Have you ever walked away feeling awkward and off after an oddly flowing conversation, even with someone you’ve known for a long time?
Have you ever laid in bed at night mulling over the same words that someone said that maybe you were reading too much into… or just maybe they meant something by? Or worrying about the words you said that someone else might have misunderstood?
Have you ever left a crowded event still feeling unknown and alone?
Have you ever felt like it’s high school all over again as you longingly watch the cool posse laugh and walk by?
Have you ever been nervous to put yourself out there and initiate a friendship, only to find that when you finally reach out you were met with rejection?
Have you ever felt yourself resenting the person who “just got to town” and already has more friends than you have made in the past 2 years since arriving?
Have you ever missed what you used to have with the same person you still see all the time and wonder why things had to change?
Have you ever spent years getting close to someone and in the end had to tell them good bye? And then you were left feeling like you had to start all over again with someone new?
Then you’ve made it.
We’ve made it.
Made it to the place they used to always talk about. The place where “life gets more complicated and relationships don’t come easy.” So here we are. Adult friendships.
These relationships that can be so noticeably clunky and complex. Full of tendencies that can annoy us. Personalities that can confuse us. Sins that can hurt us. Plans get cancelled. You always show up late. They always leave early. They expect too much. You give too little. They always forget what you said. You always make the drive. Work is busy. That struggle is isolating. Schedules don’t line up. The kids will have melt downs and they interrupt grown up conversation every other sentence. Actually, forget it, you’re just going to spend the majority of the time chasing them around anyway.
It can be plain hard.
And as a 27 year old mom of 2 my friendship challenges may look different than your friendship challenges. But at the end of the day we’re pretty much all out here saying that friendship is harder and weirder than we thought it might be. Even more so though, we’re all still saying that we want it. And need it. And it’s worth it.
We were made for relationships.
We become our stronger and softer selves, because of them. Community life, filled with sometimes funny-feeling friendships, has a way of growing us into our fuller potential. Of chipping away at our edges and filling in some of our gaps. Of teaching us a new kind of resilience and endurance. Of giving us greater understanding and deeper compassion. Of simply bringing us enjoyment and laughter.
So how do we fight for it? How can we dig deep roots of friendship that will eventually produce some of the sweetest and rarest of fruits?
I do not have all the answers. Obviously. But, I have studied the way other’s around me live life with one another. I have leaned an ear into the voice of those who do it well and sought to follow in their footsteps. I have taken tidbits (or ton-bits) of practical application from podcasts and nuggets of wisdom from break out sessions and books.
In my own words I’ve compiled (that’s a nicer word than stolen) a list. It’s been spoken and lived out mostly by others first.
7 ways to approach and walk in healthy adult friendships:
1. Keep pressing on
I’ve heard the phrase “failing forward.” I like it. To me it paints an accurate picture of what real life relationships look like. While it might sometimes feel like friendships are a constant dance of 1 step forward and 2 steps back, the good news is, you’re still going in the right direction. Just because you’re stumbling, it doesn’t mean you’re not moving. One day we might just look a few steps ahead of our stumbling-selves and find that something pretty cool has been, and is being, built. So keep doing it. Keep texting first. Keep asking the questions. Keep pressing through uncomfortable pauses. Keep inviting them over even when your house isn’t perfect. Keep giving the benefit of the doubt. Keep accepting that you’re not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. And keep showing up as you. Where ever you said you would be, whenever you said you would be there. In all your Monday-morning messiness. Again and again and again.
2. Let go of your idealized version of friendship
Remember when you were a kid on the playground and making a friend meant swinging next to someone and saying hi? Or when you joined that club or team in High School and quickly found your niche? Or when you got to college and instantly became friends with a handful of people who were coming in and out of your dorm room on the daily?
Maybe your experiences of friendship haven’t been quite that easy or simple. But most likely we all have had at least one period of time in our lives that friendships were fluid and fun. Where they were just a given. And they lightened our load and rarely seemed to add to it. Or maybe your idealized version is something you’ve seen in a movie or read in a book or seen in other’s lives, but never quite experienced it yourself. Whatever your version may be, I believe it’s something we have to let go of. We have to realize 2:00 AM study dates are a season and a sort of friendship. They aren’t the prototype. And if we’re too busy waiting around for friendships to look that way or another, we may miss the unique ones that are right in front of us. In the words of Meg Tietz, stop waiting around for your best friend soulmate.
3. Allow friendships to be what they are
This is an idea that I heard recently shared in a podcast and I thought it was so enlightening and freeing. Don’t force something out of a friendship that it just isn’t going to give. Let it morph and grow and don’t box it in, but also just let it be. Don’t expect someone who never knows where their phone is to text you every day. Don’t expect someone who is quiet to shower you with all the words that you want to hear. Don’t go on a play date “for” your kids and expect it to actually be a mom date “for” you. We don’t have to put all of our friendship eggs in one basket. Actually, we shouldn’t. Because no one person can be everything we need them to be. They can not meet all of our friendship needs. And that’s a good thing. It allows us to have various friends who fill us in various ways and not have one friend who fulfills us in all the ways. Because they just can’t. This approach creates the room for us to make more friends and for those that are already our friends to make more of their own, too.
