Why is it so hard to make close friends as an adult?

Kai advises a reader on how to deepen bonds with acquaintances and build their own “Scooby gang” 

Ask Kai: Advice for the Apocalypse” is a column by Kai Cheng Thom to help you survive and thrive in a challenging world. Have a question? Email askkai@xtramagazine.com.

Dear Kai,

A few years ago, I had some big changes in my life and some important relationships in my chosen family ended. I am grateful to still have a few very dear friends, but those relationships alone definitely don’t meet all my emotional and social needs.

The thing is, I don’t really know how to get close to folks anymore. I know how to make friends. I am active in a lot of groups, good at making small talk and friendly. I could list folks whom I’d be delighted to do drinks or dinner with, who almost always say yes when I invite them. But there’s often not much reciprocation. 

I never got to have a “college experience” and didn’t get that kind of friend crew. It’s hard to compete with people who got to make those kinds of friends a decade ago. Can a 30s best friend be as good?

I feel stuck in the cycle of “let’s catch up soon” friends. I want Scooby-gang friends. Do you have tips for what to do, short of flat out asking, “Hey, wanna be much closer than we are now?” 

Looking for My Scoobies

Dear Looking, 

One of the most challenging realities of emerging from young adulthood into full adulthood is that friendship becomes harder to find, a topic that I’ve addressed in previous editions of this column. The question you’re asking goes a step further: if I’m understanding correctly, you’re looking for more than friendly acquaintanceship, the occasional dinner or drinks night. You want the deep kind of friendship, ride-or-die companionship, the kind of friend whose company you can dive into and swim in. Friendship that lasts, that opens up new worlds, the kind of friends you could talk to all night and face the end of the world with. 

I hear you, Looking. That’s the kind of friendship I treasure, too. It’s become more challenging to cultivate over the years, and COVID-19 has made things all the more difficult. How can you start a new deep friendship when most of us have been trapped inside our homes for over a year? 

 

In the dominant colonial culture of North America, adult friendship (or the lack of it) is a severely overlooked phenomenon. As Julie Beck of The Atlantic writes, “In the hierarchy of relationships, friendships are at the bottom. Romantic partners, parents, children—all these come first.” Friendship in adulthood is a luxury, we are told, or even an extravagance. Friendship is an optional kind of relationship that comes with few responsibilities and no guarantees. Growing into maturity, or so the social narrative goes, means coming to terms with the fact that our friends are ephemeral—that we’re unlikely to regain the intensity and intimacy of the friendships we formed in our late teens and early 20s. 

There’s wisdom in all the above, of course. Given the life trajectories that are promoted by urban capitalism and heteronormativity—grow up, get a job, get married, have kids—it makes sense that we struggle to form and deepen adult friendships. If everything is about work and the nuclear family (usually in that order), then of course friendship finishes last.

“Queer friendship is our connection to queer community, and queer community is our connection to life in ways both practical and emotional.”

Yet something in me chafes at that notion, Looking. I think it does for many queers, because for us, friendship isn’t a temporary replacement for family in the time between “leaving home for college” and “finding a partner and having kids.” For many queer and trans folks, our friends are our family, and a necessary part of our survival. Queer friendship is our connection to queer community, and queer community is our connection to life in ways both practical and emotional. Although nuclear family set-ups have perhaps become more common for some queers post-legalization of gay marriage, many of us still rely on our friends for that experience of being held and loved that cannot be satisfied though romance alone. 

All this is to say, I believe that we can choose to make friendships in our 30s, 40s, 50s and beyond that are just as powerful and important as friendships formed in earlier years. Indeed, at the risk of sounding melodramatic, I believe that if queer culture as we know it is to survive this era of pandemic isolation and gay assimilation, we must resist the idea that friendship is just some frivolous, flaky thing that we do every few months over coffee. We can choose, instead, to find strength, love and meaning in the counter-normative relationships from which queer community was born in the first place. 

How exactly do we do this? Well, as a 30-ish queer myself, I am still figuring out the details. However, I do have some ideas and experiences that I hope you will find helpful, Looking. 

Close friendship, like any meaningful relationship, doesn’t blossom automatically based on our biological age, as we are often encouraged to think it does. Emotional intimacy grows out of opportunity, time, ritual and shared experience. As with all other kinds of closeness, friendship also requires clear communication and vulnerability. 

There’s nothing wrong, Looking, with flat-out asking someone, as you say, “Hey, want to be closer than we are now?” (I’d suggest waiting for the right moment to do this, like when you’re out on one of those intermittent dinner or drink hangouts and it feels like you’re both having a good time.) Other similar prompts include: “I’d love to get to know you better! Would you be into hanging out more often?” or “What do you look for in a friendship?” or “What are your thoughts on being closer friends?” 

