how to deepen superficial connections into friendships
January 8, 2020 3:41 AM   Subscribe

I have a wide social circle but relatively few close friends. How can I deepen existing friendly relationships into lasting and genuine friendships?

I am in general well-liked and popular with a large circle of people I'm friendly with. I'm single and have no family living nearby so I have the time and willingness to invest a lot of time in my social connections.

I'm grateful for this but when I really think about it I am only close with a handful of people. I would like to be able to deepen some of my existing relationships and be confident that they will last, but I find this difficult.

I find myself coming up against a few barriers when it comes to deepening connections. The first is, I have lost touch with close friends over the years when they have moved away, gotten new jobs, married, had children (I've lived in the same city for 15 years and am single with no kids). This makes me a bit sad - I really valued some of these relationships and am willing to put in the extra work required to maintain a long-distance friendship but I find that sometimes they aren't, because their new circumstances are too all-consuming. I get it. But because this has happened so many times, it makes me a little skeptical about new relationships. I find myself thinking, "Oh yeah, we get along great. But as soon as they move away/get a new job etc, we won't stay in touch." So I find myself doing less work and ending up with many superficial connections that I don't bother to work on deepening because I assume they will eventually fizzle out.

I also think that I might come across as weird or needy and this also stops me from working on deepening my connections. I've had bad experiences in the past with people who were super-needy and super-communicative in a way that I found overwhelming and I never want to be like that. I feel that this worry about coming across as creepy or needy blocks me from developing relationships with people I would otherwise like to count among my actual friends.

What this all means is that I have only a handful of truly close, stand-the-test-of-time friends - maybe 2 that I actually see regularly, 5 including the ones who live far away and I rarely see but speak to frequently.

This is a really interesting article about developing friendships and it highlights the importance of a few key factors in creating a foundation for a friendship including availability and responsiveness. I find increasingly that people are either unavailable or variable in their responsiveness, which is frustrating because I am highly responsive and in general available because of my personality and circumstances.

It would be great to have some pointers on how to deepen my connections with people. I don't want to be that person with 100s of acquaintances but very few friends, but increasingly this is how I feel.

TIA Mefites - I realise I ask a lot of questions about friendships and social connections!
posted by unicorn chaser to Human Relations (20 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
Have you seen this question from yesterday? It's not identical, but close enough that a lot of the answers there contain useful suggestions and reading that would be applicable to you.
posted by penguin pie at 3:54 AM on January 8, 2020 [1 favorite]

Do you regret building friendships with people who moved away and became less available? I'm guessing not - it always stings, when I'm willing to put in the effort to remain friends and others aren't, but it happens. And sometimes those friendships rekindle later on. So when you catch yourself thinking "Beth seems really cool but what if she moves across the country in 2 years" - well, what if she says in the same city and you're passing up on a life-long friendship? Or what if she does move across the country but values your connection and you text regularly and even visit? Those things have happened to me - sometimes with very unexpected people.

For me, the deepening friendship thing usually happens one-on-one. When I'm trying to make new friends I might ask several people to do things together or in smaller groups. Over time, I click with some of them, we learn more about what we have in common and enjoy doing together, and slowly gel into friends.

Of the acquaintances you have, there are probably a few who stand out as people you'd really like to get to know better, and perhaps a few who've made overtures to you. Reach out to one of them and ask them to get together one-on-one or in a smaller group. If you know what they like, tailor your ask accordingly (museum date, hiking, bowling, yoga class, whatevs). Some of them will say they're too busy, some will show up but maybe you won't quite click (go ahead and give it another shot). And chances are there will be a few who turn into closer friends. It just takes patience and a willingness to be vulnerable and to listen.

Another thing I do is share an event on social media and ask who wants to go. Sometimes I wind up doing things with people I wouldn't have thought would want to spend time with me.

Does this answer your question? Have you already tried these things and run into roadblocks?
posted by bunderful at 4:41 AM on January 8, 2020 [6 favorites]

The difficulty appears to me in setting up the conditions where a superficial relationship between acquaintances will deepen into something lasting because those conditions are not superficial.

One factor is genetics - if you look like someone and are told that they are kin and spend time with them especially as a child you may get a friendship that is deep, the way we may get one with our cousins or step-siblings.

Another factor is shared adversity - if you are on a plane with someone when it is hijacked you can end up spending the rest of your life around planning survivor reunions.

Another factor is if you are mutually engaged for long enough in helping each other - it doesn't have to be something as traumatic as a hijack. It could start with Grade Six algebra, but if you don't get to help each other and struggle at something that has an impact on you repeatedly that link fades.

