as, like, a dinner party, a book club, a monthly hike. I talked to some friends who’ve been playing the same Dungeons & Dragons game for 30 years.

The next force is imagination. Friendship is often on the sidelines of our culture, kind of playing second fiddle to romance and to careers. There are a lot of people out there who are imagining something different for themselves. If you don’t want your friendships to default to this norm, I think it does require some imagination and some creativity.

And then the final force is grace. And the way I think about that is: Everything that I’ve said up to this point is an ideal; we can’t always live up to that. Forgiveness and the space that we offer each other to be imperfect, and not to resent or judge each other when life gets in the way.