How to build close friendships as an adult?
September 9, 2018 10:31 AM   Subscribe

Once you've made a friend - how do you actually become close friends? What does it take to maintain close friendships for the long-term, as an adult? What's the secret sauce?

Like a lot of people, I experienced some major rejections from friends when I was a child/teen, and I was always pretty sensitive, socially awkward, and lacking in self-esteem. My family was pretty reserved and didn't display or embrace much emotion, even though it was clear they loved and supported me. I learned that my relationships were precarious and that if I didn't behave within a narrow set of boundaries, I'd be rejected. It made me hyper-vigilant and I hid my real, messy self and it wasn't healthy. As an adult I've tried hard to work through that pain and begin to unlearn some of those lessons - to build my self-confidence, to try to relax and be more true to myself, and make friends with people who share my values/interests/etc. In the last few years I've managed to let my guard down more than ever (although it's still nowhere near completely down) and befriend a number of people who are really kind, caring, generous, wise, fun, share my interests, want to be my friend, and aren't moving away. This has been a big deal for me, life changing really.

But, I'm confused about what to do now to actually become close. We're all pretty settled in our city and I'd love for these friendships to last and deepen and become almost like a second family for each other, to share the experience of life and be there for each other on an ongoing basis. (Both for fun times and for getting through life's challenges.) I get the sense they are open and interested in that, too. But, I've noticed that the same pattern plays out in most of these friendships: we both prioritize the friendship (something I'm still getting used to being on the receiving end of) but we remain somewhat polite with each other.

We're all women in our mid-30s without kids (a few are married, including me), and I'd say most of us are "social introverts". These are mostly one-on-one friendships (although sometimes it's myself, my husband, and another couple). In all cases, usually we spend time together 1-2x/month over dinner/coffee or a walk in the park, having meaningful conversations about what's going on in our lives, or important issues or ideas - but we don't fully let our guards down. I try sometimes, but I usually feel awkward and like a burden, even though they are kind and supportive. I try to encourage the other person, too, by being a good listener and asking questions. Still, I feel some sort of distance between us.

I don't think this is my friends' fault. It's been a common thread in my life for a long time even though I see other people seem to have the kind of close friendships I'm imagining. There must be something I'm missing, that I need to start doing (or stop doing). I really have no idea how people do it when they have close friends.

So I guess that's the core of my question. What do you do to create and sustain close adult friendships, the kind you can find comfort in and depend on and have fun with and be yourself in? What do those types of friendships look like, as an adult - like, what kinds of activities, what ways of being in touch and supporting each other? What are you doing that makes you close and keeps it going? I would love to know how people do it and what I'm missing. Thank you so much.
posted by inatizzy to Human Relations (25 answers total) 89 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I'm in a similar place as you! I find a shared project is really great. One friend invited me over for a knitting session. It was just three of us with tea and coffee and something other than our nerves to focus on, and as it went we really opened up in a way that I didn't expect. Another friend and I went on a small road trip for a shared interest, and down time in the car had the same effect. This works to your advantage because all the holidays are coming up. Invite people over to make mulled cider or wine. Have a craft night. Find a simple gift that people can make together and give away over the holidays. Throw a simple Friendsgiving. I do this after the real Thanksgiving and it gives people a great way to decompress over going to see their families and everyone has stories. Don't be afraid to be a little negative occasionally. You don't want to go full Debbie Downer, but a little vulnerability helps other people feel like they can share. So I'm having a real hard time figuring this out at work. I love my sister but she's driving me crazy right now. That kind of thing. I hope this helps. Mostly just give people space to have down time together and let things build slowly.
posted by Bistyfrass at 10:55 AM on September 9, 2018 [15 favorites]

Man with wife and kids here.

You are looking for: “comfort, dependability, fun, and being yourself”. You feel some distance with your friends, and like your mutual guards are still partly up. But, to what extent are your friendships actually meeting your goals? Sounds like at least fun. Are your friendships not dependable? One thing about adults is we are more stable than teenagers, so dependability is less evident. Likewise comfort.

