Over the past several years, I have asked anyone I could find whether they thought friendship was more challenging in adulthood or childhood. I wondered why my friendships seemed different in this season of life than previously. I wondered if I was the only one that sometimes felt like everyone had all these friends and girls nights. Eventually a friend directed me to a New York Times article on adult friendships, and I let out a sigh of relief- I must be normal, I thought, if the New York Times was writing about my latest worry. According to my friends, the New York Times, and some researchers in the Mid-West, friendship is more challenging in adulthood. Great. Now what? The evolution of our friendships in adulthood can feel like a shock to our system. We wonder if we missed the memo or if someone forgot to even send the memo. We wonder why no one ever mentioned these relational transitions in the volumes of advice we received over the years regarding adulthood. At some point, we realize friendships are different now. The landscape has changed. It feels more challenging to form and sustain friendships. It is harder to meet people. Sometimes it feels like everyone is moving on and you are being left behind.
I think the biggest root of this different landscape is: CHANGE. Everyone goes through so much CHANGE in adulthood that it impacts our ability to make and sustain close, in person, in touch friendships.
Previously, we saw people on a regular basis, we lived near one another, and we were involved in the same activities. We had mirrors. But as we grow older, things interfere with establishing these connections because everyone is in a different place: single, married, married with children, focusing on career, changing jobs, having a job but not a career, going back to school, financially secure, financially insecure, etc. It is hard to find that “mirror” and as a result we may feel distant from one another or like no one really knows us. Also, I think (hopefully) as we grow older, we get to know ourselves better, and we may have less tolerance for conformity and nodding along when really we disagree. When we were younger, we didn’t really know ourselves so it was easy to mesh and conform to the group. But we’re older now, and we know what we like and don’t like, what we value, and what we need, so it is harder to ignore or mask all of that for the sake of fitting in.
Sometimes we are our own worst enemy in forming new friendships because we can’t help but compare our new friends with our old ones. Will I laugh the way I did with Joanna, Kim and Melissa? Will someone understand so much about me like Patty? Will someone make life so fun and full of color like Annie? I once read that nostalgia is the worst form of comparison, and I think that is particularly true when it comes to friendship. Our historical friendships have something that our newer relationships can never have- they know our history. They know our quirks. They know our families. They know how far we’ve come, and they know that on the week you open your new practice you will be riding a roller coaster of emotion so they call and send cards to encourage you and check in on you. They know you. There is something truly beautiful about history.
But for most of us we don’t live near our historical friends, and so whereas they know our past, they don’t always know our day-to-day news. This is where our new friends step in. They know the things that we are currently facing. They know what book we’re reading, or how work is going, or what we decided to do about that issue with our child. Our new friends are more likely to know us now and this is a wonderful thing as well. Sometimes, though, we may feel that although our new friends know what we fixed for dinner, they don’t know us on a deeper level. This is where patience and vulnerability enter the picture. No matter how instant the connection, a true friendship takes time. In our instant gratification society we want a best friend now, but searching for true friendship in adulthood means you have to invest time and you have to invest yourself.
Being vulnerable is critical to developing deeper friendships. For women, especially, the depth of communication dictates closeness- the more communication, the greater the feeling of closeness. Intimacy is in the details. If you never share yourself or your story, people are never going to know you. If you never share your struggles, people won’t know when to comfort you. If no one ever really knows you, then you are never going to feel known. Without vulnerability and openness, we stay locked behind our walls performance and perfectionism. We keep people at arms length. We miss out on the gift of friendship and growing in connection. Vulnerability is the key that unlocks the door to deeper friendships.
As you navigate this ever-shifting terrain of adult friendship, remember, our historical friends and our newer friends both serve important roles in our lives. There is nothing like being able to send a one line email with a FRIENDS quote and know that your old friends know exactly what you are referencing and why. There is also nothing like sharing in day-to-day life with your newer friends. If we want closer friendships, we have to let people get close. If we want to take those newer friendships to a deeper level, we have to invest time and ourselves. Sometimes this can feel like a risk, but it is worth the risk. It is worth the risk to be vulnerable and let people see the beautiful mess of our lives. After all, vulnerability is contagious and the person you open up to might very well be searching for a true friend, too.
Challenge: Share a little more of yourself with a friend today. OR Let a friend know how thankful you are to have her/him in your life.