When you were a kid, it seemed like you could walk up to just about anybody and be best friends the next minute. But somewhere along the long, winding road to adulthood, making new friends became an impossibly hard thing to do.
Well according to psychologist and University of Maryland professor Marisa G. Franco, that’s because as you get older, making friends no longer happens organically.
“Sociologists have kind of identified the ingredients that need to be in place for us to make friends organically, and they are continuous unplanned interaction and shared vulnerability,” says Franco, who is writing a book on making friends as an adult. “But as we become adults, we have less and less environments where those ingredients are at play.”
If we continue to expect friendships to happen naturally like they did when we were kids, we run the risk of waiting for something that might never come. Being intentional is essential, she says. Research shows those who view friendships as something that happens because of luck are lonelier later on in life, she says, “and those who see it as something that happens based on effort are less lonely years later.”
Juliana Clark, a 25-year-old audio producer living in Los Angeles, says that while she’s been able to make a few friends here and there, she is mostly looking for a community. Spending a few minutes with a new acquaintance doesn’t usually leave her with a feeling that a new friendship is blossoming.
“I'm really more interested in kind of creating a sustainable community that will last,” she says, “especially since at least so many of the friendships that I've made just in my life have kind of had these common experiences anchoring them.”
According to Franco, the key to building a community of friends is setting up planned interactions, like regular group events or rotating potlucks.
“Researchers also find that when we develop groups, our friendships are more sustainable than they are with individuals. Because there's multiple touch points now, right? Someone else in the group could reach out to all of us, and then we all keep in touch,” she notes.
If that sounds terrifying to you, Franco says it’s crucial to assume that people already like you. Assume any meet ups will go well, she says, which in turn will help build up your confidence.
“We all have this tendency to think we're more likely to be rejected than we actually are,” she says.
How age, gender play a role in forming friendships
As we move through life, our struggles change. People in their 30s and their 40s have voiced how having kids or moving to a new city made it tough for them to form connections.
Kate Hickcox, 42, moved to Maine from New York City with her husband in 2018. The mom of two young children says she and her husband still haven't met any new friends in their more rural life. The pandemic worsened the situation since making plans was off the table.
“I'm also a city girl. I often feel like an outsider when trying to engage with those in my new local Maine community who either grew up here and have established connections or those who moved here because of their love of nature and the outdoors,” she says. “I thought I could force friendship to happen by attending events or participating in local sports or activities.”
Franco says people like Hickcox shouldn’t be too hard on themselves because making friends is tough no matter who you are. She recommends working to overcome covert avoidance — when you show up to an event but are mentally checked out.
“You're on your phone, you're waiting for people to come to you, you're not introducing yourself to people,” she says. “It's not just that you have to attend that event, but you have to overcome covert avoidance by engaging with people when you get there.”
It’s essential to take the extra step and ask for contact information.
“That's really, really key to take it from, ‘Hey, I'm putting myself out there’ to ‘We're actually going to form a connection and begin to form a friendship,’ ” Franco adds.
There's also a number of people who find themselves more and more isolated as they get older. David Troxel never got married and never had children. The 64 year old says that he's been socially disconnected for the last 10 years or more.
“I find that typically, people have all or most of the social connections that they can manage,” Troxel says. “I met somebody several years ago that I thought I might get to be friends with and invited them out to have coffee with me. I was told that this person really had all the friends that they need.”
Franco says men often have more trouble making friends than women because of the way society perceives them. Men are also more likely to rely on their romantic partners for a social network.
“There's this phenomenon called homohysteria, which is the fear of being perceived as gay that I think really, really is destructive for men's friendships,” she says.
Eventually, loneliness can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“If you are in a place of loneliness, you are, according to the research, more likely to assume people are going to reject you,” Franco explains. “You're just sort of hyper vigilant for rejection and social threats. You're more likely to think that social interactions will be more negative and less enjoyable.”
That’s why she says it’s of the utmost importance for people like Troxel to keep putting themselves out there.
“You had this one negative experience. It had sucked. Someone said they had too many friends, right?,” she says. “But that certainly doesn't mean that everybody has too many friends, and that certainly doesn't mean that there aren't people out there that are just waiting for you to connect with them,” she says.
The world is likely more open to you than you think it is, Franco adds, and there’s a chance more people out there want to be your friend.
This segment aired on November 10, 2021.