I’ve noticed that a bit of awkwardness and “feeling distant” and polite accompanies not just my new adult friendships, but also my best friend from kindergarten and my mom whom I see all the time and love 100% with no reservations. Is it possible this feeling of distance just is what it is and comes along with adult relations generally?

That said, you may want to crank up the inctimacy of your friendships nonetheless. You could do yoga together or a bike ride or some other physical thing. You may also find a life challenge come up at some point (again these are less frequent as adults), and by virtue of talking it through you’ll likely develop intimacy. I’d say that if you are declining to share such moments, then stop doing that! You can also encourage your friends to share—if you know they’re going through something, ask them about it. If you don’t know whether they are or not, maybe you want to target conversations about your goals in life and delta vs same, romantic relationships, that sort of thing.

You could also try drinking more together, like really binge drinking? That worked for me in my twenties. Or other drugs if you’re into that. Or a road trip. Really any stressful but interesting experience should build intimacy.
posted by joaofava at 11:01 AM on September 9, 2018 [3 favorites]

Following joaofava, one thing that I think makes people better friends is making mistakes like those that happen when drunk. "He said Dustin Hoffman was in Star Wars!" Something to refer back to other than, "Remember when me and my husband hung out with you and your husband last week? That was fun."
posted by rhizome at 11:15 AM on September 9, 2018 [5 favorites]

Best answer: One thing that might help is to spend less time together outside of the house and more just being together, doing things, inside your homes as part of your daily lives. This maybe gets easier with kids and playdates and babysitting throwing people together more, but if you want to get super comfortable with someone, try just spending an evening watching shitty reality TV with them.

And don't tidy up before they come over.
posted by jacquilynne at 11:15 AM on September 9, 2018 [10 favorites]

Best answer: I think there's a shared fantasy of what adult friendship can look like - like the characters on Sex and the City, Friends, How I Met Your Mother, etc. It's not wrong to want that and it's great when it - or something close to it - happens.

These groups seem to form more easily in one's 20s, when you have more free time to spend together, possibly live in close proximity, and are more likely had some shared crises/embarrassing situations that bond the friendships - getting drunk together over failed relationships or layoffs, helping each other move, get to the ER, etc. As we move into and through our 30s we are slightly less likely to get embarrassingly drunk, and tend to pair off and have less time to spend together.

Hosting or organizing events - game night, brunch, other outings - can help. People start to build up shared memories together. With some of my women friends I have ongoing group texting threads where any of us might vent about a boss, or share a selfie of a new haircut, etc (these can get annoying with too many people/too frequent texting, but they can also keep a group in touch). And sometimes I text my friends - or even call them! - to ask them how they are and follow up on whatever's going on in their lives (how was your doc appt/interview, etc).

I struggle with this but I try to appreciate the friendships I do have as they are, while I keep working on building and deepening new connections.
posted by bunderful at 11:34 AM on September 9, 2018 [10 favorites]

I've had a lot of friendships move from friendship to like-family, and there are some things that play out repeatedly in that transition. We spend lots of time together doing not much of anything. We have lots of in-jokes. (It's a skill that some people have and others don't, but it can be developed.) We share our most hideous shortcomings and embarrassing stories. We turn to each other in a crisis (or come through for the other in a crisis). And at some point, one of us lets the other know that we're in it for the long haul. Someone has to be the first to say I love you. I'm brave like that so often it's me. And I'm never sorry.
posted by HotToddy at 11:36 AM on September 9, 2018 [11 favorites]

Best answer: Ask for help. Studies show that it increases intimacy and trust (to the point that thieves often ask their marks to do a favor), because we trust people who make themselves vulnerable to us. It also creates a virtuous circle: we then feel like it’s ok to ask for help in return and the reciprocal trust cycle continues.
posted by carmicha at 11:45 AM on September 9, 2018 [40 favorites]

Show an interest in their lives and how they're doing. Remember what they like, and express that knowledge in little gifts.
Show a bit of vulnerability, for example by talking about a somewhat difficult subject (like something you are sad or ashamed about) and see how they take that. Do they offer support? Do they reciprocate? If so, that's good! They may become a closer friend.

