Many of us wake up one day to realize that somewhere among bringing home the bacon, shuttling junior to softball, and caring for mom’s ailing health, we’ve lost touch with the friends we once held dear. Often, we’re not quite sure how to pick up the pieces of those lost friendships or even to go about building new ones.
Contrary to what you might suspect, making new friends isn’t about your age, but instead, is about your life situation. “Friendships happen in high school and college because you’re around that person every day. You don’t have to make time because you sit next to him every day in science class,” says Columbus, Ohio-based relationship and dating Coach Jonathan Bennett. “Most people will make friends in that environment,” even if they’re shy and someone else is doing most of the work.
Once we graduate from school and start building families and careers, there are fewer situations that allow us to preserve existing friendships or to make new ones. Adults spend a lot of time “in environments where the purpose is not to make friends,” explains Bennett. It can be particularly hard to forge new friendships at work, especially if you’re the boss. “When you’re in charge of things, you can’t mingle with your co-workers. As you move up the ladder, you could even be breaking company policy in some instances by fraternizing with employees,” he adds.
In short, we get busy, find fewer opportunities to spend with friends, and eventually, like with any unused muscle, our friendship-making abilities atrophy. Still, those friendships are important—especially because we all need a little help from our friends.
Where Can You Find New Friends?
As adults, we’re tasked with creating those easy-to-come-by-when-we-were-kids friendship-building environments for ourselves. After all, no one is going to invite you to skip second period to have a smoke in the quad. “The goal, as adults, is to be around people who share or have similar interests as you,” says Newport Beach, California-based psychotherapist Lisa Bahar.
That could mean taking a wine appreciation course, joining an intramural sports team, or volunteering at a community garden. If you’re not sure where to go to find people who share your interests, get online. Bennett suggests the site Meetup. “In my area alone I found meetups for meditation, python owners, writers, an improv comedy group,” he adds. By getting online, these people have managed to find each other and come together. That’s the magic of the internet.
“Places like the supermarket aren’t effective,” explains Bennett. Most people there are just looking to pick up some chips and onion dip before heading home, not to make a meaningful, lifelong friendship. The key is to find places where people are actively looking to meet other people.
How Do You Break the Ice?
Once you’ve joined the golf league or signed up for pottery class, how can you get to know the people who are there? The first step is to figure out whether the group is what Bahar calls “closed” or “open.” To do this, “You’ll have to observe the social interactions, and learn to be mindful of others’ behaviors,” adds Bahar.
A closed group consists of people who don’t want to be engaged by someone new, at least not at that moment. These groups tend to huddle together and keep their eyes focused on each other only.
An open group, however, is made up of people who are animated, smiling, and occasionally glancing around outside of the circle. “You can creep in on those groups and participate in the conversations,” explains Bahar. “Stand close to an open group and look interested in what they’re talking about.” When the timing is right, “add on to what they’re talking about and see how they respond.”
If you’re not used to breaking into new groups, Bahar has some tips. “Stand close to the group, lean in, and make eye contact,” she advises. “You might find someone who is open and will invite you in to the conversation.” If not, don’t take it personally, she adds. “Just drift and go somewhere else.”
Once you’ve found your way into a group, your first interaction is just an ice breaker. “You should really just say, ‘Hi, how are you?'” recommends Bennett, and then comment on something mundane, like the weather or the décor. If you’re in a group of people who share an interest, start talking about that interest. What type of yoga do you prefer? When did you start playing softball? How old are your children? “The conversation tends to flow naturally from there,” says Bennett.
It takes time to transition from acquaintance to friend, so don’t get discouraged if after your first visit to the gym, you don’t leave arm-in-arm with a new BFF. “Don’t rush it, because then you come off as needy and desperate,” warns Bahar. Instead, strategically build the relationship, one encounter at a time. “When you see a new acquaintance on another day, just pick the conversation up where you left off,” she suggests. Over time, you’ll get to know each other well enough to extend your relationship beyond the gym.
How Do You Nurture New Friendships?
Both Bahar and Bennett agree that friendships take work. In fact, many relationships fizzle out because one or both parties fail to take the initiative. “Someone told me he lost all of his friends because he stopped reaching out to them first,” says Bennett. “If no one calls or texts first, you won’t hang out.” He recommends that if there’s an activity you want to attend, call your new friend and invite him. Don’t just sit around waiting for the other person to reach out to you.
In addition, remember that solid friendships are about more than just sustained interaction over time. Reciprocity is important, too. “Resentments can build when you feel the friendship is off-balance,” cautions Bahar. If you and your new artist friend often spend time together watching your favorite sports teams, for example, consider asking your friend whether she’d rather visit a gallery one night. In short, make sure to share activities you both enjoy so that you’re both benefiting from the relationship.
How Can You Rekindle Old Friendships?
In most cases, it wasn’t a blow-up or a fight that caused your old relationship to die out. Instead, it was probably lack of contact over time. “People get busy. They raise families. They build careers,” reminds Bennett. For many of us, those seemingly normal activities can take up the bulk of our time. But as children age and careers taper, many of us may begin to realize that some of our most fulfilling relationships have unexpectedly fallen by the wayside.
The good news is that it can often be easier to revitalize a weakened relationship than to build a new one. It can also be a lot of fun. “It’s an enhanced kind of human connection,” explains Bahar. “When you renew a friendship with someone you knew in a different chapter of your life, you already have a foundation built. You have something to come back to.” And yet, time has passed and you’ve both grown. Likely, there’s a whole new side to your erstwhile friend that you’ll now get the chance to know.
Today, it’s easier than ever to find and reconnect with former friends. “It’s as simple as sending a text message or finding someone on Facebook,” says Bennett. “You no longer have to dig through the white pages and hope you’ve found the right Jen Smith.”
Still, rebuilding a lost friendship can require a certain amount of tenacity. People are busy and, even if they’re excited to hear from their long-lost high school bestie, they may not get around to replying right away. They may even become distracted and forget to respond at all. “One person just has to stick their neck out and take the risk,” says Bennett. “Don’t get discouraged. Adults are juggling a lot of things. Just try again a week later.”
Keep in mind that not all lost relationships should be rekindled. “Sometimes men or women will reach out to people who validated them in the past,” explains Bahar. That could be an ex, or just a friendship that was emotionally unhealthy. Either way, “those emotionally-fraught friendships can easily turn into something that might not be healthy for sustaining your current relationships,” she adds. So, take heed when selecting which friendships to revive. The goal is to expand your current circle, not to damage the relationships you already have.
In the end, being bold is often the key to building and maintaining friendships as an adult. Put yourself in new environments. Talk to new people. Reach out to friends you haven’t heard from in years. “Mix it up and get yourself around new people,” advises Bennett. “Take a few risks. Branch out and try something new.” Chances are the people you’re trying to connect with are looking to make new friends, too. So go ahead and just say hi. You’ll most likely be glad you did.