The challenge of making adult friends

By Caitlin Kelly

I learned how to canoe at camp -- useful when we went to Nicaragua
On assignment in Nicaragua for WaterAid — Jen in the bow of a dugout canoe. Probably the most unusual shared experience!

I recently came across this fascinating series of interviews on the website of The Atlantic, The Friendship Files.

Each is a meditation on an aspect of friendship, a subject often overlooked for focus on family, marriage, dating and children.

This one, on the tight bonds between expats, struck me, as some of my closest friends have been expats or have moved to a country (or several) far from their country of origin. I was born in Canada, but have lived in England (ages 2-5), Mexico (14), France (25) and the U.S. (30 to the present), which really makes me an immigrant to the U.S., not an expat (short for ex-patriate, not patriot!)

So while I have met a few fellow Canadians over the years, and am soon having coffee with a film-maker from Calgary, and presenting May 1 at a journalism conference with another ex-Calgary resident who lives here, I don’t have a lot of Canadian friends here. Many of the Canadians in or near NY are wealthy bankers or lawyers or corporate types, so our paths just wouldn’t cross socially or professionally. I’ve attended a few alumni events (very rare for my alma mater, University of Toronto, sorry to say) but have never met anyone I wanted to follow up with.

But some of my friends are people who do live far away from their homelands, like the author of the blog Small Dog Syndrome, an American long happiest in London, my neighbor across the street who spent a year in high schol in New Zealand, my Canadian best friend from university who went to British boarding school and lived for a while in Tanzania and our neighbor across the hall here in New York who has moved permanently to Holland, to marry her British partner. My sister-in-law and her husband, now back in the U.S., lived for many years working in international schools in China, Malaysia, the Netherlands.

So there’s a lot we don’t have to explain to one another, even from the start. That helps a friendship.

For me friendship is a delicate stew of shared interests and experiences, and being an expat or immigrant living far from your home country, culture and language (no matter where) — tends to create very relatable moments, whether a nervous visit to the doctor (fumbling for medical terms) or post office or choosing a word with a dirty meaning by mistake — damn you, baiser!

The French have a great phrase, “coup de foudre“, basically love at first sight, and I tend to be like this with a potential new friend. I tend to feel an attraction — style, intellect, history, cultural interests, sense of humor, the sort of work they do and value — right away.

But there are so many tricky elements to finding and nurturing a new adult friend, and year after year of COVID fear and social avoidance have made this more difficult. You can’t hug someone on Zoom!

I’m happiest with someone who has also traveled widely — and even many of the richest Americans don’t. They work all the time or choose luxury spots not my style or budget. Nor do I have children, a typical glue for many adult friendships. So this is difficult in a country and culture where even taking two weeks off in a row is seen as lazy and weird — I prefer three to six weeks when possible, more European than workaholic American.

But finding a new friend — and continuing and deepening the relationship — takes more than shared interests. It takes time, energy, honesty and vulnerability.

It also means having the strength to work through conflict because it can happen; I lost three women friends who had been very close when I dared to ask them to look at a behavior that was hurting me. They refused and ended the friendship; I mourned one of them for many years. But I don’t regret it, either.

I’ve started to get to know two or three people from my spin class…because I go two or three times a week and show up consistently. It takes time! One was a speechwriter for a former NY governor and journalist, and one is a lawyer with a major local firm who does a lot of coaching and mentoring. Both are super-smart but also friendly.

My two closest friends in New York came through journalism and a church we attended for a long time. I’ve recently seen two women at the gym who seem cool, so I may ask them for coffee.

The pandemic has really changed — and ended — many friendships, as we’ve faced different challenges (we have been very very lucky to not have COVID or lose a loved one to it, for example) and the basic proximity of meeting for a coffee has become a risk for so many.

We’re super excited to welcome a younger pal visiting next week from Oregon and, the following week, a friend I knew at boarding school when I was 12…and haven’t seen since!

How are your friendships these days?

Have you been able to find and make new friends as an adult — how?

25 thoughts on “The challenge of making adult friends

  1. My friendships aren’t too bad. I actually saw an old high school friend of mine not too long ago for drinks, and one of my best friends is applying for a job with the hope he can move back to Columbus. And I find, when you connect with the writing community online, you make plenty of friends. Especially in my genre. We may like creepy stuff, but we’re all lovable goofballs for the most part.

  2. This post is close to my heart. I find it is difficult to find kindred spirits at my age. We travelled for 2 1/2 years and I was bedridden for 3 before that (guaranteed to lose friends). When we settled in our small town, I met a friend through the local poetry group, but she veered towards conspiracy theories and I vaccinated for my own protection which drove a wedge between us. I am coming to think that at this age, my own company will have to do, but hopefully, I’m wrong.