And yes, asking for help is good too.
posted by Too-Ticky at 11:49 AM on September 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

I once complained about similar things to my therapist, saying that I didn't know why my sister's friendships seemed so much more solid and deep and steady that my own. My therapist pointed out that my sister mostly made her friends in church or in seminary, and I made my friends through writing/artist groups. I think she has a point that it can make a difference where you meet someone, that certain social situations are not likely to be containers for these things. It may be that your current friends never get deeper and you find some additional friends.

I've found small groups to be helpful. I started going to a UU church to meet like-minded people, and that's been great, especially once you get into smaller groups where you can get to know people better. I have a couple people I've met in support groups, so I knew they could handle the hard conversations. And it's also been really helpful to reach out to people from my past. Something about returning after time and distance can help draw people out.
posted by mermaidcafe at 12:07 PM on September 9, 2018 [4 favorites]

I just wanted to say I relate 100% to this. I feel like, even with my best friend from pre-school, there is a distance that wasn't there before when we were younger. To some extent I have just accepted that this is part of having adult friends. I don't know if that is the right answer though!
posted by thereader at 12:27 PM on September 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: As you've discovered, being vulnerable encourages intimacy. Have you considered taking the next step in vulnerability and talking to your friends about your desire to be closer? I imagine that it would be scary but really could lead to the type of friendships you crave.
posted by mcduff at 12:42 PM on September 9, 2018

Do an activity that requires fear, trust, or risk together. It will create a different level of intimacy between you. It can be as easy as a camping/road trip, or learning to mountain climb together.

I have been going on a vacation in the desert for over a decade with the same campmates. Having to work hard together, make decisions together, share meals together, face fears together, and just sitting around in each other’s presence for long amounts of time really changes the level of friendship to ‘second-family’ status.
posted by MountainDaisy at 12:54 PM on September 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Hmm - I'm a single woman in my 40s, no kids, and have been lucky enough to have a few friendships make this leap. Things I can think of:
* Taking a trip together, overnight if possible. The sense of adventure, the extended time together during which, at some point, you find the guard drop and the friendship moves forward. Doesn't have to be a big scary deal, just "I really fancy doing this walk in this national park, it's a long way, I thought I might stay overnight in this hostel, fancy coming? Might be fun."
* Adventure/risk/physical extremity shared - doesn't have to be genuine life-threatening risk, but I've made some good friends by running together, and wild swimming together. Getting tired/sweaty/cold/out of breath etc. can help break down boundaries.
* Having a 'thing' you do regularly. eg. Sundays we always have brunch together; first Saturday of the month we always walk together. And then maybe once it's established, inviting some other friends along. This has the lovely advantage that sometimes your friends also become friends, and there's something really great about being able to talk to one friend about another and have them know who you're talking about.
* Knowing that even close friendship can sometimes be quite niche in adulthood. When you're in school, sometimes your best friend is the one person you talk to about everything. In adulthood, sometimes one friend is the person you share personal health stories with and they get you; another is the one who understands your career struggles; another is just really funny and silly. One of my dearest friends just can't do mental health chat and that's fine, I know who I can go to for that.
* Time. There's a richness that just comes from having shared history and that will happen eventually.

One thing that leapt out at me from your post was: "I usually feel awkward and like a burden" - which seems to be at the heart of this. So maybe keep working on that with a counsellor or whatever your personal method for mental health stuff is. This could well be just your own perception and none of your pals even know it's going on in your head, and are enjoying your burgeoning friendship.

Good luck - sounds like you're doing really well already.
posted by penguin pie at 1:02 PM on September 9, 2018 [11 favorites]

One study I remember reading about friendships correlated physical touch with the increased intimacy and bonding that often happens with teenage girls. Teen girls are more affectionate with each other, from hugging to doing each other's hair or makeup. . .things like that.

