One of the greatest and most public bff-breakups in history happened in the summer of 1952, between two of the most brilliant philosophers of the 20th century, Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre. This platonic power couple had a lot in common; they were both chain-smokin’ commies, both were exceptional storytellers, playwrights, essayists, and magazine editor-in-chiefs, both were obsessed with the surrealist poet Francis Ponge, and both authored brilliant Nobel Prize winning existentialist novels. So what happened to these twin souls? Her name was Wanda Kosakiewicz, an irresistible half-Russian nymph Sartre spent years trying to seduce. He fell in love with her, she fell in love with Camus, and Camus figured, hell, why not? And so it goes.
If you’ve ever broken up with your best friend you can testify to how painful it can be. And it never really goes away. (Even at the end of his life, after not having spoken to Camus for thirty years, Sartre admitted “he was probably my last good friend.”) Though not all friendship breakups are this dramatic. For every friendship that ends in fire, a dozen simply fade away. They move, you move, they have children, you have children, they change, you change. Then one day you find yourself with no one to call in an emergency that isn’t related to you.
Though many of us grew up believing in the myth of forever-freinds, friend breakups are actually the norm. Whether it’s because you’ve moved to a new place or because your old bff stole your beloved half-Russian nymph right from under you, friendships end. It’s a way of life. In fact, research tells us that the average person will have to replace half of their friends every seven years. Out of the 396 friends you will make in your lifetime, you will only keep about 33 of them. So learning to make new friends on a fairly regular basis is critical. To help us get a grip on the science behind making (and keeping) new friends, we reached out to friendship expert Shasta Nelson, author of Frienditimacy and Friendships Don’t Just Happen. She is also the founder and CEO of GirlFriendCircle, an online community that helps women build new friendships locally.
“Needing new friends is normal,” Shasta explains, “It’s normal in the same way that needing to move to a new town to start school or to start a new job is normal. We’ll have to make new friends throughout our entire lives, but most of us don’t even know what that means. We think making friends means simply meeting new people, but it doesn’t.”
Part of the problem is the stigma of being in this awkward (even if banal) situation of having to make new friends. We’re embarrassed that we feel disconnected from others because it suggests social weakness. The reality of needing new friends feels a lot like being unlikeable–like we’re that one lonely kid eating his lunch all by himself at recess.
No one wants to admit to feeling lonely, but the fact remains that loneliness is on the rise. Studies show that the number of people who don’t have a single close friend they can confide in has nearly tripled since 1985. An American Sociological Review study conducted in 2004 found that, on average, the study participants had no close friends at all. Surprisingly (and counter-intuitively), social media hasn’t helped much either. Instead of helping us feel more connected, studies show us that the more time we spend online the lonelier we generally feel. Add to that the fact that loneliness has been linked with a 30% higher chance of early death and things start to look really grim.
“Loneliness is not about social skills, likeability, or the kind of friend we can be,” explains Shasta, “We can be popular and be lonely, we can be beautiful and successful and be lonely, we can have a full social life and still be lonely.” But no one really talks about that, it feels too raw and close to the heart to speak about loneliness openly. “We’re afraid that if we have no friends or if we need new friends, that somehow means people don’t like us and that we aren’t good at friendship in general. But the truth is that we’ve simply never been taught these skills. That’s why I wrote my books, to normalize the process and built the steps out.”
Ok, so what are the steps? What can we do to build the kind of relationships that will carry us through life’s slings and arrows? The kind that feel as close and genuine as our best friends from childhood? Shasta breaks the process down beautifully in her books, and she laid it all out for us below.
Let Go of the Idea That Making New Friends is Supposed to be Easy
LW. Hi Shasta, let’s talk about some of the misconceptions about friendship that makes making new friends so difficult for people.
Shasta: I think the biggest misconception is that you can “discover” a best friend. It’s not about looking for the “right person,” but about developing the right relationship. Every friendship has to be actively developed by spending time together. The second misconception is about what friendship even means.
When I speak in front of an audience I’ll often ask, ‘how do you define friendship?’ and they’ll say someone who is always there for you, or somebody who makes you laugh, or the person you like, and I would sit there and say, no, there are lots of people I like that I’m not friends with. Jerry Seinfeld makes me laugh and I’m not friends with him. And there isn’t a single person who will always be there for you. So I think it’s important to define our friendships. There are people we’re friends with, and then there are people we are friendly with. The two are very different. For me, a true friendship is a relationship between two people that is satisfying, safe, mutual and where both people feel seen. If you only have two of those things in your relationship with someone, then that is not a healthy friendship by definition.
