How do I make meaningful friendships as an adult?

Maddi offers insight into how to develop deeper connections with friends and some of the barriers that might be coming in the way.

Maddalena Genovese - 22 November 2022

Photo of a group of friends by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash.

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Dear Maddi: 

What is the best way to go about making meaningful friendships as an adult? 

Signed, Lonely

[And a shout-out to Troubled and Lonely who also wrote in with a similar concern.] 

Making friends as an adult can be challenging and confusing as there is no standard protocol for forming close, meaningful friendships. If you’re feeling a bit lonely, you are not alone. In 2019, almost 70% of U of A students reported they felt very lonely at some point over the past 12 months (NCHA, 2019) - and that was before the pandemic! We crave connection because we are hardwired for it. The good news is it’s possible to develop meaningful friendships. It just requires a little effort and patience.

 First, let’s take a few moments to look inward. What are some of the barriers you face? 

  • Are you too busy to socialize? If you want to deepen the friendships in your life, you need to make it happen. Life is busy and it’s not always easy to find the motivation to have dinner with a friend instead of catching up on school or relaxing at home. If you are too busy, you might have to shift your priorities to make time for friendships. Unbusy yourself!

  • Have you been disappointed before? If you were hurt by friends in the past, friendship might feel risky. However, it may be helpful to look at these scars as learning. Reflect on negative experiences to help direct you in the future. What went wrong? What types of people do you want to be close to? What are some red flags? If you can learn from your experiences, you will feel safer in taking risks and gaining more social experience.

  • Are you worried people won’t like you? Fear of rejection is a big obstacle for many people. For instance, if you try to make plans with someone and it doesn’t work out, it’s easy to become self-critical and assume the worst. Instead of feeding your worries, consider the many other explanations as to why they can’t hang out (e.g., they are too busy, they might have other plans, they might be anxious or shy). Try not to speculate and refocus your energy on people who are available.
  • Have you been giving up too quickly? A common mistake for people is becoming easily discouraged if their early attempts don’t turn out the way they hoped. Finding people you connect with requires stamina and persistence. It’s a little like dating, but without the romance. Think of meaningful friendships as a process rather than a one time occurrence, and it will make the early stages somewhat easier. Keep going. It’s worth the effort! 

  • Maybe it’s none of these reasons. That’s okay. Take a few moments to reflect on your experience and invite others to help you identify the barriers if you feel stuck. Take a look at the links and resources embedded in this letter for more inspiration. 

Once you have identified what’s getting in the way, you can put some strategies into practice. Here are a few suggestions to get started.

  • Look for caring, loyal and like minded people. Find people who are genuinely interested in you and what is going on in your life, who are supportive and are not quick to judge. They don’t have to agree with everything you say or do, but they will still show they care by listening to you, showing compassion, and if necessary, be able to have a respectful conversation about your differences. 

    • TIP: You don’t need to start from scratch. You can use Kat Vellos’ definition of acquaintance, friend and close friend in her book We Should Get Together: The Secret To Cultivating Better Friendships (p. 16) to get you started and take inventory of your current relationships. You might find you have more friends than you thought. You can focus on strengthening your existing relationships and/or meet new people altogether. Up to you! 
  • Make it clear. Let people know you are looking to build meaningful friendships.You can tell people you know that you would like to hang out with them or join them in an activity you both enjoy. Let them know you would like to spend more time together. You can even share your struggles in finding meaningful friendships and see if they also share this common challenge. Maybe they want to do something about it too.

    • TIP: Remember that building meaningful friendships takes time. If you have a friend you don’t think you can go deeper with, shift some of your energy to connecting with an acquaintance or meeting someone new. While it can take time to build a deep friendship, the payoff is worth it.
  • Create opportunities for connection. Seeing someone regularly allows you to foster fondness and familiarity. You need to spend quality time together to deepen your relationship. It doesn’t need to be formal or require a lot of planning, just make the time count by being truly present when you are with them. 

    • TIP: Meeting people through shared hobbies and interests are a great way to make new friends or strengthen existing friendships. I hear a few good things about Bumble BFF, and a few other apps but you can also find your people through school, work, clubs, volunteering, sports, their partners, and even faith. What do you think would work for you?
  • Be more CARRP. Having a close friendship requires a foundation of trust and what attachment theory calls a “secure relationship.” According to Dr Amir Levine, there are five elements for a secure relationship: Consistency, Availability, Reliability, Responsiveness, and Predictability. When you are more CARRP with your friends, you can start to pave the way for a deeper connection and a more meaningful friendship. They will also feel more secure with you and hopefully reciprocate themselves. 

    • TIP: CARRP is not one-sided and it is not about stretching yourself so thin that you don’t have time for yourself. It is “enough of the time”, enough to make you and your friends feel secure in your friendship while respecting each others’ boundaries. 
  • Is it okay to be vulnerable? Yes, it is. Vulnerability can feel risky and takes courage, but it is essential for connection. Lowering your guard and opening up creates trust and honesty in relationships because you let yourself be seen while also giving your friends an opportunity to be there for you. This might mean putting yourself out there, sharing your struggles or asking for help. Give it a try. It can feel pretty great to be on the receiving end of empathic listening. 

    • TIP: You don’t need to fully open up right off the bat, nor do you have to open up in the same way to everyone. Take your time to develop trust with your friends. Once you get to know the person better, you can start revealing yourself in a gradual way. 

Lastly, focus on quality rather than quantity. Not having a lot of friends is not an indicator of how desirable of a friend you are, but often more of an indicator of life demands, opportunity to meet new people, and circumstance. Remember that when it comes to close friendships, it is less about how many you have, and rather, do you feel valued and supported by the meaningful friendships you do have in your life. Given how rare close friendships are, having a few good ones is quite a treasure. Don’t take them for granted, and keep investing in them to keep them healthy!

Additional Resources: 

Written by Maddalena (Maddi) Genovese Counselling and Clinical Services Satellite Psychologist for the Faculty of Science and edited by Suman Varghese Counselling and Clinical Services Satellite Psychologist for the Faculty of Arts and FGSR.

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