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What’s Getting in the Way of Meaningful Adult Friendships?

When it comes to making and keeping friendships as an adult, what makes them work? How vulnerable do you have to be? What defines a meaningful relationship? In this blog post I survey my colleagues, friends, and family to explore this topic and draw some conclusions.

I had a sobering moment when it came to adult friendships when I was 27 or so. I had a falling out with a friend, and over email – yes, email – we expressed our grievances and then never spoke to each other again. I was a bit shocked because I’ve never had a conflict with a friend in my adult life. Not to mention, this whole friend-breakup was over email, which made it all the more discombobulating.

But at that moment, signing off and hitting the send button, we both quit the friendship, cold turkey. This was a 5 year friendship and we considered each other close, maybe even the best of friends.

I felt off for the next week. I was, after all, losing a good friend, but did I have it in me to go through the emotional reconciliation? No. Neither one of us did.

It was at that moment that I realized I don’t know how to handle conflict and vulnerability when it comes to adult friendships. How far do you put yourself out there? Was I wrong for not fighting for our friendship? Do I even want to?

In addition to friendships lost, I’ve also wondered about friendships gained: What makes it work? What defines a meaningful friendship?

In this blog post, I wanted to explore those very thoughts. So I sent out an anonymous survey in my February newsletter.

I asked three questions:

  1. What are some characteristics of a meaningful adult friendship?
  2. Within the past 3 years, where would you say you’ve made the most friends?
  3. What are some things that contribute to the challenges of having meaningful adult friendships?

Out of 130 people, 30 people responded. Although anonymous, based on the click-through rate, these participants ranged from the ages of 28 – 65 years old.

So, what is a meaningful relationship?

Together with my husband, we put a list of characteristics for participants to rate from not important to very important.

The characteristics of a “meaningful” relationship are:

  • mutual respect
  • two-way, timely communication
  • vulnerability
  • thoughtfulness and actions of appreciation
  • honesty
  • consistency

Here’s how they were rated:

The most important characteristic of a meaningful relationship was mutual respect followed by honesty, and although not very important, but important — thoughtfulness and actions of appreciation came in third.

In exploring the question: how much should you put yourself out there? My participants seemed to have mixed feelings about vulnerability. It was almost broken into equal thirds of less important through very important with even 13.33% saying it’s not important at all.

Perhaps, this is where the struggle lies. As adults we all carry different baggage and conditions ingrained in us that by the time we get to adulthood, our capacity to give and open up differs from person to person.

Some people just want a friend to grab a beer with and talk about sports, some people just want a friend to go clubbing with, where hardly any talking is involved at all; and then some people can sit and talk for hours about the true meaning of life.

I guess it takes finding the right person that fits your same level of rawness. Or, maybe it’s a matter of surrounding yourself with different levels of rawness. We are human after all and our range of emotions can have many octaves.

I find the results on vulnerability in my survey to be the most telling. For those who feel and express too much are often accused of being dramatic and needy, no? And for those who seem aloof to your life matters seem to be self centered and not care.

I think honesty and mutual respect drives vulnerability, right? Building up the courage to tell someone that – “hey! I need you to ask me more about my life instead of talking about yourself all the time” poses it’s own risk…can we handle it? Or are we just going to chalk it up as our friend being dramatic and self-centered?

In this code of friendship, we can learn to navigate those murky waters together. It’s so much easier to just avoid those feelings of wanting to be heard and actually take the information as constructive rather than an attack. In the end, if we don’t put in that work, the depth of our friendship suffers.

I’ll admit, I am still working on this.

What are the challenges with keeping friendships?

Given that consistency and timely, two-way communication was sliced into almost even parts, similar to vulnerability — we can also guess that these are contributing factors to what makes a friendship stick.

It’s either we have the same communication style or we don’t. Are you a planner who can roll with the punches of a more spontaneous friend; and likewise — are you a whimsical individual who can deal with committing to a time and a place for a friend who needs more structure?

It’s true we all have different priorities as we further our career, grow families, and get into different hobbies. Time is a big issue for everyone and it also plays a big factor in how we keep our friendships. The priority at which you communicate and reciprocate towards your friends makes it or breaks it.

But what I found the most interesting is that when I asked what were some of the obstacles we face when it comes to keeping *meaningful* friendships, everyone equally felt that their friends were too busy.

What are some things that contribute to the challenges of having meaningful adult friendships?

*orange is cut off and states: It’s hard to meet people outside of work.

So this makes me wonder, are we really THAT busy? It feels like we are just projecting our own lack of two-way, timely communication and consistency on each other.

But in this adult sphere, this is the norm — to fall off a text conversation or to disappear for some time. Life is hectic. Maybe we pick it back up again or maybe we don’t.

After all, most of our friendships are made and kept out of convenience.

When asked:

Within the past 3 years, where would you say you’ve made the most friends?

Majority of us said we make friends at work, followed by mutual friends. So, convenience is understandable! …it’s not as bad as it sounds. Let’s remember, our friends from the past were made because we spent the majority of our younger lives in a classroom, on a soccer field, in the dorm room, etc., with the same people day in and day out. Friendships form out of convenience and consistency in that given time.

Of course there will always be outliers — people you’ve met serendipitously; and with the help of social media, we’ve been able to forge those long distance gaps and perhaps even keep friendships that may have even fallen through the cracks.

But I think what it all comes down to – to answer the questions: what makes a meaningful friendship? & What makes it stick?- is that You make it meaningful and worthwhile.

How much are you willing to be vulnerable? How upfront can you be about your time and commitment. How consistent can you be with showing friendmanship. Go beyond liking someone’s photo on Instagram, go beyond tagging them in a post. Instead of writing a long sappy photo caption about them, tell it to their face. Can you drop them notes, texts, even call them? Perhaps even send them invitations time and time again even though they have kids and they are most likely not able to make it. It’s cliche, but it’s true: it’s the thought that counts.

Now, at the age of 29 and inching into my 30’s I realize that you get what you put in. When you prioritize your friendships, they’ll prioritize you back. In a world where everyone is too busy looking at memes, it’s important to actually set those dates in a calendar, show up, speak up, and be a worthwhile friend. Remember to be present, be receptive, and get your head out of your phone.

I think the major part of being an adult is the acceptance of these friendship fates. I remember thinking I made a friend one semester in college, we’d always meet up with each other before class, take lunch breaks together, even grabbed a few drinks after class.

On the last day, we walked out of the exam together and as we reached the corner she turned to go the other direction and said, “Well, good luck and I’ll see you around!”. I was a bit shocked, not gonna lie, I thought we would grab a drink or something afterward, we had so much in common and had so much to talk about! But it was then that I realized, not everyone has to be your friend, and not everyone wants to be your friend. And that’s ok.

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