  3. it is an ongoing challenge and covid only exacerbated things. I have a small group of friends from when I first moved to Ann Arbor, who I still meet with regularly, (schedules and covid allowing), and a person I used to work with in advertising, who I see a few times a year. the 3 women who I’ve known for many years, since the time I became a single mother, are still friends, and we work hard to all see each other. meeting new people as an adult is a challenge for sure. I can only think of 2 people who I’ve met outside of my old friendships who I’ve connected with at all, and they were at an healthy eating class I took, 1 is older, 1 is younger, and we meet up every few months for a meal or coffee. the desire for human connection is universal and not always easy.

    1. COVID has been really destructive of friendships…we recently caught up with some people we have considered close (for the first time in maybe a year) and it felt different…The one place I feel I’m slowly making a few new friends is at spin class…seeing people OFTEN (like several times a week or month) helps a lot. Otherwise you have to carve out time and people (here) are so busy all the time. Glad you have a steady crew!

    2. Jan Jasper

      Beth, I grew up in Ann Arbor, I lived there till age 27 when I moved to Manhattan. I love Ann Arbor! I haven’t been back there since my mother died (too painful), but A2 will always have a HUGE warm spot in my heart. What prompted your move there?

      1. hi jan – I grew up in Oakland county and used to come to games and other events here since the time I was little with my father. at 40, I quit my job and went to grad school here to change careers and become a teacher. I loved it and it felt like where I wanted to live and make my home. never left.

  4. COVID cost me two long-time friends; not from the illness itself, but from the sickness of the mind and spirit that sprang up from the anger and suspicion. Both of these guys got into the practice of competitive arguing, which often means lots of ignoring of facts and moving of goalposts. (Ten yard penalty, repeat third down).
    I lost another potential friend during this time, due to his distasteful, poorly supported views on race, and my weariness with having to defend my life whenever we met for a cup of coffee.
    I am still very lucky. My best friend lives about two miles up the road and he’s great. We can discuss matters where we don’t agree without animosity. We can, and do, make jokes about Ted Cruz, AOC and Madison Cawthorn (The representative from my district), with wild abandon. We don’t need, or even want, anything from one another, so it’s comfortable.
    I’ve been living here for a long time, and have become part of the community. I see kids that I worked with in Tae Kwon Do school, grown up with kids of their own, And that’s always a great thing. I gotta say I’m doing well.

    1. Thanks for sharing this. Luckily we haven’t lost any friends to COVID or mad theories about it. I envy you such close proximity to your bestie! I just did a 2.5 hour (!) Zoom this morning with a pal near London and it was great.

  5. Jan Jasper

    Caitlin, Ahhh, this is a subject I think about a great deal. I’m probably in the minority in that whether a friend lives close enough to spend regular time together just doesn’t matter much to me. For decades my closest friends have lived hundreds of miles away (we originally lived in the same town when we met, then we both moved). For many years since then, we’ve had regular phone calls (now Zoom calls). I crave someone I can talk to well, and that is very hard to find. I find very few people have good conversational skills – the “back and forth” – and a comparable amount of life experience and insight to mine. And I’ve noticed that most women I’ve met recently are very aggressive conversationalists – I can hardly get a word in. I hate this and will not pursue friendships with these people. I’ve had several decades-long friendships with men who are very easy to talk to. I certainly make a distinction between acquaintances and friends, tho I guess it’s a continuum, not black or white. As for Covid, I’ve made several friends through MeetUp groups on Zoom – people I now talk or text with frequently. One woman lives close enough that we can actually spend regular time together. If this friendship develops as I hope it will, it’ll be a rare treat for me, a friend I can both talk to well and see in person. As for directly Covid problems, a few years ago I had a group of acquaintances I liked a lot, linked by shared interests (Friend is a big word to me, so I don’t use that here) – who I found out, in the past several months, were anti-vax. A year ago there was a party announcement, and we were told (thru our MeetUp group) that we were absolutely not to ask other guests whether they been vaccinated – I was stunned. (What else did people talk about last May?) Several months later, another party invitation from the same group – indoors this time – so I inquired about Covid safety and I got a very hostile reaction. I will not socialize with these people anymore.

    1. I also have good friends very far away — my best friend from university in Kamloops, BC and a few pals in Toronto and a new friend near London with whom I did a 2.5 hour Zoom this morning. So I do appreciate them…but also crave people to spend time with.

      I hear you on aggressive people! I have noticed this and it’s weird….they go on and on and on and NEVER ask about you.

  6. It’s hard to find opportunities for friendship as an adult, especially when you (as I do) work from home and have to purposefully make time / opportunities to meet people. Sadly, one of my friendships disintegrated last year when I was going through a bit of a difficult time with health issues for a couple of months, and they were unwilling or unable to offer any emotional support. We have tentatively begun speaking again but I feel the trust is weakened now. A good friendship, and any healthy relationship, should be reciprocal and respectful IMO.

