When we have an issue with our romantic partner, a family member, or even a colleague, the first person we turn to is often a friend. Our friends are there when we need a listening ear, words of encouragement, or some pointed advice. They help us problem-solve and cope with the difficult feelings that come from personal or interpersonal struggles.
But who do we turn to when the issue is our friends? The other important people in our lives don’t always have insight into our friendships. What’s more, we might refrain from turning to another friend if we are concerned about being seen as a “gossip,” or if we know people in common and want to avoid putting them in an uncomfortable situation. And what happens when the issue is that we do not have other close friends to turn to?
There is another important barrier that can make it difficult to cope with friendship challenges—the misconceptions we have about our friendships as adults.
In my work on friendship, I’m often struck by the disconnect between the ideas we have about what our friendships should be like and the reality of what adult friendships actually involve.
So many of us have the expectation that by early adulthood, we should know how to make friends and handle the challenges that come with these relationships; that these are skills we learn early in childhood and adolescence, and that by the time we leave college or even high school, we should have it “figured out.” The problem is, not only is this belief untrue, it can make us feel like we’re the only person who struggles and leave us feeling disappointed, ashamed, or alone. This, in turn, makes it much less likely that we will reach out for guidance or support if (or when) we do struggle.
Of course, these kinds of expectations and beliefs exist for romantic relationships as well. The difference is that we are typically much more willing to talk about it. For some reason, it’s much easier to admit that we find dating awkward, or that we are struggling to meet potential partners.
However, by not being open, with ourselves or with others, about how challenging or confusing adult friendships can sometimes be, we reinforce the belief that everyone else knows what they are doing. We’re also not giving ourselves the chance to put our ideas about friendship to the test and realize that they might not be entirely accurate...
Common Misconceptions and Truths About Adult Friendships
1. We should know how to make and keep friends as an adult.
Navigating friendships as an adult can be difficult. Like all relationships, friendships require time and effort, and this isn’t always easy to commit, especially when we are trying to balance our other relationships and responsibilities. The challenges we experience in our friendships can also change throughout our lives. Even if we had success when we were younger, we might suddenly find ourselves in a new city or stage of life where we struggle to expand our social circle, maintain old friendships, or even disengage from an unhealthy or toxic friendship. And as wonderful as technology is, it’s changing the way we relate to each other and creating new opportunities for misunderstanding that we need to learn to manage.
2. We don’t have enough friends.
There is no exact number of friends we should aim for. What counts as “enough” for one person might not be the same for another. It’s much less about the number of friends we have and more about our perception of and satisfaction with the social support we receive. Having even just one close friend can have an overwhelmingly positive impact on our emotional and physical well-being. It really is best to aim for quality over quantity.
3. We should have a "best" friend.
As we age, our understanding of what a “best friend” is can change. What’s more important than the labels or status we give our friends is whether our friendships are reciprocated—that is, both people in the friendship consider the other a friend. This might sound simple enough, but research suggests that up to half of our friendships are actually unreciprocated! It can also help to remember that one person doesn’t have to meet all of our friendship needs. Having one friend we confide in or turn to for support and another we call for weekend outings is no less special than having one best friend or “our person” with whom we do everything.
4. We should hold on to childhood friends.
Stability is an important marker of a healthy friendship. While it can be tough to maintain our friendships, especially when we are in different life stages, so much good can come from having long-term friendships. That said, people change. And along with that, so do our friendships. Holding onto a friendship that no longer serves us because we are afraid of letting go isn’t in our best interest. As we age, it’s normal that we whittle down our group of friends to those we value the most, which can include childhood companions or more recent friendships. The friendships we develop as adults can be every bit as close and fulfilling as the friendships formed when we were younger.
5. We are a “bad” friend.
There are many reasons why we might judge ourselves harshly, especially when we experience conflict. It can help to remember that conflict is inevitable in any close relationship, including friendships. It can happen with a college roommate, a colleague, or a best friend of over 20 years. Even if we consider ourselves “conflict averse” and generally prefer to avoid direct conversations or confrontation, we can still be affected by the uncomfortable feelings that result from difficult situations or the thought of anticipated conflict. Of course, unending conflict is another story, but experiencing ups and downs does not mean we are a bad friend or that we have done something wrong (nor does it necessarily mean that our friend is or has). It’s often part of a normal, close friendship. It’s part of being human. And learning to manage conflict successfully can actually bring us closer to our friends.
What can you do about friendship misconceptions?
- Notice your self-imposed rules or beliefs about your friendships and your role as a friend (i.e., your shoulds, musts, and have-tos).
- Challenge these ideas with more realistic, helpful thoughts. Changing your “have-tos” into “want-tos” is a quick strategy that can make a big difference in your willingness and ability to connect with others—e.g., "I have to make more friends" versus "I want to meet new people."
- Accept that being critical is really counterproductive. It won’t motivate you to put yourself out there and be vulnerable in the way that’s needed to build genuine, close friendships.
- Recognize that you are not the only one who struggles with friendships. We can all afford to think about the ways we can strengthen and build on our friendships and social circles.
Ultimately, the key is being open. This doesn’t necessarily mean opening up to a friend or sharing one’s struggles publicly. It can be as simple as acknowledging our difficulties and strengths internally and being open to the information and experiences that conflict with our ideas about what adult friendships are supposed to be like. This kind of openness is not only the starting point for challenging the misconceptions we have about our friendships — it’s essential for being able to develop close, authentic connections and maintain healthy relationships.
Almaatouq A, Radaelli L, Pentland A, Shmueli E (2016) Are You Your Friends’ Friend? Poor Perception of Friendship Ties Limits the Ability to Promote Behavioral Change. PLoS ONE 11(3): e0151588.
Bhattacharya, K., Ghosh, A., Monsivais, D., Dunbar, R. I. M., & Kaski, K. (2016). Sex differences in social focus across the life cycle in humans. Royal Society Open Science, 3(4), 160097.