There are numerous challenges to making new friends in adulthood. Not only is making friends harder as we get older, but sustaining friendships can be harder as well: After college and beyond, most people don't get to be part of such a diverse, built-in social network.

This is particularly significant since research shows us that strong social support is linked to healthier aging and positive health outcomes. Yes, we need solitude to nurture our creativity and our spirit, but we need rich, deep, meaningful connections as well — our mental and physical health depend on it. Importantly, research also suggests that elderly people are healthiest when they regularly interact with, and have friends from, all different age groups.

We see the best health outcomes for heterosexual married men who have relied almost solely on their wives to meet their emotional and relational needs. This is also why for women — in this case, straight women — the subject of friendship is so important: Since women tend to live longer than men, they also tend to rely on their friends, usually other women, for companionship for many of the activities they might have previously enjoyed with their male partners. So it is in our best interest to be thinking about how to nurture and cultivate our friendships as young adults.

Social psychologist Sherry Turkle, who studies our intimacy with machines, says that our online presence often means that we are connected to an ever-widening circle of people, more than ever before, and that this may result in a sort of “friendship lite,” with lots of surface connections, but not a lot of face-to-face, meaningful time together. We might have more than a thousand friends on Facebook and hundreds of followers on Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat, but there are likely fewer friends with whom we truly want to spend our time. We might have deep affection for our best, oldest, and most cherished friends, yet those are the people we may wind up talking with and seeing less often because of all our time at work and our preoccupation with time online with more superficial connections. This paradox is powerful.

Another challenge and problem is that women in their twenties and thirties often resort to meeting new women friends in much the same way that men “do” friendship with other men — over activities like a running or cycling club, a team sport, a yoga class, etc. But this may not lead to depth of emotional intimacy. These spaces are regarded as less threatening, both for finding friends and for finding dating partners, and an easy place from which to say, “Hey, wanna go grab a drink sometime?” The thought is that if two people both enjoy the same activity, they might have other things in common, or at least can pursue more of that original activity and passion together. The drawback is that this can sometimes feel forced and unnatural.

In my own experience, I have found that when I look back on the friendships that are the dearest to me and that have produced the greatest sense of sisterhood or brotherhood, we did not meet by trying to. For example, four years ago, I attended a fashion show at a department store and saw a woman wearing my favorite jacket, but in a way that looked more interesting than the way I usually wore it, so I approached her and told her so. We wound up standing there for an hour talking about her daughter, a first-year student trying to adjust at college, which we both had a lot to say about, since she is a therapist and I am a professor. We also talked about meditation and a bunch of other things, and then we exchanged numbers and got together, and she remains a true sister-friend. The last place I would have expected to find one of my most soulful friends would have been at the mall, and yet there she was, when we both least expected it. Deep friendships depend on some sense of spontaneity, which was present in that first meeting. Her daughters joked that she had quickly developed a "crush" on me, and I couldn’t stop talking about her either, but it’s because there really is such a thing as friendship chemistry. It can be magnetic.

Another issue that poses real challenges to friendships, especially for women in their twenties and thirties, is how they handle and negotiate choices and priorities around marriage and motherhood. Some women will choose to not have children, others will choose to cocoon with their partners and children, and some will want to include their children in all activities without realizing how that will affect the dynamic of conversation and friendship intimacy.

While one might think that young mothers risk social isolation, many report fulfillment in making friends with other new moms through breastfeeding support groups, groups for stay-at-home moms, or through libraries, parks, and day care. Still, others complain that connecting through children is not enough — there need to be more adult reasons that nourish and sustain a friendship.

Also, when people are new to living together with a romantic partner or spouse, or become new parents, they are usually much less available for impromptu dinners out, long, meandering phone calls later into the night, weekend get-togethers, trips with friends, etc. Single friends may get impatient with the other person’s lack of availability or feel left behind. And married friends don’t always want to hear about a single person’s last date or the more spontaneous rhythms of their life. The single person may be rendered immature, and the married person more boring.

During this period of life, people are making different choices for how to spend their time and resources. Some are using their twenties and thirties to attend graduate school. Others travel extensively, and still others settle down, buy houses, and start families. Inevitably, these decisions can dramatically impact people’s ability to do things together. One person may be earning a robust income and wanting an adventurous travel partner, while another is eating ramen noodles in graduate school. In cases like this, even choosing a restaurant to meet can feel stressful. The sense of power disparity can affect each person’s perception of themselves and of the other person and create a chasm. Each person can feel a certain level of shame or guilt.

Other issues can cause divisions. Politics have recently created a wedge in many people’s relationships, for example, and can also be a determining factor of whether people feel they can, or even want to try to, connect.

Also, with the pressure in one’s twenties and thirties to launch a successful career, time is a precious commodity, and people generally get pickier about who they want to spend it with. They may also be starting the process of liking the skin they’re in and enjoying their own company more — which is a good thing. Sometimes I hear women say that if they are choosing between a person who might bore them, or who drones on and on, or who has different values than they do, they are likely to just watch Netflix and chill on their own.

Interestingly, some women report feeling “maxed out" on friends and unable to find time and space to fit more people into their lives. In this scenario, friendship becomes just one more thing on a seemingly endless to-do list.

Because of career pressures, people in their twenties and thirties are generally more on the move and may literally pick up and move across the country. So staying friends with people can be trickier. Despite all the devices we rely on to stay in touch, sometimes we simply cannot replace the feeling we get when we are in the company of friends and can reach out and hug them, or watch them laugh, etc. Those I have interviewed report using all sorts of apps to stay in touch with long-distance friends, such as Skype, FaceTime, WhatsApp, and Houseparty, yet rely on them far less to find new friends.

And people can get tired of making plans that are not due to materialize for weeks or months; that can simply be unsatisfying. It can also feel overly planned, rigid, and almost transactional, relying on a few hours together just a few times every few months for essentially catching up, but not transcending that. This also explains why research shows that the older we get, the more we can feel drawn back to relationships forged earlier in life with people who know our backstories and with whom we can pick up where we left off without as much surface catch-up.

In a day and age when relationships may look more superficial and fleeting, there tends to be more ghosting: Just as teenagers are more and more frequently backing out of prom dates at the last minute if they get a better offer, adults are making plans and, when the date comes up, reporting relief when they have to cancel or the other person backs out. There’s a sense of wanting to control how we interact and under what specific conditions. But this also limits how we experience friendship, since at the same time, we often yearn for durable and reliable connections.

We might assume that making friends should be simpler than finding dating partners, but the opposite is often true: While sexual intimacy may be a big draw in a dating situation and is often used to forge and deepen emotional intimacy, friendship offers no similar crutch. It has to be interesting, reliable, spontaneous, fun, trustworthy, deep, and rich all on its own. 

Deep friendship means grabbing some immediacy together. It also demands that we reveal a certain amount of vulnerability. This is not a quality prized on social media, and people in their twenties and thirties, while just as vulnerable as ever, are understandably reticent to reveal that.

Finally, quite noteworthy is the fact that there is the continually growing phenomenon of only children, many of whom come of age intuiting by necessity that friends are the family we choose; it might be through them that we as a society can better appreciate the powerful role of friendship in our lives.

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