The Art of Making Deeply Intimate Friendships as an Adult
You never really think about friendships until you hit an age where you’ve sold your soul to a 9 to 5 job and start receiving invitations to bridal and baby showers. You no longer see your closest school friends on a weekly, monthly or even yearly basis, you’ve grown to expect month-long delays to text replies, and you learn to label your colleagues as “work” friends for a reason.
When the responsibilities of being an adult take over (bills to pay, work commitments, a family to look after), friendships naturally take a backseat. Then one night, a dreadful realisation dawns upon you while you’re home on a Saturday, scrolling through your WhatsApp chats and finding it difficult to start a conversation with the people you once pinged every day with the most banal, arbitrary thoughts. Do I have any friends? And how many do I consider real, intimate friends?
Now you may think you’re all set because you’ve got a supportive family and perhaps an angel of a spouse. Plenty of people to share your heart with, right? Wrong. According to a 2017 research paper published in the journal Personal Relationships by William J. Chopik, quality friendships are a key ingredient to not just your happiness but also your physical and mental health, sometimes even more so than your family. So you put yourself out there and try to look for these precious connections, but that’s easier said than done. Why is it so hard for adults to make friends?
When we were kids, we never had to put in much effort to meet and make friends. Thanks to our schooling system, we’re automatically plunged into classrooms, where we sit at the same table with the same people every day. We never had to make plans to meet up with our friends because we were already seeing each other regularly. And even if we lose touch with this group of friends after graduation, it’s okay. After primary school comes secondary school, then comes university—and with it, a new group of people to hang out with.
As an adult, for the majority of us, the only time you spend an enormous amount of time with other people is at work. However, you can’t always rely on your colleagues for emotional support or genuine companionship. Thanks to the subtle air of competition and the inherent power imbalances in the workplace, there will inevitably be an invisible barrier between you and your coworkers and superiors, making it difficult to establish personal connections. As much as you try to create opportunities to meet people outside of work, there’s still that challenge of building something meaningful that lasts. And I’m not just talking about another close friendship—I’m talking about something more than that.
It’s a lot like finding a soulmate. Someone who gets you so effortlessly and offers you a profound sense of comfort and familiarity. “Omg, where have you been all my life!” you’ll be shouting effusively. I think of Jada Pinkett Smith and Tupac Shakur, and Oprah Winfrey and Gayle King as perfect examples of a platonic, yet unfathomably soul-deep friendship. As the first lady of talk shows once described, misty-eyed, “She [Gayle] is the mother I never had. She is the sister everybody would want. She is the friend that everybody deserves. I don’t know a better person.” And who could forget the late rapper’s poem to Jada:
“You are the omega of my heart
The foundation for my conception of Love
When I think of what a black woman should be
It’s you that I first think of
You will never fully understand
How deeply my heart feels for you
I worry that we’ll grow apart
And I’ll end up losing you
You bring me to climax without sex
And you do it all with regal grace
You are my heart in human form
A friend I could never replace.”
If you think regular friends are hard to find, these next-level connections will seem near impossible. Making casual acquaintances, on the other hand, is the easiest thing to do. It takes very little to go around the room and introduce yourself to everyone at a networking party just to expand your collection of business cards. Likewise, anyone can say hello to the stranger sitting beside them on the train, or offer to share an umbrella in the rain. But they don’t necessarily translate into a deep, fulfilling, and intimate friendship.
Although such brief encounters do not define real friendship, these surface-level acquaintances are not to be underestimated or pushed to the curb too quickly. Fringe friendships like these play vital roles in your social network too. In fact, researchers Gillian Sandstrom and Elizabeth Dunn from the University of British Columbia conducted surveys that showed the more acquaintances you have, the happier you’re likely to be.
Everyone needs to have a diverse group of friends. While we tend to criticise social butterflies for their long list of acquaintances, the truth is, there is value in expanding your circle. The trick is to balance superficial connections with more intimate ones. Here is a quick look at the 26 different types of friendships you can have.
1. The workout buddy: The person you play tennis with twice a month, and take to the gym to make you feel less self-conscious.
2. The party animal: The person you go to when you want to cut loose, throw back a few cold ones, and embarrass yourself on the dance floor.
3. The work friend: The person who helps you get through the work day and makes going back the next day less dreadful.
4. The parental substitute: The person who isn’t afraid to nag and hit you on the wrist (sometimes playfully) for doing something bad.
5. The travel pal: The person who wants to explore every city, country and continent, and has the most time, money and energy to do it with you.
6. The spontaneous adventurer: The person who will sleep over at East Coast Park by the breakers with you at the drop of a hat.
7. The joker: The person you call for a night of endless laughs.
8. The intellectual: The most cerebral person you know with whom you can have healthy debates and learn something new along the way.
9. The karaoke buddy: The person who shares your taste for music, and brings you to the best karaoke bars and jamming studios in town.
10. The wingman: The person who will make sure that the hottie by the bar you’ve been eyeing gets your number before the night ends.
11. The shopaholic: The person who will satisfy your need for retail therapy and filter through the catalogue, so you won’t waste your bucks on an unflattering piece of fabric.
12. The wise one: The person who is always saying profound, quotable things to ground you, inspire you, and motivate you.
13. The frenemy: The person you adore, yet secretly hate—someone who will boost your work ethic, according to research from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
14. The hi-bye friend: The person you’ve once spoken to in the past, but now exchange just a quick hello and goodbye every time you see each other.
15. The childhood friend: The oldest friend you have who witnessed you grow up and knows every little detail about your early days.
16. The neighbour: The person you borrow salt and sugar from, and occasionally ask for help when you’ve locked yourself out.
17. The emotional one: The person who serves as your personal therapist (sort of), with whom you can explore the depths of your feelings.