This kind of conversation can feel awkward, especially when you’re still finding your stride. Most of us are not accustomed to actually discussing the boundaries of friendship in a clear and direct way. Yet the same is true of discussing romantic relationships with potential partners, and any couple’s therapist will tell you that explicit discussion of the relationship is key. When I moved to Toronto in my mid-to-late 20s, I made a habit of point-blank asking co-workers and acquaintances that I thought were cool if they wanted to hang out and become closer friends—and I’ve made some of my closest friends that way. 


As an adult, building close friendships often involves a kind of intentionality that isn’t required in high school or college situations. When we are younger, we are often thrown together for long periods of time in high-intensity settings. It’s a recipe for fast emotional bonding. However, it’s also a recipe for co-dependence and relational instability—just think how many high school and college friendships turn sour and fall apart or explode over drama and toxicity. In this way, friendships formed in adulthood often have an advantage, because we tend to come into them more fully formed, knowing our boundaries and our values. Adult friendship takes longer to grow, but is often more sustainable in the long run for it. 

Of course, sometimes we need help jump-starting the whole adult friendship experience in the way that summer camp jump-starts friendship for younger folks. This is perfectly natural, and it’s also why so many adults find their way to religion, and in some cases cults, in mid-adulthood. So many of us are looking for meaning, for community, and the heteronormative model of family and romance don’t offer them to us. Activism fulfils that role for some of us, but in my experience, many activist groups struggle with balancing the drive to direct action and ideological conformity with the need for sustainable community-building. 

“Adult friendship takes longer to grow, but is often more sustainable in the long run for it.”

For those with disposable income and time, personal growth retreats (think meditation, yoga, self-leadership and spirituality taught in a summer-camp-for-adults environment) are another route to close relationships. As a recent (and somewhat reluctant) member of the personal development industry, I will say that I’ve been pleasantly surprised by some retreat experiences I’ve had. However, if you’re going to explore that world, Looking, be selective and keep an eye out for snake oil, cultural appropriation and the other sketchier parts of the wellness biz. 

Building deep adult friendships requires a kind of courting—because we can’t always rely on spontaneous six-hour hangouts and all-night drinking (though sometimes we can! It depends on what kind of adult you are) to develop closeness, we have to get creative and thoughtful about the kinds of hangouts we propose. Novelty, beauty, excitement and curiosity are experiences that become rarer for most adults due the rigid demands of life under capitalism. When we use friendship time as a way to bring those feelings back, we invite deeper layers of our friends to emerge. 

Coffee, dinner and drinks can be wonderful, but they are predictable and follow well-worn social scripts, often within a very limited amount of time. What happens when, instead, we invite friends to join us on adventures that take us out of our comfort zone, like long walks in nature, cycling day trips, cultural and culinary festivals or volunteer and activist events? 

Looking, I encourage you to be bold and creative in your invitations. For most adults, new friendship is an opportunity to rediscover the parts of ourselves that exist beyond work and family. Make the most of that magic; show your potential Scoobies a whole new world, and invite them to show you theirs.

The quest for deep adult friendship can be trying, Looking, and it is often loaded with false starts and potential disappointment. But so too is the road to any kind of emotional intimacy. To travel that road takes both self-compassion and courage: the self-compassion to remind ourselves that we are worthy, even when our attempts at connection falter or fall flat; the courage to take leaps of faith and expose our vulnerable selves, because this empowers others to show their vulnerability in turn. Keep trying, Looking. I suspect you’ll find that your Scoobies are somewhere out there, looking for you, too.

Want more Kai? Check out her latest Quick Tips video.  

Kai Cheng Thom is no longer a registered or practicing mental health professional. The opinions expressed in this column are not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. All content in this column, including, but not limited to, all text, graphics, videos and images, is for general information purposes only. This column, its author, Xtra (including its parent and affiliated companies, as well as their directors, officers, employees, successors and assigns) and any guest authors are not responsible for the accuracy of the information contained in this column or the outcome of following any information provided directly or indirectly from it.

Kai Cheng Thom is a writer, performer, and social worker who divides her heart between Montreal and Toronto, unceded Indigenous territories. She is the author of the Lambda Award-nominated novel Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl's Confabulous Memoir (Metonymy Press), as well as the poetry collection a place called No Homeland (Arsenal Pulp Press). Her latest book, Falling Back in Love with Being Human, a collection of letters and poetry, is out now from Penguin Random House Canada.

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