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The Challenge of Making Friends in Adulthood

Tips on making meaningful connections.

Key points

  • Creating meaningful relationships as an adult is not easy and takes effort.
  • We should not be afraid of risking rejection, and we should assume that people like us.
  • True friendship is about how you treat people.
Source: bigstock/jossnat
Source: bigstock/jossnat

I recently heard a wonderful and very enthusiastic presentation by psychologist Dr. Marisa Franco of the University of Maryland who had some very practical thoughts and recommendations on making friends in adulthood.

I’ve personally found that making meaningful connections is something more difficult to do as we age, deal with the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic, or deal with mental health conditions that can cause a person to be more withdrawn and isolated socially. There just aren’t as many opportunities at our fingertips in adulthood as there were when we were in school surrounded by classmates, and we feel more awkward, anxious, and self-conscious. Yet, as I emphasize in my upcoming book on social isolation, friendship and social connections are essential to our general health. I’m going to share some of Dr. Franco’s ideas with you because I believe it will be helpful to those of us who are struggling and feeling isolated and lonely.

How Adult Friendships Can Happen

Dr. Franco began by dispelling a few myths around social connections that I believe we can all learn from. The first myth is that friendship should just happen naturally. That may be true for kids in school who are surrounded by classmates, sports teams, and interest groups, but not so much for adults. We need to make a conscious effort to reach out, initiate conversations, say hello, and arrange coffee dates. Please understand that this is awkward for everybody to do. We need to put ourselves out there, close to others, with repeated interactions in a setting where it’s safe for us to open up. This might be in a class, hobby, or interest group that meets regularly, not just once. We have to show up physically and mentally and not be distracted by checking our phones and texting.

She recommends that we not be afraid of risking rejection and emphasized that we “should assume that people like me.” When doing this, we tend to behave more warmly and open toward others, and that, in turn, will encourage others to respond positively toward us. And the opposite is true—appearing stiff, reserved, or distracted might well be interpreted by others that you are not interested in them, and they, in turn, will not be as welcoming.

I understand that being brave enough to reach out to others and assuming that “people like me” are very difficult to do when in the midst of an episode of depression, where negative thoughts and feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness overwhelm us. This is particularly true for those of us who suffer from a mood disorder and believe we are not likable or welcomed by others and feel marginalized. Our brain defaults to self-loathing thoughts such as “I’m no good, a loser” and “Nobody ever likes me.” I encourage you to put these thoughts aside for a while and make the effort anyway, in spite of them, and see what happens. You might be pleasantly surprised by your success!

Sharing About Ourselves

Another myth mentioned by Dr. Franco is that “sharing things about ourselves burdens people.” This is generally not true; in fact, self-disclosure leads others to like us more because we appear more human and vulnerable—that we are similar to them. Dr. Franco cautions us to not put energy and effort into a relationship with someone who won’t reciprocate or who clearly does not want to have a connection. Just walk away.

Dr. Franco mentioned another myth, which is that “to be liked, I have to be the coolest, funniest, smartest person!” This is also not true. True friendship is all about how you treat people, make others feel valued and that they matter, that it’s safe for them to be with you. How do you do this? Begin by looking for something, some trait, that you like in others and tell them.

Lastly, she commented in her presentation on the difference between a “good friend” and “good company.” Dr. Franco describes a good friend as an investment and commitment, a responsibility, where we show up for each other in good times and bad. It takes work. That’s different from just enjoying someone’s company for the moment without any of the obligations of a true friendship.

I realize that all of this is not easy to do, and I hope you will find these few tips to be useful. I encourage you to make an effort, in small steps, and see.

Stay well!

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