I've found in my adult friendships that can be a scary barrier to cross, but if you can find ways to have more physical contact with your friends it helps a lot. Hug more. Help them dye a fun streak in their hair. Touch is super important, and something we have far less of in today's society than we probably need.
posted by ananci at 1:15 PM on September 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

I agree with ananci about touch. I'm very huggy and kissy with my friends, hold hands sometimes, grab a hand to lead someone somewhere to show them something, etc.
posted by HotToddy at 1:56 PM on September 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

You can build a friendship when you only see someone once or twice a month, but it's going to be slow. You can set up more frequent interactions (if you're planning each dinner separately, try to agree on some recurring activities?), or find a way to spend bigger blocks of time together, or get to know people online if they talk about serious things in a fashion & forum you find congenial. Or you can just wait, and accept this may take several years.
posted by yarntheory at 4:31 PM on September 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: One thing that has deepened casual friendships for me is to do "real life" things together ... farmers' market (or grocery store), running to check out consignment shops, heading to the hardware store and then repotting plants and throwing some burgers on the grill, etc. In short, "errands." Everyone is so busy, and sharing these mundane things are often more of a bonding experience than just "entertainment" type stuff, and drinking.
posted by 2soxy4mypuppet at 7:16 PM on September 9, 2018 [9 favorites]

Best answer: It’s definitely hard. It can even be hard in long-time friendships. What you’re talking about is intimacy, and that’s ... notoriously difficult to achieve or sustain.

That said, I have a handful of friendships that are like what you describe, and they are worth it to find. I think there are a few things that help the process. One, as others have mentioned, is doing things together. I think this works best if it’s something you both really care about and that may be a bit challenging. Kayaking, doorknocking for a political candidate, hosting an event together, making something together: things that are not work-work but involve work.

The other is just seeing them regularly. I have a couple friend set (I’m single) who I’ve known for 10 years and saw regularly. They’re both older and somewhat more “adult” than me so I loved them but always felt like I had to be on my best behavior around them. But this year they started having me over for dinner on a standing day of the week, and it’s made us so much closer. We don’t do it every week, but it’s a standing date, so it happens more weeks than it doesn’t. So we know about the ongoing little dramas in each other’s lives and so we can share things without feeling like “oh I’m going to have to give all this backstory and that’s going to get complicated, so when they ask me how work is going, I’ll just say ‘fine.’”

Another variation on this is to have a standing social event you host on a regular basis, like Friday Meatball Night. I’ve been thinking about doing a monthly casual brunch at my place and just seeing who shows up. Book clubs or crafting afternoons can play this role too. Just something easy to host that you do on a regular basis. I really believe regular contact is how you build that intimacy.

One more thing: the people I’ve become really good friends with as an adult, we always had an “aha!” moment where we realized we were kindred spirits. But this is key: it doesn’t have to be about sad or hard things (though it can be). It can be that you find out you both love the same stupid Real Housewives show, or that you both love hiking but hate camping, or whatever. But to have those moments you have to be willing to be open and enthusiastic about the things that you love, and that takes its own kind of vulnerability.
posted by lunasol at 7:18 PM on September 9, 2018 [5 favorites]

I've been lady friends with a woman since we met at a motorcycle rally. A few months later we met in person at a coffee shop. We then progressed to a bar and started a fun friendship from there.

A couple months ago she brought up some things I had done that bothered her. I apologized, but for about a month we each thought the other was ghosting us. We eventually connected again and I told her I love boundaries and she was happy to hear that.

Since then I consider her my best friend and talk to her about everything.

I love the idea of Friday Meatball Night and I'd love to do that. It seems like a fantastic way to build a nearby community.

