Relationship Status: It's Complicated
I've gotten really good at identifying things no one tells you are going to suck about growing up. I've got a whole list of them, starting off with zits. If you are less than 20 years old, I have bad news for you: you have been lied to. Your skin will not magically clear forever once you exit your teenage years. You may get lucky, but more than likely you're going to have some degree of acne for the rest of your life, particularly if you are a woman. And that's just one - I could probably devote a whole blog post to this topic. But I won't, because there's one that's worse than just about any other Terrible Thing No One Warns You About, and it warrants a full post.
We spend most of our young lives trying to figure out how to have functional romantic relationships. But no one ever warns us that, as grown-ass, seemingly well-adjusted humans, we'll also have to learn how to make friends.
Ah, adult friendship. The dark and stormy night of friendships, when everything about the prospect of making a new friend is daunting, uncertain, and downright creepy. It's awkward, it's frequently disappointing, and it's universal: making friends as an adult flat-out sucks. If you have slightly deferred your adulthood by deciding to pursue more years of education, congrats. Not only will you have more titles and degrees than me and likely be a lot smarter and make more money, but most importantly, you may have delayed the making friends problem ever so slightly. But don't get smug - your day is coming. Meanwhile, the rest of us have had to suffer the life-crushing realization that, once out of school, making friends is damn near impossible.
School, and college in particular, is nothing short of the mecca of friend-making. In the protective fishbowl of academia, there are literally thousands of interesting and mildly to incredibly like-minded fishes for you to swim with, and finding your pack is almost a foregone conclusion. I would say this can extend past traditional school settings like grade school and college. It really doesn't even matter what kind of school it is. If you are gathered amongst good people with interests that are similar to yours, you are more than likely to make friends, no matter how old you are or how funny you look. It's basically a no-brainer.
But once school is off the table? It's a dog eat dog friend-making world out there, people. You're on your own and it's sink or swim. Without the convenience of the classroom to help us weed out our people from the masses, we miserable, bumbling adults are left to grasp at straws any time we're thrown into any quasi-social situation, whether that's work or a wedding or when we're stuck at jury duty, hoping against hope to meet someone who doesn't suck but not sure how to - or if we even should - strike up a conversation. And that's usually when we realize that we have no idea how to do that.
You would think that, as an adult trapped at jury duty, you would be able to pull from your years of experience making friends with others who were also stuck in so-and-so's boring class, or playing on the same soccer team as you, or sitting next to you at band practice, and somehow find the balls to strike up a conversation with the person next to you. But unlike when you were a kid, you overthink it. You think about what to say for so long that everything seems stupid in your head. And then you start thinking you'd be better off not talking to this person, because obviously they're more than likely super weird, amiright? And by this time there's no way you're going to speak because you've realized that your time is probably better spent reading the book you've renewed twice from the library or even filing your nails, because who has time for anything these days?
As grown-ups, we are expected to find friends all on our own, no shared atmosphere or experience provided. Unless you want to make friends with your coworkers, which some of us are lucky enough to do, but let's face it, it's a risky proposition. Do you really want to be seen at a local karaoke bar on a week night, hopped up on one too many (and by that I mean two) Jack and Cokes, doing your "famous" rendition of that 4 Non-Blondes song, by the dude you have to do a presentation with in the morning? I didn't think so. And that is really a shame, since work is the number one place you're most likely to run into like-minded, interesting people as an adult. Making friends with coworkers is doable, but it's not something to enter into lightly, and some people never really feel comfortable letting their hair down around their colleagues.
And it's not that there aren't cool people out there to meet - there are. Like you, they're bumbling around trying to find grown up friends. It's just that all of us are busy, tired, broke and, oh yeah, trying to keep up with family and all of the friends we made IN SCHOOL and are miserably pining away for. You, too, are most likely busy, tired and broke, and the last thing you feel like doing is going out and trying to find friends in your very infrequent spare time, which is usually spent sweaty and fifteen pounds overweight at your local gym. But you have to. And if you are also looking for a romantic partner, well, then you're just doubly screwed, aren't you?