Then there is the oxytocin bond that we get from snuggling, and which often manifests with jealousy.

There is also the meeting of minds/culture. If someone feels like the only person that understands you and the only person who is interesting the two of you may like the feeling so much that you keep seeking each other out. But this requires a feeling of not fitting with everyone or almost everyone else.

Bonds are easily broken. We have a hallmark view that people stay in touch with the children and their parents and their best friend from childhood, but that's no more realistic than the belief that if two people get married they are going to be able to sustain the bond. Lots of people drift away from their siblings, let alone friends. "Haven't talk to my brother in six years..." is extremely common. So in trying to make a friendship turn into something deep and long term you are up against a lot. Recreating the conditions above are your best bet.

I don't think my suggestion here is going to be extremely helpful to you, but I am hoping it will give you context that the kind of friendship you want and doesn't seem to be developing isn't because something is lacking in you, or that you are doing the wrong things, nor that your tendency to not get involved deeply is incorrect. It's a realistic assessment of the situation. If you lived in a village and knew that your neighbours were not going to ever move you could much more easily calculate who to become close to, and who to invest in.

I'd start by seeing how well you can work with your friends with the work being the object of the time together - so if they are repairing the drywall themselves, volunteering to show up and help, if only to keep the kids amused while they are working. It's not so much the spending time with them as giving them the impression that if they need a spare pair of hands unicorn will matter of factly dive in and start the work.

You really have to begin with common goals and them having a sense that their problems are your problems, and if they reciprocate to where they demonstrate that they equally consider your problems are their problems, going on from there.
posted by Jane the Brown at 4:46 AM on January 8, 2020 [1 favorite]

I feel you, I really do. I've moved twice in five years and all but one of my intimate friends are at least half a country away. (The one is, fortunately, my twice-weekly gym buddy, or I really would go feral.)

I was reminded of this question and my answer thereof by your worry about neediness - maybe it'll help. (FWIW, the Katie referenced there did in fact become one of my dearest friends; alas, she lives on the opposite coast now so she's also a once-a-year friend. But she's still a dear friend and when we do get to see each other, we pick up exactly where we left off and it's incredibly renewing for me.)

For most of the rest of my friends, I'm the asshole who moved away and is bad at keeping in touch. I still love them very much! But I'm not a great correspondent and it's hard to figure out how to make that connection work long-distance and asynchronously. The best solution I've come up with is a) travel and b) host. If on of my close friends in the area, obviously we see each other. If they're in the _region_, I will do a moderately huge amount of schlepping to get to spend time with them. And if I have time/money to travel, I try really hard to arrange visits in and around my trips and make it a priority. It's not always possible, but it's always worth it.

I'm no help on making new friends; I'll let you know when I figure it out :/
posted by restless_nomad at 6:06 AM on January 8, 2020 [6 favorites]

I reckon most of your problem is social and systemic and not really solvable on an individual level. I have a 6 year old, an 8 year old and a job. I see my best friends maybe 5 times a year.
Most people in the familyand career stage of life quit having the kind of time intensive friendships you'd expect from your early 20s. It's not feasible for them. There just is no time. And time is what you need.
I hear that this changes as the kids grow up.

I'm sorry, this is crappy and I wish I had more useful advice. But maybe you can concentrate on finding and maintaining friendships with people who more strongly prioritise having time for their social life, like, they have a job that doesn't eat them up, they don't have families etc.
posted by Omnomnom at 6:27 AM on January 8, 2020 [5 favorites]

I've got a load of stuff I was gonna post but actually wait because

What this all means is that I have only a handful of truly close, stand-the-test-of-time friends - maybe 2 that I actually see regularly, 5 including the ones who live far away and I rarely see but speak to frequently.

That sounds... normal? Like - I am a fairly social and sociable person, and have a pretty wide social circle too, but still would count "close" friends on one hand (mayyybe two but only just). I know several people who perhaps only have one or two that would fit that category.

Honestly - I think a lot of people talk this number up. I don't even know if you CAN have many more close friends than that without sacrificing your own wellbeing. Is it even possible? The WORK, the TIME it would take - assuming you have to meet these people, build the friendship, maintain when one of you inevitably moves or has a major life change. Doing that eight, nine, ten times over or more? Heck!

What I mean is, some people might say they have a ton of close friends, but I doubt there are many people in the world who have many more "til death" buddies than you do.

If this makes sense to you, perhaps you might think about what is lacking in your friendship menu right now. You have your abovementioned close besties who you can call up if you need to. Do you have enough next-tier ones who share hobbies with you, who you can do things with when you just want company? Or are you meeting new people often enough that you're keeping things fresh in your social life?