    I have a close friend from university days who lives close enough to meet for dinner every month or so, and I really value her friendship. I’ve always been someone with a smaller, tighter network than lots of connections — think it’s an introvert thing!

    Hope you have a great time with your friends who are visiting 🙂 Admire your dedication to spinning, by the way. I tried it twice and felt so sick afterwards, I thought I was going to have to rush to the bathroom!

    1. For sure….and COVID fears have made this so much harder now. There are people I would love to have over for a meal and they refuse to socialize. Sorry about your friend who let you down…it’s really when things get difficult we often see who is a true friend, for sure!

      Lucky you! My uni bestie lies in BC, very far away, although we have a long phone chat every few weeks. I am fine with a small, tight group of friends as well.

      Thanks!

      I love spin…I know some people hate it. I have a very arthritic right hip now so walking isn’t much fun but I can easily do 45 minutes of spin and that helps with stress and weigh management. I also really like getting to know people in my class.

      1. It’s a difficult one with COVID. It seems like it’s never going to go away completely, so I suppose we all have to do our own cost-benefit analysis and risk assessments. I’d prefer to have a quiet meal with friends than stay isolated, as after several lockdowns and voluntary shielding in 2020/early 2021, I need to see people for my own mental wellbeing! It’s a shame about your friends being unwilling to meet for dinner, but hopefully they will feel more relaxed as time goes on.

        It sounds like good exercise to help with your hip. Do you swim as well? I’d like to start swimming more often but public pools put me off, so many germs and chlorine! I’m going to Greece soon though, looking forward to swimming in the sea.

      2. I do swim occasionally and enjoy it — but it can (oddly) make my hip hurt more! I was massively put off on my last pool visit when two men were rude and obnoxious.

    2. Jan

      Many people aren’t good at being a friend to someone who has health problems or actually, any kind of serious problem. A solid friend should be able to listen and say “I’m sorry you’re going through this.” If you’re sick, perhaps they could help with grocery shopping, or ask you to call them when you get back from the doctor, and the like. In contrast, I’ve found that many people engage in toxic positivity, saying “I’m sure you’ll be just fine” when there is no evidence that you’ll be fine. If I have a serious problem, I want friends who can listen thoughtfully and take the situation seriously, not offer feel-good cliches. Perhaps they’re more interested in making themselves comfortable than actually supporting the other person. Many people are not good listeners, but I think this reflects something deeper that is missing in such friends.

      1. Agreed! I have been very fortunate, when ill or injured, to have supportive pals be there for me — one spent most of the day with me back in 2018 when I needed 3 hospital tests in a day. UGH.

        Those bland phrases are useless.

      2. That’s true, and I guess that’s where the phrase “fairweather friends” comes from. A true friend should stick by someone in good times and bad. Sadly in my friend’s case he was very unsympathetic even when I explained the issues that had caused me to reschedule dinner plans a couple of times. It sounds so petty when I look back on it, and the issues are sorted now so if he’d had more patience for a couple of months our friendship could have continued unmarred. I hope I’m a good listener to the important people in my life, I try to be an active listener but I’m sure I don’t always succeed!

      3. I think it takes patience and candor. I asked a friend in CA to join me there for my birthday (she lives somewhat nearby) and I was really hurt when she so quickly said no.

        I finally wrote her a brief email and said I was disappointed and a bit hurt. She explained in more detail which helped. Sometimes you have to (calmly) deal with it head-on.

  7. masonicmasterretired

    THE OLDER I GET THE MORE PEOPLE AMAZE ME AS EVERYONE SEEMS TO WANT ME TO BUY OVER RETAIL PRICES I HAVE LOST SO MANY FRIENDS AS EVERYONE IS VISITING GOD / I AM THE LAST OF MY IMMEDIATE FAMILY IT HAS BEEN 30 YEARS WITHOUT FAMILY, SO CALLED FRIENDS OR A MATE / GOT ANY IDEAS, THE BAR SCENE IS NO GOOD AS I AM A NON DRINKER NON SMOKER AT THE AGE OF 76 YEARS YOUNG RETIRED LIVING BY MYSELF IN A 2 BEDROOM 1000 SQ FOOT BASEMENT APARTMENT IN SOUTHERN NEW HAMPSHIRE LOOKING FOR COMPANY WITH BENEFITS OF HELPPING ME TO TAKE CARE OF THIS APARTMENT WITHOUT DIRECTINGLY PAYING FOR SERVICES, I COOK PLUS DRIVE A 2 SEAT CORVETTE COUPE AS A DAILY DRIVER YEAR ROUND

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