Will you be my friend? Just kidding, but not really. Something strange is happening to our collective social reality, and I think I need some help to figure out how to have friends.
The research is clear. Those who feel socially isolated have dire health outcomes and chronic stress. Our bodies were evolved to be in community, and when we feel isolated, our survival system freaks the fuck out. Suddenly everything is a threat. There’s a reason people lose their minds in solitary confinement. Isolation breaks us.
And yet we are increasingly isolated. I, personally, am more isolated than ever—and I have tried pretty hard to keep myself isolated even before the pandemic, for reasons that I am now beginning to understand.
The pandemic didn’t help. I think we can all acknowledge that many—if not most—of us have developed some degree of social anxiety and agoraphobia during the pandemic. If talking to strangers made you uncomfortable before, adding a deadly virus to the equation is not going to make it any easier.
Despite this collective reality, I think it can be hard to admit that we feel disconnected. It is scary to portray yourself as the outcast. It can trigger shame to say the words, “I’m lonely.” Especially when you have a seemingly close nuclear family. Having a partner and maybe a couple of kids or a pet is supposed to be enough, right?
The myth of the nuclear family
To go back to evolutionary biology, humans were able to survive by staying in groups. I want to say that early tribal communities ranged from a few dozen to a couple hundred individuals, but someone should really Google that and check. But the point is that at no point in early human history was an individual or even a family group sent off to try to survive alone. And if they were, that sort of exile was a death sentence.
We’ve all heard that, “it takes a village,” and we can recognize the truth in this. If you’re a parent, you don’t need me to tell you that caring for an infant or even a teenager requires more than two adults. And yet there’s a weird cultural expectation that a single parent should be able to somehow function.
One of our biggest cultural myths is what I call the Rom Com fantasy. This is the idea that if we find The One and subsequently spend tens of thousands of dollars on diamond rings and extravagant parties, then we’re done. We have the only friend we’ll ever need.
Unfortunately, trying to have all of your emotional needs met by one other human is stressful and unsustainable. The research clearly shows that people have stronger marriages when they also have friends. We need strong bonds with multiple adults, and to build a community those individuals also need connections to each other. That’s why we like parties. Introducing our friends to each other makes our bonds even stronger.
The Rom Com fantasy is a function of what I’ll call the patriarchal capitalist oppression of women. That oppression was much more straightforward when women couldn’t own property, have jobs, start businesses, or vote. But now the system needs a different way to trick us into unpaid labor. And the idea that we cannot function without a mate is a great way to keep us fixated on one relationship at the expense of others.
Here’s a radical idea: You can have beautiful relationships and a strong community without actually being in a committed romantic relationship. In fact, it might do most of us some good to focus our energies on strong friendships, if only to balance out the cultural focus on The One.
Yes, I do have friends
I have a lot of friends. But where are they? I have friends I have known for more than forty years. I have current and former work friends. I have a community of old pals who came (and went) with my first marriage. I have online communities which have generated some great IRL connections. I have a writing buddy, and a couple of fellow productivity nerdettes who I meet online most weekdays for a focus session. I have friends I connect with around art on photo strolls or sketching dates or paint nights.
But I don’t have a single friend who I text more often than every month or two. My husband and I are in contact almost too much (we’ve spent three years in more or less the same room), but everyone else seems very far away. Weak bonds.
It takes several months for me and any given friend to make a plan to do something together. It’s not that my friends are especially flakey, or that I am. We just have a lot going on, and it can be hard to shoehorn in a coffee date, much less a half day hike or collaborative craft project. And don’t even get me started on trying to organize a dinner party. That can be a miracle with a six month runway.
All I can do is keep trying. I make plans, I show up, I host dinner parties. And then these friends disappear once again into their own lives, to be seen only through Instagram for another half year. It has taken a crisis of connection to make me start to look at how I cultivate these weak bonds.
The avoidantly attached introvert
You may have heard about attachment theory. Those who have stable early relationships tend to develop a secure attachment style. They seem to form friendships easily, don’t stress much about rejection, and can be vulnerable with their close friends without years of therapy.
Then there are the anxiously attached, who may have experienced some form of abuse or trauma. They adapt by clinging to any hint of a positive connection. These are the emotionally needy types who can’t tolerate rejection even in the form of an unanswered text.
