Five actually useful ideas for how to find more friends as an adult

Recently I wrote about friendship, loneliness, and why it’s not surprising that you might need a new friend or two.

This week, I wanted to share five ideas about how to actually make those new friends, all from Shasta Nelson’s lovely book, Friendships Don’t Just Happen: The Guide to Creating A Meaningful Circle of Girlfriends. They’ve been helpful for me in my process of making new adult friends, and hopefully they’ll help you, too:

1. Long-distance friends aren’t the same as local friends.

Many of our long-distance friends are very important to us. We’ve known them a long time, and have a deep intimacy with them. That’s great!

But, Nelson argues, long distance friends aren’t a substitute for local relationships. Even if you talk on the phone regularly, and see each other once or twice a year, it’s nearly impossible to be creating as many new memories or sharing our day-to-day lives in the same way as you could with a local friend. For that reason, Nelson considers long-distance friends to be a separate category of friends — she calls them “confirmed friends.”

Realizing this was a big shift for me. I have a number of close friends living across the country from me, who I’ve known a long time and deeply value. Of course, I have no plans of losing touch with them and I hope to have them in my life for a long, long time. But Nelson’s argument made me realize that if I plan to live in Los Angeles long time — which I do — I have to develop a stronger circle of close, local friends.

2. If you want to have close friends, you have to start with friendly acquaintances.

I’ll admit: What I truly want is a handful of close, intimate friends. The kinds of friends who celebrate birthdays together and call to check in if we know the other is having a stressful week. The kinds of friends of friends who I can be truly honest and authentic with. I have some of those, but could use a few more where I live.

But Nelson’s book pointed out that the only way you get to close, committed friends is by making friendly acquaintances first. She has a great model of friendship as a five-stage spectrum (you can see the full model here) from acquaintances on the left, to deep, committed friends on the right.

Her point is that all friendships — no matter how deep or intimate they may eventually be — start out as friendly acquaintances. Some friendships will progress through the stages of increasing depth and intimacy, and some won’t. And, frankly, it can be hard to tell at the beginning which ones will make it all the way to what she calls “commitment friends,” the most deep level of friendship.

But you have to start out with a lot of casual acquaintances, and see who goes deeper over time. As someone who loves deep connection, this was a little tough to accept.

But it was also a relief — it reminded me that it’s normal if none of the people I meet “feel like” close, intimate friends. They aren’t that kind of friend! They will only feel like friendly acquaintances. And then, as I invest in those relationships, we’ll see what they become.

3. The two most important characteristics for a deeper friendship are intimacy and consistency.

Consistency means “regular time spent together,” and intimacy means “sharing that extends to a broad range of topics and increases in vulnerability.” I think this makes a certain amount of intuitive sense: the more time you spend with another person, and the more you both share intimately with each other, the deeper your relationship will become.

But notice what this definition excludes: how much we like each other.

The truth is that even if you really like another person and they like you, you might not become friends. How often have you met an interesting person, had a fun or deep conversation, and thought hey, I’d like to see them again! And then you never saw them again, or never saw them frequently enough to actually become friends. If there’s not consistency there (and intimacy, of course), you won’t become friends.

Of course, how much you like the other person will influence whether you’re willing to be consistent and intimate with that person. But there could be people who you like quite a lot, and still the friendship never quite gets off the ground. It is the consistency and intimacy which are bedrock requirements.

As a result…

4. You’ll have to initiate. And initiate again.

Nelson points out that women, in particular, may enjoy being pursued, and may be used to having someone else initiate in other key relationships:

“In romance, we want to be pursued. In job interviews, it’s up to the HR team to make the offer. But in friendship, there isn’t a clear conductor of this symphony, a leader in the dance. We’re just two women who probably could use more support in our lives, but if we both sit back and hope the other reaches out, then I’m afraid that we’ll end up with a company of disconnected, depressed, lonely women… So we’re going to initiate. Yes, we are. Again. And again.” (107)

Most people I know are comfortable initiating at least once. Maybe even twice. But pretty soon, we start to keep score: I initiated last time, it’s her turn this time.

Nelson’s radical point is that we may have to initiate, and then initiate again. And then a third time and maybe a fourth. Of course, we shouldn’t initiate every day, and we should pay attention to signals from the other about whether they’re interested in our friendship. But if we don’t see each other regularly (point #3), a friendship will never take off. So if we want more meaningful relationships in our lives, we may have to initiate more often than our initial instincts would go for.

5. One last thing

Here’s some tough love, from Shasta Nelson:

“If you tell me that you want to foster more meaningful friendships, then my response back to you will always be: tell me who you have scheduled in the upcoming two weeks and I’ll tell you if you’re on your way to stronger friendships.”

The only way to make more friends is to spend time with potential friends. There is no substitute. And given how busy most people are, this time often must be scheduled in advance.

Was this helpful? What are your takeaways? I’d love it if you’d leave a comment below.

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