So my takeaway is have a mature enough friendship that can stand disagreements and boundary issues and conflict. The person you can have those conversations with is your close friend.
posted by bendy at 8:29 PM on September 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

Oops, forgot the link: Friday Night Meatballs
posted by lunasol at 11:33 PM on September 9, 2018

Okay I love this question and I feel like I have a lot of remarkably close friends, and a lot of ways that I deepen friendships and strengthen our bonds. I just had a "friendship level up" the other day! This is a list of things in no particular order that I do or notice in my deep long term friendships with friends-who-are-family.

I reach out to my friends a lot in many small ways to keep our connection going, like: sending them fun or empowering art I find on Instagram, texting selfies of the day to one another to see each other's beautiful faces, whenever I see something that reminds me of them I text it to them, inviting people that I'm really hoping to get closer to for one on one coffee dates, and sending out emails of "questions of the week," which I tell friends they can answer all, some, or none, just to make a connection, and I include a mix of serious and light questions.

Another thing I do (and I realize this makes it sound really easy when it isn't always!) is to just breathe into my own authenticity when I'm with friends. If there's an opportunity to let my vulnerable self show, I allow for it, I let the moment come and I don't keep it polite if I sense that all we need is a slight nudge toward realness. I have found that almost all the time, folks respond really positively and truly want to get to a deeper level of knowing another person. This is how I move through the world and I have many friends who I consider so close that even if we don't talk for a week or more, it is exactly the same and we pick up right where we left off every time. So as a practical real life example, when a coworker indicated that she might have complicated family relationships, I allowed the moment to come and shared with her that I'm estranged from my parents by my own choice. It turned out that she is too, and our relationship deepened in a way that was very meaningful. I think a lot about letting the moment just arrive however it lands, and then thinking "the moment has everything it needs inside it, just let it happen and be in it."
posted by fairlynearlyready at 1:22 AM on September 10, 2018 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I think part of it is compatibility. I have a lot of friendships that never made it past the stage you describe because they just.... they're my people but they're not MY PEOPLE, you know? The friends that made it past this stage just kind of did, with no extra work on anyone's part.

I think another thing that's difficult in making friends in one's 30s (or later) is that everyone is more authentic and also more picky about their friends and those two things, commonly combined with life events competing with free time (careers, family, etc.) make it just a lot less likely to make close friends as an adult.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 5:58 AM on September 10, 2018 [4 favorites]

Seconding rabbitrabbit, in that very often the problem is not anything anyone is doing/not doing, but rather just compatibility.

I'm reasonably extroverted. I have TOO many acquaintances, many good friends, and several close friends. And yet, that threshold you are talking about, the one where you really resonate with someone and feel completely free to be yourself? Where you don't ever feel the inclination to judge them for the petty shit you totally would judge in anyone else?? There's literally just one friend who has crossed that, and it's the first time I've ever had such a friendship. I certainly love, enjoy, and cherish my other close friends, and I have no idea why this particular friendship made the leap into soul-sister territory where others did not. Just... compatibility, I guess.

Oh, and just to throw out a disconfirming data point: most of these friendships are ones are made in the last two years, and I'm in my late 30s. Most are friends from work, which is lucky I guess! But friendships do happen in your 30s. Once I met a woman at a library, got to talking, and stuck up a very nice friendship.
posted by MiraK at 2:26 PM on September 10, 2018

You spend time with people, which doesn't even have to be entirely by choice.
(Example: you spend time with coworkers, some of them become friends.)

You respect the other person.

And you're okay with those people changing, within some reasonably wide limits.

And some of those friendships fall apart or disappear, even years or decades in.

The nature of being a healthy adult is continually meeting new people and accepting change.
posted by talldean at 7:51 PM on September 10, 2018

Response by poster: Thanks everyone. I really learned a lot from this whole thread. I marked a few as best answer because I took an action step away that I'm going to try. I will keep revisiting this thread over time and I'm sure I'll find even more. Thank you for taking the time to share with me, and everyone who favorited it. It's comforting to know I'm not the only one, although at the same time I hate that it is so common. I wish everyone who reads this good luck on their friendship journey.
posted by inatizzy at 7:16 PM on September 13, 2018 [4 favorites]

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