Finally, the category that I believe I fall into: avoidantly attached. We may not have experienced capital-T trauma early on, but we have some reason not to trust emotional bonds. Maybe a parent left or our needs were neglected on a regular basis. We don’t believe that other people are trustworthy, so we keep our distance.
Add to that a strong tendency toward introversion and an only child status, and you might get someone like…me. Someone who works very hard to never need others, and who enjoys her own company more than the company of others. It’s adaptive.
Shared interests and service
I’ve come to believe that my old theory for adult friendship is flawed. In the past, I would throw parties, host dinners, invite friends on friend dates, and I would assume that over time these events added up to some kind of close bond. But they never have. All of my weak bonds have loosened, and many have drifted away altogether.
When I think about community, I think of people gathered around common interests or goals. I think of my ex-husband’s “vinyl night” crew who brought records to listen to together on fancy hi-fi systems every Tuesday. I think of sports teams and knitting circles. I think of startups and the familial bonds that form when working toward a common goals. I think of neighbors who get together for backyard parties and watch each others’ pets and kids. I think of activists planning campaigns for social change and marching side by side.
One piece of advice I’ve heard somewhere is to connect with others by being of service. Instead of asking “how can I get more good friends?” ask “how can be a good friend?” What do I have to offer that will make someone’s day? And can I give without the expectation of reciprocity? For me, it is difficult to see myself as having something to give that anyone else would want, which may go back to my “avoidant” adaption.
There’s also the more blatant service of getting involved in community volunteer opportunities. I have done volunteer work in the past and for a short time built bonds with my fellow volunteers and the employees of the nonprofit, but eventually I had to give up the volunteer role and get a real job, which made me wonder how I can foster those connections built through service.
I was once part of a philanthropic brunch club. Once a month we brought together a group of professional women to hear about a non-profit organization that one of us invited. Ironically, I was pretty poor at the time, so writing the check at the end of brunch was a bit painful. But I wanted to be part of it. I wanted to do some good, but even more than that I wanted to be included. I don’t remember why the monthly brunch ended, but once again I lost that sense of belonging.
Why we keep starting book clubs
I should start a book club. I have this thought occasionally. Maybe a personal development book club, so that I have some people with whom to discuss all the ways we can become better humans. Maybe a sci-fi book club to delve into my recent obsession with time travel fiction.
Book clubs bring together (mostly) middle aged white women who are at a loss for how to form social connections. Like me. So why do I cringe whenever I think about starting or joining a book club?
Because I know how they go. It’s a cat-herding exercise to get people to show up, and then most of them have not read the book. A few people with strong opinions dominate the conversation, and a few quiet ones don’t say much at all. Someone or several someones drink too much wine, because there is always wine. The conversation goes off topic and devolves into gossip. Maybe I have been joining the wrong book clubs?
We keep starting book clubs because we love books, and when you put a book in the middle of a new friendship you have a place to start. Discussing literary themes can reveal a lot about a person and create a shortcut to friendship. So, at least for a month or two, it can feel like community. And then—in my experience—people disappear back into their lives.
So, will you be my friend?
I was talking to a couple of new acquaintances on Zoom yesterday. We are part of a mentorship group and will be working to support each other through a three month program. They both told me that they will be my friends…no matter what. Which is a nice thing to say, but in reality they will probably drift away after the three months ends.
What does it mean to be a friend, anyway? The first requirement is some level of interdependency. Maybe it’s very concrete, like we depend on each other for child care or carpooling. Or it could be more ephemeral emotional interdependency. We share our joys and troubles and support each other, but like…more often than once or twice a year.
A shared project or interest can be a stand-in for interdependence, and it can add another layer to the friendship. This is where book clubs, sports, volunteer work, and tabletop gaming come in. They give us a reason to get together that isn’t just that we haven’t seen each other for a year. It’s a topic of conversation and a thing to do.
Do you enjoy hiking, word games, and low-key biohacking? Do you want to trade gluten-free recipes and collaborate on Paleo dinner parties? Would you show up for a personal development book club or agree to be a workout accountability partner? Are you interested in receiving frequent texts about weird sci-fi shows and murder documentaries? Do you enjoy photos of exotic animals, urban goats, and fat cats? Do you have a creative pursuit that you’d like to share with someone? If any of these apply to you, I invite you to be my friend.
One Comment Add yours
I like hiking and cheesy Godzilla movies.. hi! Lol!