What I mean is, maybe the problem you're feeling here isn't about deepening connections, but more about getting the right balance in your social life.
posted by greenish at 6:49 AM on January 8, 2020 [19 favorites]

I think the answer is more simple. Time and shared experiences. That's it. Deep friendships take a lot of time and the more things you do with each person the more your friendship will grow.
posted by Patapsco Mike at 7:22 AM on January 8, 2020 [2 favorites]

How often are you the one trying to organize get-togethers? If you become one of the go-to people for trying to organize friend activities, and show over time that you’re comfortable putting yourself out there even when you get rejected (“anyone want to go to this concert with me?”), friends might start reaching out to you more often when they want to do something. This is mostly true for in-town people, but you can also send an email out to out-of-town friends suggesting a girls’ weekend or some other quick getaway—I know my female friends with kids often like planning things like this, where a group can meet up for two or three days and reconnect.
posted by sallybrown at 7:28 AM on January 8, 2020 [1 favorite]

This really varies from person to person. I continue to be surprised at to which of my friends last long term vs. the ones I thought who who would who would not.

You are correct in that when someone makes a big life change like moving, marrying, having kids, that they are way more likely to drop out of your life. There really isn't shit you can do about that, and as someone who is also in a similar situation to you (permanently single), it's something that will continue to come up, unless you find another one like you and me who isn't likely to find another job or get married. So looking for someone similar to yourself may be a good idea.

But also, it really depends on the person. I'm still good friends with a friend who lives a few hours away because she actually puts in the work to contact me (or contact me back), we get together every few months, etc. If a person likes to write/text, you have better odds of keeping up the contact when they move than folks who aren't into that. Much as I hate Facebook (and won't do it, so it does hamper my friendships), that's how most people keep up connections these days as well.

But in order to build a friendship, you need to spend a lot of time with them first. I wanted to make friends with a lady last year, but our lives didn't overlap at all and she had a LOT going on and it would take a lot of time and effort that she'd have to make specially to see me, so obviously this wasn't sustainable. But i got into theater in 2019 and when you see folks on a frequent basis for a month and a half per show (or whatever), it builds bonds, especially if they end up in more shows with you later. It really helps to have recurring activities going on that mean that you can see someone enough times, and then you need to expand your hanging out outside of the context. (Go read the "friendship circles" link in yesterday's AskMe for how this is done.)
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:30 AM on January 8, 2020 [1 favorite]

But because this has happened so many times, it makes me a little skeptical about new relationships. I find myself thinking, "Oh yeah, we get along great. But as soon as they move away/get a new job etc, we won't stay in touch."

I don't know your age, but when I was in my 20s I felt this a lot more than I do now in my mid-30s. The area I live in people typically leave post high school or college for better opportunities in larger cities. And that was hard because I was settling in. I lost many strong connections and that loss continues today. This past year I think I had 5 different people in my various social networks move away--some a 3-hour drive away and some across the ocean to another country. It's still hard to lose those people, to try to keep some connections going. I agree that it's the rare few where both of you are willing to make that long-distance connection work.

But! I don't worry about the work and time so much anymore. I think once you can engage with those acquaintances from a place of casual enjoyment, take the pressure off yourself, you can find those deeper connections. And it's okay if they don't last forever. It's okay if only some of them grow deeper. Enjoy the exchanges and the time you spend with them. Find the exchanges you love the most and seek those out--whether with the same people or others.
posted by carrioncomfort at 7:48 AM on January 8, 2020 [4 favorites]

So I think even the most social people I know have maybe 2-5 close friendships, the kind you would turn to for sustained support in a significant crisis, everybody else is in acquaintance territory. This includes people with all the time in the world like students and retired people.

Both my closest friends live in other countries, one of them the far side of another continent. I probably talk to her more than anybody else because she finds time, the same way I do, even though we have highly involved jobs and different time zones against us. Ever since she’s moved away we have also always found a way to visit or do a joint trip once a year.

The other friend has a 2 year old and a 5 year old, a cat, a professional job and is newly separated from her husband. She’s also looking for a new job and trying to sell her marital home to buy a house she can afford alone...the definition of super busy. We never talk unless we manage to meet up but we communicate all the time via messages. It’s easier for her to do that than try to find the peace for a longer call. And she does make time to meet if given enough notice so we try to manage that 2-3 x year.
posted by koahiatamadl at 8:30 AM on January 8, 2020

This may vary based on your desire to hang with kids, but I am a child-free Gen X-er who hangs out with friends even after they have had kids by coming over to their homes for casual hang-outs. I find that in nearly all cases, my friends are more than happy to spend time together, it's just that the parameters of what is possible have narrowed considerably. I come over with takeout, we all have dinner together, and then I chill on the couch with a book while they put their kid to bed, and then have a beer and snacks rummaged from the fridge once the kid has fallen asleep (and sometimes let myself out because my friend also fell asleep). I also have made myself available for fun aunt duties, I'm on the approved list at the preschool/elementary school and last year when I had more time, picked up one rapscallion every Thursday and then took them to the Korean grocery store to get takeout dinner for everyone, before bringing them home. The important thing I think is that our friendship makes room for their kid while also keeping the friendship as the core.