LW: We’ve all grown up believing in the myth of “forever friends” and that making friends should be easy and organic simply because that’s the way the process felt when we were young. You’ve extensively written about the way new friendships are rarely love at first sight, but are fostered by creating (i.e forcing, let’s be real here) situations that allow you to spend consistent, repetitive and often awkward time together. This is why the first people we tend to become close to after college are our co-workers. Your work environment is basically perfect for forcing people together on a constant, repetitive basis, and on the flip-side, why it’s so difficult to make friends outside of those artificial environments. In your book you’ve said that if it’s not frequent, consistent and repetitive, it’s basically not going to happen.
Shasta: That’s right, many of us are under the assumption that friendships just happen because we have memories of friendships that felt easy and automatic when we were kids. Those friendship may have felt like they just happened, but what actually came easily back then was repetitive time spent together. Most of us think that if we get together once a month that’s enough for a new friendship to blossom. We’ll meet once a month and say, “that was fun let’s do it again sometime,” and you don’t reach out for weeks. That’s just not going to work. When it takes about 6 to 8 dates before we start feeling close and safe with someone we’ve recently met, it’s going to take a minimum of six months just to get the ball rolling.
Compare that to how we approach romantic dating, you would never go out with a guy you really liked and then not call him for a month. We never sit there and say, “we should do that again in a couple of months.” We would laugh and roll our eyes if our date said that. It doesn’t matter how much attraction we may feel for someone, if we don’t show up for time together, it will never become a friendship. This stage requires initiation. Repeatedly. It means arranging lunch this week, and making a phone call next week. A romantic relationship would never get off the ground if two people went out for a date, then ended the evening saying, “That was fun . . . we should do it again next month.”
Accept That it Will be Awkward and That You are Going to Have A LOT of Small Talk
LW: It makes absolutely no sense to compare the people you meet today to the people you went to school with or shared your formative years with, and yet that’s exactly what we do whenever we meet someone new. It’s obviously never going to be the same, but we somehow can’t help comparing our new friends to out old friends. Friendships take time, and the road from casual acquaintance to bff is fraught with awkward moments. So, what advice do you give to that end?
Shasta: The process of making friends is very different from the outcome we’re hoping for. Naturally, a coffee date with a new friend is never going to be the same as with a proven friend. What we want is to feel supported and valued. What it takes to get there is awkwardness, small talk, and uncertainty.
LW: What about those of us who hate small talk, and can’t do it to save our lives?
Shasta: Again, friendship doesn’t happen in one meeting, so having one deep conversation is not as important as having repeated deep conversation. I’ve had plenty of deep conversations with people that never turned into friendships because we never repeated them.
The other thing to remember is that positivity has to be the foundation. It’s not about small talk as much as communicating acceptance and curiosity. That will look different for each of us, but the gist is if someone leaves your presence without feeling good about themselves, their brain is not going to make the association to want to hang out with you again. Our job in each others life is to have other people want more of us and to enjoy being around us.
Whatever You Do, Don’t Overshare
LW: There’s a lot of confusion about how to talk to people in this early stage. Some people go all out and reveal too much about themselves, and some people go to the other extreme and keep it light and polite. Many people have this misconception that if you meet someone and all you have to talk about is small talk then the connection just isn’t there.
Shasta: It’s never our job to treat a new person in our lives as an emotional dumping ground. You can’t emotionally vomit on somebody and call that vulnerability and expect that to deepen the relationship. At this early stage we should not be revealing a lot of deep feelings. Your new friends are not your therapists or life coaches. Even if they’re supportive, they might not be so eager to meet the next time. Most people have enough going on in their own lives.
Many women make the mistake of thinking that just because they share something deep and raw they should now be super close. Unfortunately, if the commitment is not yet there, the relationship can actually feel quite awkward. We should not expect new friends to be there for us in extreme ways. That kind of friendship is the result of commitment and vulnerability that grows over time. If a friend of yours doesn’t seem to be there for you in the ways you think she should be, it doesn’t mean she’s not a good person; it might just be that the friendship you have developed with her isn’t far enough along to warrant the commitment you crave. It just takes time. No two people progress toward friendship at the same rate.
