I am almost 28, and I have a ton of acquaintances who often want to “grab drinks” and “get dinner,” but I have very few people in my life I consider “real” friends. To me that would mean someone I trust enough to be honest about how I’m feeling and what I think, someone I can be myself around, someone I care about to a significant degree. And having those things reciprocated.
My friend history is littered with confusing falling outs and ghostings. There was the high school best friend who disappeared from my life about a semester after we started college and ignored my pleas for an explanation; the college roommate who exploded at me for being a “bad friend” because I was uncomfortable being around her boyfriend; the friend whose boyfriend didn’t want her to be friends with me and she complied.
Then there are the people I have learned to see as exhausters. The friend I don’t know very well but who expects emotional support from me on a level that I don’t feel equipped to handle; the one who only talks to me when she wants to argue about politics or pick my brain about my views; the one who practically uses messages to me as a diary of his life’s woes and complaints.
Between these two groups, I have begun to feel like my time and feelings aren’t really valuable to others, despite the effort that I put in. I’ve talked about this with my therapist, and she thinks it might be, at least in part, about expectations. With the first group, my expectations were too high, or unhealthy. I wanted a “kindred spirit” relationship like the ones I’d grown up reading about (big lover of Anne of Green Gables, here.) But Anne was pretty codependent, and those kinds of relationships aren’t actually all that common, or healthy. And with the second group, people may be taking advantage of me, but that’s about expectations too. This is pretty satisfying to me as an explanation, but what now? How do I more accurately set expectations for a relationship with me? How do I make it clear that I care about someone and want to know what makes them happy or sad or laugh, but am not signing up to shoulder all their troubles? How do I attract people who will actually reciprocate the time and energy I put into a friendship? Or is this even possible?
I understand that we can’t dictate or predict how people will act, but clearly humans operate off of each other’s cues, and either some of mine are wrong, or most people suck. And I do not (want to) believe that most people suck!
So, any advice on how to be a better friend, and attract the right kind of friends, too?
I also grew up reading Anne of Green Gables, and it did a great job of teaching me how life changing it can be to make a friend like Diana Barry. Everyone I know has always been way more invested in Anne and Diana’s love than in Anne and Gilbert’s, and I feel like generations of girls internalized the crucial message that “romantic love” is great and all, but we also need strong friendships to sustain us (even if our husbands don’t go off to war or whatever).
Many folks seem to think that finding a best friend will be like falling in love is in a movie: as soon as you meet this person, you will know they are The One For You, and the rest of your relationship will be completely effortless because you are magical soul mates and can anticipate and meet all of each other’s needs.
The bleakest examples of this, I think, are the countless Craigslist ads like this one, written by people looking for instant best friends. As if it’s possible to find “a best friend to text every day and just say hi and chat about our days” based on a shared interest in “Going for dinners, coffees, and Friday night shenanigans.”
I am not trying to put this person down at all; it’s heartbreaking that people are so aching for that kind of connection in their life. But it’s even more upsetting they’ve internalized the message that a person you meet can instantly be your best friend. Which is what Anne Shirley did with Diana Barry for sure. But she was a recently abandoned 12-year-old girl, and also fictional. So you might not want to follow that model too closely. It is as ill advised as having your entire wedding planned out while you are single, and sort of taking the “insert husband here” approach to all of it.
Just like with dating, a crucial first step is to figure out exactly what traits and qualities you want in a friend. If you are not sure what those are, think about your favourite friendships, real or fictional, and make a list of the common traits that make them so great.
I was talking to some friends recently about my real-life-Anne-with-an-e (read her blog), and getting really emotional about how much of a great friend she is, and how loved I feel by her. And I realized that it’s because she is one of the best people in my life at keeping people’s “love maps” in her head. I’ve written about the importance of these before, in the context of romantic relationships. They help me feel safe and secure in my friendships, too. To save from you having to read that entire other piece, here’s the gist (from Dr. John Gottman, who originated the idea):
“A love map is a roadmap you create in your mind of your partner’s inner psychological world. It is the most basic level of friendship. The fundamental process in making a love map is asking questions and remembering the answers—keeping them in working memory.”
No matter what idea or hurt I bring to Anne, she is always able to reflect it back to me in the context of my entire life, in a way that I usually cannot even do myself. She’ll just be like, “Oh, of course you find this hard. It probably makes you think of when you were a little kid and this other really similar thing happened!” In addition to giving me super crucial and soothing insight, it also means she listens to me when I talk and understands what I am saying (or asks questions when she doesn’t!). She internalizes what I am saying and values our friendship enough to file that information away in case it comes up later. I don’t think anyone else in my life does this to the same degree, and I am so thankful for it. (I hope I am always able to do the same for her!)
Having said all that, it’s possible love maps will not be the most important thing to you (even though there is likely always value in working on them at least a little bit). Everyone has different things they are looking for. Some people really require unwavering loyalty in order to build trust. Others build their friendships around shared activities. Others want to make sure their friends are in the same place they are right now in their lives.
All of my best friendships have developed slowly over long periods of time of increased vulnerability and investment, usually beginning with a shared joke. None my best friends are people I knew upon meeting that I’d be close with for years, even the ones I liked right away. So I would encourage you to spend some time with those people you say are asking you to “have drinks” or “grab dinner” with them, even though you feel like those are not the sorts of intimate things you are looking to do with your friends. Because how do you know if you can be intimate friends with someone if you don’t grab a lot of dinners or drinks with them first? You might think you know right away if someone is best friend material or not, but that is as unrealistic as expecting love-at-first-sight in a romantic context.
I feel like I am coming across as super pragmatic and logical and clinical about friendships, and that’s not how I feel at all. Few things are as dizzying as a new crush, and I don’t find friend-crushes are less intense or thrilling at all. You realize you are thinking about someone all the time, and then find excuses to start talking about them all the time (in order to give yourself more material to think about!). Finding out that your friend-crush is reciprocated feels like winning the lottery, and you become insufferable in shoehorning mentions of them to everyone else in your life.
I have also had sleeper-hit friendships, where I’ve ended up in the same Facebook group and/or group chat with someone, and realized my feelings had gradually transitioned from “This person is so hilarious!” to “This person is so lovely!” to “If anyone messes with this person, I will push them in front of a train!” without my noticing.
The way you talk about your friends, it sounds like maybe you wouldn’t push anyone in front of a train for them? And that’s fine, not all friendships manifest that way! But it sounds like you actually want to push some of them in front of a train, which is a problem. I am hearing what sounds like a lot of resentment about these folks. And that’s a reasonable reaction to being taken advantage of, but I don’t know how much luck you will having filling your life with great friends while these folks are, by your description, exhausting you. You need to clear them out in order to make the mental and emotional space for more deserving people (like maybe some of those people who want to grab coffee or dinner). As you build these friendships, you can make sure you have good boundaries in place from the get-go, to help you establish clear expectations and keep them in place as the friendship deepens.
It can be so hard, I know, to clean house like this while you are already feeling scarcity. Since I don’t approach romantic love and friendships that differently, I recommend you spend some time reading this earlier column about how to meet a guy to date, and try to apply some of it (even the OkCupid parts!) to finding those people who have the potential to gradually (!) become bosom friends.
Do you have a problem that you could use some help with? Send along your questions about love, career, politics, and anything else to firstname.lastname@example.org.