UPDATE (2019): Find Nina and her advice column at HER NEW FRIENDSHIP ADVICE SITE
Today’s question is from an introverted woman who is unsatisfied with her superficial friendships. She feels she lacks deep friendships in her life, despite many acquaintances and social activities. What should she do when she feels like she only has shallow relationships?
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During the years after college, I drifted away from most of my friends from that time. Since then I’ve worked in several places, pursued hobbies, had a child, and met other moms. After separating from my child’s father, I’ve put work into a new social life. I keep in touch with my colleagues, and I’m active in my religious community. I really love those activities, and I don’t do them just to meet people.
Still, I hardly have any close friends. I have nice acquaintances, and my social life is interesting as long as I show up. As soon as I don’t, due to holidays, work, whatever, it easily happens that I don’t talk to anyone for a week or more.
I know that a deep friendship is something rare, and that relationships develop slowly, especially at an age close to 50. Also, I like doing things on my own, I don’t need company all the time. Still I’m getting slightly desperate, because I seem unable to get beyond other people’s C-list. (A term I learned from this column!) It seems that other moms at school quickly become close. For example, other families from the group we joined for a canoeing trip exchanged phone numbers. For the record, I did exchange contact information with a nice family. We planned to meet, but it didn’t work out. After that, I wrote two e-mails, got no answer, and that was it. That’s pretty much how it goes all the time.
Is something wrong with me? Probably not. I’m an introvert, sometimes I seem unfriendly at first sight. Still, I’m not anti-social. I’m able to establish contact. I can both talk and listen, I’m fun (if I may say so myself!), and people like me in general. Still, when I reach out a little more, I find there are limits. I get nervous when my kid suggests we invite people for New Year’s Eve or other occasions. On days like that I literally can’t invite anyone – everybody already has plans. I’ve almost stopped planning birthday parties for myself, although I love to do this. I’m just infinitely tired of people’s explanations about why they can’t come. When I need someone to look after the flowers during holidays, or when I’m sick and could use some help, things get complicated. (To be fair, I have to say that so far I’ve always found someone. It mostly felt awkward though and very different from when I was younger and my friends and I could call one another any time.)
In your column and elsewhere so many people complain about imbalance in relationships, loneliness, and breaking up with a best friend. Sometimes I ask myself: Where do all those people live? I only seem to meet people who are perfectly happy and completely uninterested in new friends.
I’m grateful for the many fulfilling things and friendly people in my life. Still there are feelings of loneliness and of losing courage to try for deeper and less shallow friendships. I’d be very grateful to hear your opinion and your readers’ opinions,
Too Many Shallow Friendships
Dear Too Many Shallow Friendships,
To quote Winston Churchill, never, never, never give up. I believe those words apply strongly here. I could end the advice on that point, however, there are some details to attend to as well.
Let’s get something straight. The social life you’ve created should bring you significant pride. You’re right that it takes time and energy to make close, deep friendships. But it also takes time, energy, and skill to keep up with acquaintances and to stay involved in hobbies and other activities outside of work and home, especially after a separation.
In the short run, it’s easier to stay home and binge watch Game of Thrones on Netflix and enjoy that introverted side of your personality. I want to applaud you for getting out there to achieve your desired goal of making A-list friends. In fact, I believe making close friends is not too different from dating for a significant other. The only difference is that in the case of close friends, maybe you’ll end up with two or three instead of one particular life partner. (That said, even just one close friend is great.) I do want to say that I disagree with your statement that deep friendships are rare. I’d say they’re special, but not rare. There’s a difference.
Don’t Make Assumptions
With only your letter to draw on, I’m guessing that you’re making major assumptions about other people’s lives that are exacerbating your feelings of inadequacy in the friendship department. I also wonder if you have an unrealistic view of what a close friendship looks like and are therefore chasing something that does not exist. You might be closer to your goal than you think!
You said, “I have nice acquaintances, and my social life is interesting as long as I show up. As soon as I don’t, due to holidays, work, whatever, it easily happens that I don’t talk to anyone for a week or more.”
This is a perfect example of you feeling inadequate over something that is true for most people. The only person I speak to on the phone regularly is my sister-in-law, and I have a good amount of close, deep friendships with women both in and out of town. Even when it comes to my close friends in town, we can easily go weeks or a month or more without speaking on the phone or seeing each other in person. I know this is true for my friends and their other friends, too. If you focus on quantity of time over quality, I think you’ll always feel like you have shallow friendships. The depth of a friendship cannot be measured in minutes together or minutes on the phone.
The Only One With Superficial Friendships?