If you found your up-for-anything friend, have fun with them. If you found your honest friend, ask them the hard things you need to know the truth about. If you found your empathizing friend, cry to them. If you found your group friend, one on one time might not be your best bet with them. If you found your fix-it friend, call them when your pipe is leaking. Appreciate your friends for who they are and what they uniquely bring. And when maybe you get the chance to find a “freezer friend” (again shout out to Meg Tietz with Sorta Awesome) who knows every single thing in your freezer; aka knows every detail of your day and wants to… rejoice in the rarity and hold on tight to them. But acknowledge that this type of friendship is simply not everyone’s norm.
4. Share experiences
I recently heard someone say (once again, my written words and someone else’s ideas) that they realized about themselves that they rarely ever sat across the table from someone and felt an instant friendship-connection. They rarely “hit it off” with people. Rather they kept gathering around the same things at the same times, and formed something sweet. This can look like weekly coffee shop meets or biweekly play dates or monthly pizza nights or annual camping trips. Friendships can be forged and kept by the very things we mark on our calendars again and again. The routines that we build into our rhythms of life. Friendship isn’t confined to the spoken word only. It can be cultivated and kept by common interests and shared experiences. Turn up the music and make pizza together. Sit on the couch and cry at This Is Us together. Pant and sweat while you hike together. Be captivated by the flames of the campfire together.
Create together. Rest together. Play together. Watch together. Cheer together. Find the things that unite you, and keep capitalizing on those things and gathering around those things. They will be the very things you tell past stories about and create current memories in.
5. Sit in the sadness
I have found that, at least from my own personal experience, something that keeps me running from relationships is the fear of not knowing what to say. I’m afraid of walking through a situation with someone that I know absolutely nothing about. I’m afraid to say too much, offer too little, or flat out say the wrong thing. I’m afraid of the things that feel foreign to me and then I write myself off as having nothing to offer. Yet because we’re all human, pain and sorrow and suffering are no strangers to any of us. They may come in varying forms and degrees, but we are all acquainted with them. And so we can choose to be human with our friends. We can acknowledge that we have no idea what to say or no advice to give. But we can offer ourselves. We can give our quiet and caring and un-rushed presence. We can give the sacrificial gift of bearing one another’s burdens by simply sitting in them. We can take some of the tears by crying them too. We can take some of the sting by letting it pierce us too. Hearing the silence and feeling the pain might be all we have to offer, and it may be all they ever actually wanted us to give.
6. Have hands that help
I have never seen such a raw and beautiful picture of helping hands as when I joined a local church. This came to life to me when I covenanted to a body of believers. A group of people who saw themselves not only theologically but also practically as just that- a body. A body with moving and functioning and active parts. Doing their job. Imperfectly but faithfully. While my taste of this “hands on” friendship has been primarily in the context of my church, what new mom in your play group would pass up a meal being brought to her door? What car-less coworker wouldn’t want a ride to the office? What new house owner wouldn’t welcome able-bodies to help move some boxes? What single parent wouldn’t take you up on a night of free childcare?
Sometimes we can’t come up with the words to say. And sometimes we don’t have the chance to just sit and feel with them. But we can always say “I’m ordering” or “I’m doing” or “I’m bringing.” These soothing words and these kind actions have made me feel known and cared for in a way that almost nothing else ever has. Maybe it’s because we’re adults and we have so much on our plates that lightening our load is our new love language. Or maybe it’s because we’re human and we desperately need each other to make it through this thing that we’re all in together called life.
7. Have lips that celebrate
Be a friend that mourns quietly and helps practically and cheers loudly. Throw their party. Buy their ice cream. Watch their kids. Send the text that says “good job!” Make the call that says “you did it!” True friends challenge us but they also cheer for us. See the good. Call out the growth. Emphasize the victories. Choose to be a friend that is quick to honor and root and uphold. The joy in your life will multiply as their celebrations become your celebrations, their wins become your wins, and their happy days become your happy days. Even in the midst of your own complaints and loses and sad days. Sometimes friendship is letting someone else ignore the brightness of their own day to sit in the darkness of your hard day. And other times friendship is choking back your sad tears to rejoice in someone else’s happy tears.
There are enough hard days and harsh voices. We all could use that friend, and be that friend, that celebrates proudly and embarrassingly and often. It’s not an expensive gift to give but it’s a priceless one to receive.
Take heart and keep fighting the friendship fight.
Embrace it in all of its weirdness and wonder and work. Oh, and don’t forget to look around and see that you’re among the 99% of people who are wanting the exact same thing as you.
So rich & good!
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This is really good, Natalie!
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Thanks for taking the time to read this, Kevin. I’ve always looked up to the way you and Danae do relationships.
Natalie, this is SO spot on. I find I have almost constant anxiety about friendships. This is so helpful. Thanks for sharing!
*I haven’t read this yet but “Messy Beautiful Friendship” by Christine Hoover is supposed to be really good.
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Thanks so much for reading, Holly. I’m glad it was helpful! It’s been comforting but also sad to know how common and constant of a struggle this can be for so so many.
And I haven’t heard of that, but I will definitely be looking into it now. Sounds great!