But that’s not to say that we can’t open up, go deeper and tell meaningful stories about ourselves. All the studies I’ve seen show that the most bonding thing in any kind of relationship is sustained incremental sharing. And so what we want to be thoughtful of is that this is a journey and that we reveal ourselves to someone incrementally. The bigger key to building a lasting friendships is to focus on sharing a little now, and repeating the experience and trusting that if you keep repeating the experience you can continue to go deeper.
Don’t Assume You Know What A Real Friend Is Supposed To Look Like
LW: What if we’re just really unlucky and keep meeting people that are really incompatible with us? What if we’re surrounded by people we don’t like all that much? How do you develop friendships from that point?
Shasta: I think the biggest mistake people make is assuming that they can’t be close to somebody because a person doesn’t perfectly match their idea of what a best friend should be like. So if I’m a mom I automatically assume that if you’re not a mom we couldn’t be friends, or if I’m single, or if I’m twenty-something and you’re thirty-something, I’ll jup to the conclusion that we won’t have anything in common. We are quick to make judgments that we couldn’t become close friends with people who are different than us. That’s a big mistake.
Research shows that we are not good predictors of who we will bond with, and that in fact we don’t have to have the big areas of commonality that we think. Most of the things you think you need in a friend are not actually that important. What’s important is that we eventually find some commonalities, but the emphasis here should be on the quantity of things we have in common rather than the quality of those commonalities. It’s actually more important that we eventually find out that we both like green smoothies, or that we both went to summer camp as kids, than that we’re both moms. But to uncover those other things takes a lot more conversation, and we’re dismissing each other before we ever get there.
We’re dismissing all kinds of potential friends. We’re dismissing so much possibility. We dismiss people because their lives look nothing like ours. I’m always saying to people stop looking for your best friend and look for new friends, and you’ll be surprised what happens. When someone invites you out, say yes even if that person doesn’t thrill you.
LW: In your book you talk about the way two people can get out of sync with each other. Sometimes in new friendships the level of vulnerability is unequal, especially when people are sharing their feelings in different ways and putting different amounts of effort into the friendship. One person could end up considering you their best friend, while to you, they are barely more than an acquaintance. How does that happen?
Shasta: If I don’t have a lot of friends, then the one or two friends that I’ve made will mean more to me than to someone who has lots and lots of close friends. Let’s say on a scale of one to ten, our relationship has been built up to a four. But for me, if I have a good group of friends who are all nines and tens, and you and I are a four, then I’m not going to consider you that close to me. But if most of your friends are twos and threes, then your one four will feel extremely close. Part of it is that we’re not all using the same measuring stick when it comes to friendships, so it’s possible to feel close to one person while that person will see it very differently.
It’s Ok to Label Your Friendships
LW: I think it’s important to know where you stand with people, especially when feelings are involved. In your book you came up with a simple way of categorizing your friendships to help people understand and temper their expectations of those relationships, like how you wouldn’t expect someone that was just an acquaintance to remember your birthday. Could you run us through them?
Shasta: I’ve identified five “circles” of friendship, and they start with the most casual, least intimate relationships on the left, and progress toward more intimate and more consistent on the right. In the middle are our close friends who used to be on our right-hand side, but because of distance or whatever, we don’t have the same consistency with them anymore. So we put them in the middle because we still have so much intimacy with them that we can pick up right where we left off when we’re together again. In general, the point is to help people realize that we can love all our friends, and we’re not putting people in those circles based on how much we like them, but on how much we practice friendship with them, how often we see them and how much we feel “seen” by them. No matter how wonderful someone is, how much you have in common, how much she seems to like you too, or how much you want to get to know her–evaluate your friendship on the basis of the connection you actually have, no the one you hope to have.
So if you and I just met, for example, it won’t matter how much I like you or how much we have in common, our relationship will be on the furthest left side. We never get to pluck somebody we just met and put them on the right side. Every relationship starts on the left, and some of them will move over to the right depending on how much work we put into them. We categorize the women we know based on how we’re actually engaging with them. Just because you meet someone and feel an instant chemistry doesn’t make you close friends.
LW: For the majority of us, it won’t be until we experience a personal crisis that we realize that we don’t have enough close people around us to lean on. Sure, they may be people who love and care about you on the other side of the country, but what if you just need a caring face to share a cup of coffee with. That’s when things get problematic.
Shasta: Exactly, sometimes it’s not about knowing who you could call, it’s actually having someone you do call.