You then said, “It seems to me that other moms at school quickly become close.” How do you know that the banter you’re witnessing in the hallway or pickup line at school is anything more than very friendly acquaintances happy to see each other? Even if what you’re seeing is an example good friends interacting, it does not mean that these people would call each other to water the plants or to help when someone in the household is sick. (We’ll come back to flowers and sick calls later.)
You also said, “Other families from the group we joined for a canoeing trip exchanged phone numbers.” Again, how could you possibly know that their attempts to make plans ended any differently than yours with that one family? Or maybe they got together once or twice then never again. You cannot presume to know what happened after the numbers were exchanged. I wouldn’t take it personally that it didn’t work out to get together with that one family. Most people suck at follow through with new people. It’s a bummer and it’s frustrating, but it’s not personal. They don’t even know you!
Your situation is likely better than you think. You even pointed out that while it was hard to find someone to help you with the flowers or the few times you’ve needed extra hands around, you did find friends to come over eventually.
When To Ask For Help
While we’re on the topic of watering flowers, I think it’s worth mentioning that when it comes to things like watering flowers or bringing in the garbage cans, I’m not likely to ask a friend unless she lives next door or across the street. If I didn’t want to ask a neighbor for that favor, I would pay a high school kid in the neighborhood a few bucks a day to do the chore while we’re gone. I do think it’s healthy to be careful and reasonable about how much you expect from your friends.
As you said of some of your friends, “As soon as I reach out to them a little more, I find there are limits.” That is true and very normal. There are always limits because friends are not family. Friends may be “like family” in the best case scenarios, but they are not family. There are limits to what you can expect from other people who also have kids, or jobs, or homes they’re maintaining.
I think you have to differentiate between asking for help in times of real need and asking for help with the flowers. I would drop anything to drive a friend to chemo or help in an emergency. Helping water the plants for anyone other than a neighbor? I would have no problem saying I have too much going on that week. I don’t think that makes me a bad friend.
Too Many Shallow Friendships, you said many true and important statements in your letter that you simply have to allow yourself to believe with conviction. Yes, it takes time to make close and less superficial friends. Yes, you have to keep trying. Yes, you have to both talk and listen. (Remember you want to listen twice as much as you talk. I have to constantly remind myself to be quiet. You may be usurping more time on your topics than you realize.)
Your Superficial Friends Don’t Have Perfect Lives Either
Now I’m going to be the one to make a big assumption. Of all the details you provided in your letter, the following comment is probably the biggest issue standing between your satisfaction with your friendships and not. “I only seem to meet people who are perfectly happy.”
Losing Courage, that is simply not possible. There is not one person who gets a pass on periods of unhappiness. The people we love get sick. They die. We get sick. We suffer from mental illness or live with someone who does. We feel lonely. We feel unsuccessful, unattractive, and unloveable. We cannot afford necessities. We cannot afford luxuries and suffer from envy or forget the difference between necessities and luxuries. We cannot have children. Our children drive us crazy. We are in unhappy marriages. We are desperate to get married.
The possibilities for unhappiness are endless. The happiest among us focus on the better pieces of our lives, but that does not mean we do not suffer or have problems. Either you are living in an exceptional place (not likely) or you are painting the people you come across with a wide brush of sparkly sheen.
The Ground Rules
Now, some ground rules as you continue “dating” for a few closer friends while still enjoying and appreciating your acquaintances.
- As we discussed, twice as much listening as talking. Twice as much!
- Be open-minded. Join new groups. Look outside of work, your kid’s school, and your religious community if those three areas are not working.
- Don’t try too hard. If the chemistry is not there, keep looking. Plenty of fish in the sea as they say.
- Act worthy of those deep friendships you desire because you are worthy. Get those questionable assumptions out of the way, and I think it will put you back on the right road.
My final piece of advice: If you truly feel that you are unable to connect beyond the surface or that all of your continued efforts are not yielding good results (fewer shallow friendships), I encourage you to ask someone who knows you well to tell you honestly how you are coming off with other people. Perhaps a sibling-in-law, a cousin, a coworker, or someone who has known you for years who will not be afraid to tell you the truth. You have to assure this person that you will not turn on him or her if you don’t like what you hear.
Thank you for trusting me with your question. Readers, what did I miss? Have you been in this situation of feeling like you have too many shallow friendships? Please add your thoughts in the comments.
Nina is a contributing writer for Tcjewfolk.com, Kveller.com, and Great New Books. Her essays have appeared regularly at Brain, Child Magazine, The Huffington Post, The Jewish Daily Forward, and have been syndicated in The Times of Israel as well as Jewish newspapers across the country. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband and four children. Contact her on Twitter @ninabadzin and on her blog.