My experience has been most parents of small kids appreciate having an adult friend who is good at (or doesn't mind) hanging out with kids, but interacts with them (the parents) as people who have interests beyond their kids. What I have in common with my friends prior to their having kids is still there, they are still interested in the negative social impacts of the Olympics, or we still have the shared experience of drinking way way too much during grad school, or they can still make fun of the things I did when I was a ridiculously angsty teenager.
posted by spamandkimchi at 8:54 AM on January 8, 2020 [28 favorites]

In addition to all the great advice above, I've found that the things that lead to deeper friendships--after baseline personal compatibility is established-- are time, regularity, reciprocity, and some kind of low-pressure shared interest.

in the past two years, I've made two new close friends, and in both cases, we came together over a common pastime or subject, and we make concerted efforts to see each other on a regular basis.

The other thing I've noticed is that there are "seasons" to most long-standing friendships. Friends who were in the background when they were in their thirties with small kids are coming forward again now that their children are more independent. I'm glad I kept the embers alive, even when I felt like they didn't have much time for me.

I came across a quote years ago along the lines of "friends will come in and out of your life like waiters in a busy restaurant." It's given me a lot of comfort that this waxing and waning is not my fault, and that things are always in motion.

If you have 2-5 really close friends, I think you're doing pretty well.
posted by rpfields at 9:42 AM on January 8, 2020 [6 favorites]

There was a period when my hard-won connections were all consistently moving away, and I realized it was because the people most available for forming friendships were the ones without any connection to our city. I put more effort into meeting people with roots, though of course that was harder.

One thing that can be a shortcut to deepening connections with friends is asking for help with something or asking to borrow something. It's sort of a signal that you're open to interdependence.
posted by metasarah at 9:50 AM on January 8, 2020 [4 favorites]

If you have 2-5 really close friends, I think you're doing pretty well.

I share this feeling, this seems normal but obviously it doesn't feel normal to you there could be a few things going on

- you don't feel like you have friends for the type of thing you would want a friend for, whatever that might be
- you have an stronger need/desire for friendships than whatever is average
- you have FOMO and feel like other people are having the friendships that are the kind that you want.

I have some advice and an observation. The advice matches what many other people say: time and regularity. Some of the people who I hang out with the most nowadays are the people in my town in my trivia group. We meet at the bar weeklyish for dinner and trivia but now we've started spending other time together too, meeting for games at someone's house or a meal. The other local friends I have are people who I would walk their dog with (I do not have a dog, just go along with them for a low-key outing and some exercise) or watch football with (sports fandom is a huge regularity thing, i think that is one reason many people enjoy it). Finding ways to communicate together that work for everyone is key. My sports friends are texters and facebookers. My trivia group has a group email. My dog walk friend mostly texts and is often a more last minute "Hey you free for dinner" friend while my sports friends and I plan ahead. Figuring out these rhythms can be helpful.

And my observation, which may help, is that building these sorts of friendships takes time and if you have 2-5 close friends and still don't feel like you have the friendships you want it's possible that the friends you have, in some way, aren't the right friends. This can be hard because often a sub-optimal friendship is better than no friendship, but it may be occupying time and energies (just like a move or a family or a marriage occipied your previous friends) in a way that makes it harder for you to deepen friendships with other acquaintances.

tl;dr, often a thing that can be helpful is thinking "What do I like to do? How do I find other people who like that?" and realizing that as the things you like change, your friendships may also change.
posted by jessamyn at 10:33 AM on January 8, 2020 [6 favorites]

What this all means is that I have only a handful of truly close, stand-the-test-of-time friends - maybe 2 that I actually see regularly, 5 including the ones who live far away and I rarely see but speak to frequently.

While I think you're asking a good question, I also think that seven stand-the-test-of-time friends is really fantastic.

The first is, I have lost touch with close friends over the years when they have moved away, gotten new jobs, married, had children (I've lived in the same city for 15 years and am single with no kids). This makes me a bit sad - I really valued some of these relationships and am willing to put in the extra work required to maintain a long-distance friendship but I find that sometimes they aren't, because their new circumstances are too all-consuming.

