Why is it so hard to make friends?
Let's talk about making friends as an adult.
Something I’ve been thinking about lately: Our relationships with other types of people—parents, colleagues, romantic partners, and children—are often discussed and dissected at length, but we tend to brush over the value and importance of our friends.
It feels like we never talk about how hard it is to make friends beyond our school years. For me personally, the friendships I have with other women are some of the most valuable relationships in my life. But as we grow up and enter into other relationships that society deems more “important” (aka. romantic partners), it’s easy to leave friendships on the back burner. I know that I am guilty of this, even if it was subconscious at the time, and I’ve definitely been on the other side of the equation too.
But our lack of appreciation for our friends seems counterintuitive. Making friends as an adult is super challenging, especially in our increasingly remote culture. It’s also standard to lose touch with friends from school years, as we’re far more mobile than prior generations. In other words, the serendipitous moments to maintain friendships or forge new ones seem to be fewer and more far in between. For the purpose of kicking off this conversation, I want to look specifically at the power, pitfalls, and history of maintaining female friendships.
Funnily enough, the evolution of marriage has had a huge impact on the closeness of female friends. In her book, Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, author Stephanie Coontz explores the decline of acceptable same-sex friendships within the larger history of marriage. “Until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the nuclear family was not the common family unit. People’s attachments to their other kin took too much precedence. It wasn’t an expectation that marital intimacy would bring ‘happiness’ per se; the emphasis was on economic stability and producing children.” As Coontz explains, it was hard to think of personal happiness as the goal of marriage when so many women simply did it to survive. As marriage for survival was a reality for many, it was common for very close female friendships to form in the absence of an intimate marriage. But this all began to change in the wake of a few pivotal societal shifts. The first shift was the breakdown of the sexual intimacy taboo, as marital sex became a more acceptable talking point, the focus on marital intimacy became an obligation of wives. The assumption here is that this focus took their attention away from developing close female friendships in favour of fulfilling their responsibility to deepen the connection with their husbands. The second major shift was the wave of laws passed that made it possible for women to survive outside of marriage. Coontz explains that the progress of industrialization and democratization weakened the political and economic constraints forcing people to get and stay married, and in its place, deep intimacy became a more important aspect of stable marriages. This, in turn, led to people focussing their attention on finding one relationship to fulfill all their needs (love, money) vs. nurturing the important familial or non-sexual relationships they’d previously held.
“The pressure for couples to put marriage first and foremost in their lives led many women to become more dependent on their relationships with men. Proponents of “modern” sexuality and marriage were deeply suspicious of close ties between women. By the 1920s the heartfelt female friendships that had been such an important part of nineteenth-century female culture were under attack. . . . By that time intense relationships between women were considered childish infatuations that girls were encouraged to outgrow. At worst, they raised the specter of “abnormal” sexual or emotional development that could make heterosexuality unsatisfactory and marriage unstable” – Stephanie Coontz
While modern-day female friendships likely aren’t as impacted as they were in the 20th century, and we’re seeing women delay marriage/motherhood, I do believe there’s somewhat of a hangover effect from this time. The pressure to find a partner to marry and/or procreate with is still very much a “success” metric that is lauded by societal structures (and incentivized via tax brackets). Over the last three decades, we’ve certainly seen a boom in mainstream media that depicted the nuanced relationships between women who are friends—like in Sex and the City, Thelma & Louise, and Girls— which I’m sure has had an impact on our own perceptions of what female friendships are “supposed” to look like. While truly delightful to watch, I believe we can’t help but compare our own real-world friendships to these on-screen friendships. I know I’ve had moments where I’ve questioned whether I need a “core” friend group of girls, despite having many, many wonderful girlfriends across different groups. A friend of mine felt similarly earlier this year, so much so that she decided to pull together her own group of women and make us all friends with each other.
“Maybe we can be each other’s soulmates. And then we can let men be just these great, nice guys to have fun with.” — Charlotte York, Sex and the City (Season 4: The Agony and the 'Ex'-tacy)
The attention on female friendships in the media, while wonderful, can feel at odds with the reality many of us live in. First, we all know we’re currently in the most “connected” society that’s ever existed, and yet, we feel isolated. Technological innovations aimed to unite us have not helped us create deep, genuine friendships, but often leave us feeling lonely instead. Social media has made us more frivolous in the frequency with which we touch base with friends and acquaintances—we loosely keep track of each other’s happenings via Instagram stories instead of committing quality time to each other.
It’s also worth calling out that we use a lot of our relationship energy searching for/maintaining a romantic partner, leaving little energy left for friendships. While I can only speak to my own experience making friends upon moving countries in my early twenties, I found writer Katharine Smyth’s exploration around why making friends in midlife is so hard to be very relatable. Smyth pointed out that, according to a global study commissioned by Snapchat in 2019, “the average age at which we meet our best friends is 21—a stage when we’re not only bonding over formative new experiences such as first love and first heartbreak but also growing more discerning about whom we befriend.” She goes on to say that even more importantly, “young adulthood is a time when many of us have time. Jeffrey A. Hall, a communication-studies professor at the University of Kansas, estimates that it typically takes more than 200 hours, ideally over six weeks, for a stranger to grow into a close friend. As we get older, the space we used to fill with laughter, gossip, and staying up until the sky grew light can get consumed by more ‘adult’ concerns, such as marriage, procreation, and fully developed careers—and we tend to end up with less of ourselves to give.”
While there are apps that have cropped up to try to help us create new friendships, they utilize the same features as those harnessed to find a partner. Smyth amusingly commented on the reality of her quest to find new friends in a new city via Bumble BFF. “Although I noticed some interesting differences between dating and friend-dating—the slight suspiciousness with which I had addressed the men on Bumble had vanished, replaced by a kind of manic geniality—more often I felt appalled by all their similarities. I found myself swiping right on some women just because they were pretty, for instance, and swiping left on others just because they had children.”
The way we communicate has also drastically changed during our new, remote-first era. I was speaking with a friend about this over lunch the other day, and she mentioned how she was finding it hard to make friends in New York as her conversations over the last two years had become increasingly transactional. I don’t know if you’ve had similar experiences, but it struck a chord for me. Upon reflection, I’ve noticed that often agreeing to a call/Zoom with a friend and scheduling it in the calendar (in lieu of what used to be a dinner) has forced what typically would have been a fun, intimate, or random conversation into a time-crunched chat where we both subconsciously focus on a productive outcome. In other words, we’ve made friendship feel like more work.
That’s why we’re exploring all things friendship in our first-ever Diem Doc!! Think of this as your guide to modern friendship, where we’ll be curating the best resources, readings, and findings from our community. Pass it around, add your thoughts. We’re excited to hear what you have to say.
Have you maintained a friendship throughout life transitions (children, careers, partners)? How did you do it? What do you think is important to nurture? How do you make friends in a new city or country? How have you successfully made new friends outside of work? Where did you find them? How do you overcome the awkwardness of friend dating? These are all questions we’re pondering (and answering) via this community-created resource.
What We’re Reading…
Two dozen tech founders living in a mansion. What could go wrong? Well, everything, by the sounds of it (Vox)
“Vampire” grave in Poland shows 17th century fear of women who “didn’t fit in.” We love a historical read. (Washington Post)
TikTok’s Lesbian Break Up Curse is Real. Are you a victim of it? (The Cut)
AOC’s Fight for the Future. The first female politician on GQ’s cover! (GQ)
Is the Don’t Worry Darling Drama sexist? Keep abreast that viral internet gossip. (Time)
See you next week,