Oh, and guess what. There are all these stupid rules about adult friendships that you have to follow, because PROTOCOL. Here's the stupidest one: it's no longer cool to hang out with someone who you might possibly have been attracted to if you (or they) were single. I don't want to get hung up on gender pronouns here, so for the sake of simplicity, let's just use me as an example. I, as a thirtysomething in a relationship, am basically not allowed to be close friends with a straight male if he is in a relationship. Which is BULLSHIT. Because that cuts out half of the people in the potential friend pool, just because as adults we are too repressed and neurotic to remember that, oh yeah, you can sometimes be friends with people and not plan or desire to have sex with them. And the buck doesn't stop there. You're also not supposed to be friends with people with whom you might compete for the same job. Or the parents of the kid your kid hates. Or, inevitably, you make a friend and your partner disapproves. It never ends. Some of us balk and try to fight these rules, taking on an "I'll be friends with whomever I please, thank you very much!" attitude, and that's great! But know that if you do this, you'll have to deal with judgment from the few adult friends in your life. I could write a book on that.
Meanwhile, at the same time as you're trying desperately to make connections with new people, you are probably also realizing that it's time to cut the cord on some of your long-time friendships, for any number of reasons. Maybe it's that you've grown apart, which is understandable but still painful. Maybe your spouses hate each other. Maybe your kids hate each other. Maybe you realized hey, that guy's actually completely racist, and because we're not IN SCHOOL TOGETHER, I don't actually have to put up with it anymore! Whatever the reason, you're most likely losing friends faster than you're making them. Again, this is not entirely bad - we all know that sometimes, less is more, and this is probably even more true in the case of friendships, which require a lot of work.
Which leads me to the most interesting point in all of this. As adults, we put a ton of work into our relationships with our parents, our children and our partners. Sometimes, this work is just the routine business of making it through days and weeks without killing each other, but other times, when things are extra tough, it can involve things like counseling and purposeful bonding time. That's all awesome, because relationships require work. But what's interesting is, we don't always take the time to treat our friendships with such care, which is nuts given that we've just reviewed how hard it is to obtain and keep these precious friends. And when push comes to shove, we're more likely to cut a friend loose than give up times with our families or that coveted promotion. While you may be thinking, "Well, that's life," I'm going to toss this out on the table for your consideration:
A good friendship is worth the effort. A really, truly great friendship is just as important as the other important relationships in your life. I'm saying that our friendships deserve the same attention and care that we put into our marriages, our partnerships, and our families - because our best friends are family.
And no, we cannot do this with every friend; none of us have the capacity to treat all of our friends like family. But we can and should tend to those rare, beautiful relationships with friends who may as well be our sisters or brothers or aunts or children. Because we fought for them, sometimes longer and harder and through more obstacles than we ever encountered with our families. If your closest friend is one you met Back In School, chances are high that he or she saw you through some of the traumas and calamities that made you the person you are today, rocking that grown-up job or marriage or parenting gig like a boss. In fact, your husbands and kids should probably be down on their knees thanking your bestie for getting you to this point. If your closest friend is someone you met After School Ended, they likely deserve some kind of medal for keeping you sane while you juggle work, family, dating, and trying to write your first novel or get big promotion or run a half marathon or whatever it is you're up to.
No matter how you found your best friends or whether they've been by your side for twenty years or twenty months, they deserve your time and dedication. Putting in a little "couples therapy" for those friends is probably one of the best life decisions you can make, because as Stephen Ambrose said, "Friendships are different from all other relationships...Friendship has no status in law. Business partnerships are based on a contract. So is marriage. Parents are bound by law. But friendships are freely entered into, freely given, and freely exercised."
So, because friendship is the most unique and free of relationships, because it is both rare and precious, I say that we must do three things. We must never stop seeking new relationships. We must be the caretakers of our friendships and nurture them like we would our marriages. And if, by some miracle, we are lucky enough to meet someone we find interesting in that yoga class we squeezed in before work, we must unabashedly and without hesitation accept their friend requests on Facebook, and, 3B, if they have not sent us one yet, we must request them. Because seriously? What do we have to lose? We're grown-ass adults, after all.