18. The foodie: The person you go on food trails with.
19. The long-distance friend: The person you met and befriended overseas, and treat as a tour guide whenever you visit their homeland.
20. The mentor: The part teacher, part friend, part sounding board, who dispenses advice and guides you in your personal and professional life.
21. The mentee: The person to whom you offer guidance and lessons.
22. The polar opposite: The person who might be a little annoying to be with, but allows you to escape yourself and enter into new worlds and perspectives.
23. The ride-or-die friend: The insanely loyal, always-on-your-team sidekick who will bury a body for you, no questions asked.
24. The connector: The person who is always introducing you to other people in their circle.
25. The flirt: The person who you have a secret, low-key crush on, and occasionally flirt with just for the fun of it.
26. And finally, the soulmate: The person with whom you share the deepest, most intimate and meaningful relationship.
Making meaningful friendships as an adult is a complex art, and here are 3 signs you need to look out for.
It starts with attraction.
I still remember the first time I saw her. A curious little streak of blonde going down the back of her head, distressed denim shorts and a scruffy pair of sneakers. Walking three metres behind, let’s call her Jenny, I wasn’t able to get a good look at her face, but I could already feel the “cool girl” vibe radiating off of her. I didn’t know then, that she was going to be one of my closest friends.
It’s a rare thing to feel that instant attraction towards a friend. And I don’t mean anything romantic or sexual. Perhaps it’s their unshakeable values, their dry sense of humour, their intelligence, their bold personal style, or something you can’t even explain. The only thing you’re sure of is that you’re drawn to them like a moth to a flame.
The second ingredient is connection.
How are you alike? For Jenny and I, we not only went to the same school, but also shared a deep love for music and films. Beyond that, her values were uncommonly in-sync with my own. While opposites do attract, there’s usually at least a sliver of a common ground between close friends—the metaphorical glue that holds you together.
Lastly, chemistry is paramount.
This intangible element can never be faked or forced, but it can surely make or break a friendship. Without chemistry, there’s no hope of progressing beyond the acquaintance status. Kelly Campbell, an associate professor at California State University, San Bernardino, spells out a few markers of excellent chemistry in a paper published in The Social Sciences Journal. For instance, operating on the same wavelength, being able to chat with ease, and finishing each other’s sentences—cheesy, but true.
She adds, “Personableness, or the expression of warmth, kindness, consideration, and understanding, is shown to elicit interpersonal attraction for both genders across relationship types. It refers to the demeanor of the two individuals. If they are both genuine, down to earth, caring, and kind, chemistry is facilitated.”
Once you’ve found someone who checks all three of these boxes and would like to develop a deeper friendship with them, how should you go about it? There are generally two ways to do this: accidentally or intentionally.
As an introvert, “chill” is my approach to making friends. Perhaps it’s the inner hopeless romantic in me or my belief in a divine power that the magical and mysterious ways of friendships are not within my control. To me, they happen not because I willed them into existence, but because of destiny. Somehow the universe has allowed our paths to converge for reasons unknown. So if it’s meant to be, it will be.
I’m not advocating passivity though. Some form of effort is still required. It’s like a subtle dance. You can’t come off too strong without establishing some initial rapport first. Otherwise, you might look too creepy or desperate. A word to the wise: never be pushy.
Your safest bet is to start off slow with a simple text message or a social media interaction. Saw a post of them praising Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman? Tell them how much you loved the film too in a private chat. That is your gateway to a longer, more meaningful conversation, which can be sustained as long as you keep asking questions and contributing to the chat in a way that prevents stagnation. This may sound like a whole lot of conscious, concerted effort, but if you’re interested in them, you’ll naturally be curious about them. Curiosity spurs conversation.
In a study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Jeffrey A. Hall writes that you need to spend an average of 50 hours with someone before you go from being an acquaintance to a casual friend. Clock in another 40 hours to reach the level of a real friend, and a further 110 hours to earn that covetable “close friend” status.
As intriguing as these statistics are, you don’t necessarily have to time yourself. Friendship is an alchemy that varies between individuals. People say once you reach a stage where you’ve gone on a trip overseas together, you’re officially best friends. Or it could be that moment when they are puking their guts out in front of you. At the end of the day, these milestones are no indicators of inner connection. Also, asking the other person to “DTR” (define the relationship)—Are we best friends?—is just plain weird.
Don’t be weird. Be chill. Just like in dating, overthinking won’t do you any good. It’s okay to be intentional in developing the friendship, but you’ve got to let go when it comes to the outcome. The moment you enter a mindset of actively trying to build something long-term with someone, you have essentially crafted a preconceived image of that person and subconsciously built them up in your mind.
You’ve placed them on a pedestal and reduced them into an attainable prize in the process of chasing after a close friendship with them. You might think you’ve succeeded when you’ve earned your way into their social circle, but the imbalance will be hard to upkeep.
A real friendship is one where nothing is expected of each other. So you can take the first step, and the second, and the third, but leave your expectations at the door and surrender to the process. Allow the other person the freedom to make their own choices. It could be weeks or months before they finally warm up to you and take the friendship up a notch. Because of that, a little bit of patience goes a long way.
However, the sad truth is, not everyone will be interested in taking the next step or putting in the effort. It always takes two hands to clap. If things aren’t going the way you’d hoped they would, then let it be. Trying to force it will only convey desperation—a real friendship repellent. Similarly, even after establishing an intimate bond, it could still go south one day. The nature of friendships, like everything else in the world, is that they are unpredictable. Each one will evolve at a different pace. Some you will grow out of, others just fizzle out slowly without you realising it. Yet, unlike most romantic relationships, friends can come back to you in another season of your life too. Who knows? Your soulmate might be someone you’ve already met at 8, or someone you’ll come to meet at 80. That’s the beauty and complexity of it.