I think some of these folks might re-emerge when their kids are older, or could, if you were open to it. Have you had conversations about this with any of them? I wonder if, with maybe one or two folks, you might be willing to take on some extra work to maintain the friendship, with the idea that you are investing in the friendship for the long term. For example, what if you took the effort to visit them once a year for a few years? Does that leave open the possibility that they might be able to reciprocate down the road?

I am thinking of two folks in my life, one a friend and one a relative, who don't have kids and who are the ones who have made all the effort for us to see each other over the past few years. Now that my kids are older, I am in a better place to be able to go visit them. I hadn't thought about it this way til now, but their low-key persistence has been a big part of the reason we've been able to remain our relationships. I'm not suggesting you have one-sided friendships, but I think some of those parent-friends might be feeling a bit isolated and lonely themselves and would truly appreciate your efforts, along the lines of what spamandkimchi said above.

It might also be that you are feeling a bit bruised and rejected by your past efforts, and you're feeling a bit vulnerable. I do wonder if one of those friends who moved away might be a good candidate for re-kindling, but it also means putting yourself out there a bit.
posted by bluedaisy at 10:36 AM on January 8, 2020 [1 favorite]

I agree that sometimes it's easier to rekindle a friendship with someone who has liked us in the past than start from scratch. I also agree with the point that it can take many hours of contact time before someone can switch from acquaintance to friend, so activities with weekly contact such as an exercise or language class might be good. I have also seen in other similar questions quite often people recommend the UU church even for those who are agnostic and not especially religious, since often the people who attend are the type interested in community activity. My local regular church welcomes those "of all faiths and none" and I am considering going there more often.
posted by AuroraSky at 10:42 AM on January 8, 2020

you don't feel like you have friends for the type of thing you would want a friend for, whatever that might be

This, in my experience, is a really important aspect to focus on. Think of it this way: lots of people (maybe most) have only a few close friends, but they also don't have trouble finding other people to invite to a dinner party or wedding or housewarming or baby shower, and those people are happy to show up for them.

If you're relying on your closest friends to meet all your social needs other than highly personal confidante-level ones, it'll be challenging to, well, have a social life or even get instrumental support. I've got a similar close friend count/geographic distribution; even in the best of times, they are people who could lend me an ear but aren't necessarily ones I could reliably do things with like check out a film festival or go snowboarding or whatever. And I've written about this at length here before, but having sounding board stuff be your primary form of friend engagement isn't always good for one's well-being. Also, it is difficult to avoid coming across as needy when you're drawing from the same small pool for everything.

You may not need more close friends so much as you might need a stable of people who you know enjoy your company (and vice versa), have some free time, and share some similar interests. Not ride-or-dies or mere acquaintances, but people who feel comfortable enough with you that they won't be put off by an invite.
posted by blerghamot at 11:49 AM on January 8, 2020 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: These are such smart answers. I feel like jessamyn and blerghamot kind of zeroed in on the main issue which I hadn't really properly articulated even to myself, which is that I have, yes, my handful of ride-or-die friends (whom I love and am super grateful for) but who aren't really available for low-key hanging out, while those of my friends who have had babies/moved away used to be my go-tos for that kind of socialising. And now that they're not available anymore, I feel like I have my few close friends and my bazillions of acquaintances but not really a lot of people I could randomly hang out with on a weekday evening down the pub or go to the movies with.

I guess it's a 30s thing. It can be hard to find people who are interested in that as most of the people I know are either invested in their family or partners, or in dating actively to find a partner, rather than spending time with friends at the movies or whatever.
posted by unicorn chaser at 2:24 AM on January 9, 2020 [3 favorites]

So you know what unexpectedly deepened several of my friendships? We started having a Knit Night. Every week after work we sat in a coffee shop for an hour or two and knitted and chatted. And we very naturally got to know one another better and became better and better friends.

Don't underestimate the value of a regular Sunday Supper/MST3K Night/Knitting Evening/Tea Party event, with fairly consistent people, that doesn't need massive amounts of prep or structure but gives you something to do and talk about in the earlier stages while you're building trust. In the early years you may spend all your time talking about the weather and how exactly you bind off ribbing, but after a while you also talk about your mental health struggles or whether you're out to your parents or your difficult situation at work or whatever.

Another good channel, honestly, is the group chat. Some of my closest friends "live in my pocket" as our years-old continually open group chat gives me a window of contact frequently throughout our lives. And the group chat started as a place to talk about comic books!
posted by oblique red at 1:41 PM on January 9, 2020 [3 favorites]

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