Navigating friendship as an adult

Making friends as an adult is hard. Maintaining them can feel even harder. Alyssa shares six lessons she has learned 15 years and six moves later.
I get together with my friends from college who live in California once a year. Last time we puzzled and took a pic of our completed (triumph!) puzzle and turned that into a puzzle (yes, dorky). It's now turning into a bit of a tradition...
I get together with my friends from college who live in California once a year. Last time we puzzled and took a pic of our completed (triumph!) puzzle and turned that into a puzzle (yes, dorky). It’s now turning into a bit of a tradition…

I was nervous. I had been living in Geneva, Switzerland, for four months, working for an international development organization. Outside of work, I hadn’t made any friends. A colleague had invited me to a fundraising event, where I’d met an incredibly kind, bubbly woman from the south of France who had studied in Montreal and was passionate about social impact issues. Within minutes, I knew I wanted to be her friend. As the party waned, I nervously scanned the crowd to see if she was still there. A slight moment of panic. I saw her near the exit. I rushed toward her, trying not to look desperate. I mumbled something about it being really nice to meet her and asked for her number. Jessie became my first new adult friend. 

She was also the first friend of many whose number I have asked for over the years on the quest for adult friendships. Each time I put myself out there it is hard, nerve-racking and uncomfortable. And each time, it’s rewarding.

In some ways high school and college friends are more naturally made. It felt easier to become friends with girls I played field hockey with or acted in a one-act play with. My true test to making friends came when I moved abroad and had few built-in social systems beyond work.

As an adult, I have moved a LOT (Geneva; New Haven, Conn.; Washington, D.C.;  Austin, Texas; and New York; all in the last 15 years). Each city brought with it the dual challenge of new friends to make and more long distance friendships to maintain. Consequently, I’ve had my share of successes and failures, and discovered six lessons about adult friendship along the way.

Friendships are fluid, and that’s OK.

People come and go from your life at different points and then maybe reappear and maybe don’t. When I was younger, I thought everyone had a best friend for life; that concept seems silly to me now. At age six, we moved to a new city and I had to say bye to my two BEST friends at the time. In my teary goodbye, I told them I would write to them weekly and we would stay best friends forever. We wrote letters for a few months, but little kids have short memories. I still think of them fondly and even invited them to my wedding 24 years later for nostalgia’s sake, but I am at peace with the fact that I don’t know the ins and outs of their lives and they don’t know mine. 

Maintaining friendship across distance can be the pits, but it’s the little things that matter.

I make a point of texting my friends in D.C. and Austin about my favorite musicians coming to town or a new song I heard or an article about queso or BBQ (for the Texans). It feels important to let them know I’m thinking about them (and for them to do the same for me), and it makes the time between visits seem shorter. Even if it’s been a year, I try not to be hard on myself for not staying in better touch and send them a note when they are on my mind.

When my husband and I lived in Austin, we became friends with this wonderful couple from Mexico City. We moved to New York. They moved to Houston. It’s hard to connect, but we have a Whatsapp group where we send each other voice memos or videos every few months with life updates. I still feel so much a part of their lives and like they’re a part of mine.

Friends you only talk to or see once or twice a year can still be friends.

When I moved to New York, I found that some of my friends here were too busy to make time for me. They would say: “I would love to hang out but my next three months are shot, can we try for something in April?” I was devastated. I wondered if we were really even friends. When I would visit New York before I lived here, I would call up the same people and almost always get to see them (even if only for 30 minutes). I built up resentment toward these friends, always feeling like I was making an effort and they were not. What I realized, though, is that people are busy and their lives don’t revolve around me. Shocker! Some started to have kids, buy homes and expand their social circles — but that didn’t mean we weren’t friends. It just meant my expectations of our friendship needed to evolve. Now, when I see these friends, I love every moment of it and plan to do it again in six months instead of next week.

Consistent friendship needs to be celebrated.

I am lucky. I have friends who check in on me and are there for me no matter what. Who are always there to lend an ear, a laugh or a good restaurant recommendation. I used to take these people for granted when I would meet a shiny new friend. But over the years, I have learned to NEVER take these people for granted. They are family. They still love me whenever I inevitably mess up. Life will take us in a million directions but we will still stay friends. That is something to be cherished and celebrated. 

Asking for someone’s number is hard, but never stop doing it.

It’s so easy to get comfortable with a circle of friends that it can become hard to open yourself up to new people you meet along the way. Or worse, you could find yourself surrounded by friends who are just like you. Putting yourself out there is hard but the risk of not doing so is very high — you could end up closing your world to new experiences and people who challenge, inspire or teach you something new.

You’re allowed to break up with friends.

I tend to hold on to people and not let them go. Sometimes this isn’t healthy. I’ve realized at times that I’ve held onto toxic friendships or people whose values didn’t align with mine anymore. I admit, I have never ACTUALLY verbally broken up with a friend (if you have, I would love to know how you did it!), but I have purposefully let friendships fade. I text less. I call less. Until it becomes none at all. 

Lessons aside, life brings many twists and turns and so does friendship. The same friends don’t have to always play the same role in your life. The friend who helps you get through losing your job might be different than the friend who helps you get back out there dating after a divorce. My goal is to hold the ones I love dear and always be open to new friendships. You never know where they might take you — for an afternoon or a lifetime.

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7 thoughts on “Navigating friendship as an adult

  1. Great article on friendship! There are definitely friends who stand the test of time and it doesn’t matter how busy, how many months or sometimes years that pass without seeing each other, you just know that they will show up when most needed. Those friends are the true blessings in your life and should be treasured along with the wonderful new friends that come into your life along the way.

  2. Oh yeeeesss! People don’t say this enough about adult friendships, we are all grownups, friendship is so different now. Thank you!!

  3. I don’t have a great relationship with my family so my friends mean the world to me. I am always amazed at people who seem to take friendships for granted as they get older, but then I realize they just might have different, and less intense, expectations. Also, I have verbally broken up with a friend, and it was hard, but it was the right thing to do.

    1. Thanks for sharing Victoria. I am super curious – how did you break up with your friend if you don’t mind me asking? It sounds super hard.

  4. I agree with everything you wrote! Awesome article on such an important topic! I’ll always feel so honored that I can call you my dear friend.

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