Having Adult Friends Is Hard
(and it doesn’t mean there must be something wrong with you)
I was just having a really good chat with my old friend Lola Alastor (of Non-Monogamy Help) about the difficulties of starting and maintaining friendships as an adult. It’s definitely something I’ve noticed, especially after getting sober, when I no longer had a group of acquaintances I saw regularly (even if just for the purposes of getting drunk together).
I’ve been thinking a lot about why I’ve felt lonely in the past and what makes me feel less so now, even though the people around me haven’t really changed their behavior. I think I’ve changed my own internal priorities and behaviors, and that’s made some difference. I realized in our conversation that I’ve seen a lot of my online friends say similar things, and yet each time, they feel uniquely isolated in their experience. I thought I would put together a list of things I noticed that made friendships difficult as an adult, and what I’ve done to self-soothe around that and address it if it needs addressing.
-I absolutely think that people of my generation (Xennials/Millennials) are in a unique situation when it comes to friends as we grew up as teens just getting access to the internet. I remember when your Myspace Top 8 actually meant something, when Tribe was pretty localized and mostly people I knew in real life, when Facebook was only for university kids. I think we were seduced into maintaining in-person friendships online but without really knowing how to do that effectively. I remind myself constantly that my FB “friends” are mostly acquaintances who barely know me and who I barely know, which both helps me not feel as intensely about the disparity between the number of “friends” I have listed vs those I actually talk to. I also have gotten better at establishing my boundaries, especially around emotional labor, with those acquaintances, so I don’t spend all my spoons on their needs and crises and have none left over for the friends who actually show up for me.
-In part because of the above, and in part because Facebook calls everyone you’re connected to your “friend” while simultaneously encouraging you to use it to connect with workmates and family members and community groups and special interest groups and god knows what else…. We have the experience of seeing “I have hundreds of friends on here, so why do I feel like I can’t call anyone when I’m having a hard time?” I’ve been working on reaching out directly to people in DMs instead of more generally, and that’s helped me deepen those friendships, even if we mostly just send cat videos to each other.
-Facebook algorithms also make it very very difficult to prioritize your actual friends in your timeline. I see SO MANY POSTS from people I barely know, and mostly from brands, and it is a constant struggle to push the people I want to cultivate actual friendships with to the top of my timeline. Not only that, it’s a struggle to see posts according to when they were actually posted, which also increases feelings of isolation when you post something emotional and don’t get a response from those hundreds of friends (who probably just aren’t seeing it!!) I fight back against this by adding close friends to my favorites list, and by constantly reselecting “most recent”, but that’s an issue with the platform itself. I also don’t take it personally anymore if someone I consider a close friend doesn’t post on my updates. If I really want them to see it? I tag them.
-Also, I have to say, at my age, a lot of people are long-term coupled up, and there’s a social norm that if you’re in a couple you will nest and not spend as much time with friends as you do with each other. I have made a point of not doing this when in a romantic relationship, and currently, I don’t have one at all and am exploring how that feels and how I can meet my own needs without one. But I’m also trying to get better at not assuming my friends in couples won’t want to hang out one on one, and giving them the opportunity to have quality time away from their partner.
-I also found myself chasing people I really wanted to be friends with but who didn’t prioritize me. Not out of meanness, just… I wasn’t a priority. But because I spent so much time chasing those people, I didn’t notice the people who were chasing me, who actually WANTED to hang out. I made a point last year of making more of an effort to spend time with people who consistently asked me to hang out, to recognize their requests as bids for affection, and to follow up (or be honest if I didn’t want to be closer). I’m still working on this, as I tend to overextend myself and then withdraw in a panic, and I have not been great at making concrete plan B plans (frankly, I am still realizing how little I want to leave the house at any given time). But instead of throwing myself at people who were too busy or otherwise unavailable for me, over and over, and being rejected, I refocused on people who were able to show up. I still make sure to send a message every few months to say hello and that they’re on my mind, but I also give them space to approach me. We’re all perpetually online — they know how to find me, when they’re ready.
-A lot of my friends, my really close friends, don’t need a lot of maintenance. We know we’re there for each other if we need each other (at least, I hope we do!) and time passing doesn’t change my love for them, even if we don’t do a lot of phone calls or in-person hangouts. Find out what your friends want and need to feel cared about as a friend, and then see if that’s something you can do. The best way around this one in my opinion is to bluntly ask, not guess! Then everyone can get on the same page.
-Also, probably one of the biggest things I discovered? I like to cook for other people, so I try to plan on having people over or hanging out with folks centered around this thing that gives me joy! Rather than going to parties, which I generally dislike especially now that I’m sober, I invite people over for tea or for dinner on a smaller scale, which fills my cup and enables me to hang out with friends without needing to force myself into situations I’m not keen on. Don’t keep trying to make yourself do stuff you don’t want to do just to maintain your friendships! Find stuff you actually will feel eager to do anyway, and then invite people along if they’re interested. This way you’re enjoying yourself no matter what, and it won’t feel as intense if someone can’t make it.
-You make time for what you care about. It’s often worth reflecting on what you actually spend your time doing, and if that is, in fact, what you consider a priority. For me, it was a revelation to realize I spent a lot of my time writing, watching D&D media, and cooking, and that those were priorities for me. So I started inviting people to come and enjoy my cooking, I joined another couple D&D games, and I gave myself more time alone to write and to watch stuff. I didn’t really care for live music, or dance nights, or sex parties, so I stopped going to them just so I could connect with people. Instead, I invited the people I wanted to connect with to share in the stuff I was already making time for. I also stopped spending so much time doing stuff that wasn’t what I wanted to prioritize. I stopped being available 24/7 for community requests, for example, and started to make some boundaries around that. This helped prevent me from feeling drained because I was BUSY, just not busy doing the stuff I cared about. This is pretty similar to the above paragraph, but it felt worth stating anyway.
What are some challenges you’ve had around creating and maintaining friendships as an adult? Do any of these ring true for you? How do you ensure your friendships can weather mental health issues/time apart/big life experiences?