Making friends as an adult is notoriously tough, but maintaining the ones you already have is sneakily harder. You can live states and countries apart, having to navigate time zones and phone calls to keep in touch. You can be in completely different life stages, having to hurdle competing priorities. You can change as people, moving away from the things that once brought you together. And there’s the not-so-small ordeal of everyday life, which just has a habit of getting in the way, even if you live in the same city as each other.
Though life gets inevitably busier as you get older, the social science is unwavering: Friendship is really good for you. Plus, it’s one of the best and most beautiful parts of life. So why can it be so hard?
Anna Goldfarb, journalist and author of Modern Friendship: How to Nurture Our Most Valued Connections, says she’s wondered the same thing. Well into adulthood and having already made amazing friends, she thought she was set for life — but then she got married, and suddenly, she says, she noticed her “friendships were confusing and messy.” Entering a new life stage had naturally shifted things, creating distance with some friends, but when that happened, she was surprised to realize she had no idea how to repair the relationships.
“I didn’t know if it was me, did I do something wrong? Is my friend busy? Do they not like me?” So, she did as a reporter does best and decided to investigate the answer. “I started reporting on friendships,” she says,” “to better understand my own.”
She wanted to see if she could create a car manual of sorts for friendship. What makes it drive? What makes it stall out? She found: “Friendships are driven by desire, just like cars are driven by gas. If you have no desire, the friendship will not move forward.”
So how do you top off the tank of your old friendships and fill up new ones? How can you keep your friendships healthy and attuned to both of your ever-changing needs and lives? I turned to friendship experts and my own friends to find out, and the advice is blissfully simple.
Write your friendship’s “about” section together.
Every single friendship, Goldfarb says, needs an “about,” which is the reason for your relationship and the way you connect. “And abouts can change, be outdated, or be absent. Part of the work of a friendship is what is our friendship about? Is it clear and is it compelling to me?” Think of a college companion, who you may have befriended based on living in the same dorm, eating together in the dining hall, and going out together. Now that you’re out of college and living in different buildings, that original “about” likely doesn’t hold up.
But, Goldfarb says, that doesn’t mean you have to let the friendship go, if they’re still someone you want in your life. “You can always negotiate an about with a friend. You can say, ‘I want to spend more time with you. It looks like you’re not that into drinking. Would you rather get coffee on the weekend? Would you rather go for a walk? Can I help with a goal?” The key is that you find a reason for your friendship that’s compelling to you both.
If you’re making a new friend, that purpose may be more obvious. Maybe you’re gym friends, or coworkers who get lunch together, or Bumble BFF pals who bonded over your shared love of reality TV — but as your relationship deepens or evolves, you can always update your “about” together.
Talk about your friendship with each other.
In marriage and dating, there are so many guidelines and check-ins in place to help make sense of the relationship. There’s a list of questions you can ask to fall in love, there are marriage counselors, there’s a path that, if you’d like, you can follow all the way from first date (“Where do you see this going?) to wedding day (Will you take this person to be your lawfully wedded?”). But friendship is the wild west.
“It’s very hard to talk about our friendship to our friends, but we talk about our relationship to our partners all the time,” Goldfarb observes. “That uncertainty causes anxiety, and that’s where people get tripped up. They think, are we still friends? Is this relationship meaningful to you? You didn’t return my text, is that personal or are you just busy? And that ambiguity eats away at the connection we’re all looking for.”
Because of my penchant for being Bad At Texting, I’ve often worried I’m introducing some of that uncertainty into my relationships. So, I decided to text a few close friends to check in — not just to catch up, but to ask why they think we’re friends and what they want out of adult friendship. I surprised myself by feeling a little nervous to text people I’ve known for years, but the responses were so worth it.
“Because we’ve always understood each other at a depth that isn’t easy to come by,” replied my dear friend who was my randomly selected college roommate freshman year, and who’s now four months pregnant.
Without anniversaries and milestones, so much time can pass unnoticed in friendships, and taking the time to align on our abouts and affirm our value in each other’s lives felt so special. Talking to my friends about being friends is an experiment I intend to make a habit.
Be curious about your friends’ lives.
If you’ve ever been stuck at a networking event or on a first date with someone who hasn’t asked you a single question about yourself, you know how demoralizing it can feel. Friends, thankfully, are people who inherently care about each other, and the way to show that is by being curious about their life. “Engaged curiosity and deep conversation are some of the most important elements for transforming shallow acquaintanceships into deep friendships,” says Kat Vellos, connection coach and author of the book We Should Get Together: The Secret to Cultivating Better Friendships. “Curiosity is the doorway to connection.”
Whether making a new friend or staying in touch with your childhood bestie, remaining genuinely interested in who they are and how they’re doing is a huge part of making them feel seen and the friendship feel enriching. And it’s worth noting that these conversations don’t have to be anything groundbreaking. Rachel Miller, author of The Art of Showing Up: How to Be There for Yourself and Your People describes in a blog post the necessity of “deep-shallow companions,” or the friends who “let you go on and on about the traffic you sat in, the errands you ran, [or] the minutiae of your to-do list.” There is a certain intimacy to telling your friends the little things, whether that’s the new coffee order you’re trying out or a small home project you’re working on.
But what kinds of questions should you be asking your friends? When meeting someone new, “What have you been obsessed with lately?” is a favorite of Goldfarb’s. “That’s the quickest way to see if you have something in common that you’re really excited about.”
For getting deep, Vellos suggests asking something like, “What would your ideal vision of friendship and community look like?” Or, if you’re looking for an alternative to “how’s it going,” she recommends asking, “How would you describe one way you’ve changed since we last talked, and one way you’ve stayed the same?” In fact, Vellos has an entire collection of elevated small talk questions to ask in her Better Conversations Kit, which you can buy on her site, along with her Connection Jet Pack, which offers everything from ideas for friend dates to questions to ask your coworkers.
Whether you’re texting a friend to catch up, on a first friend date, or trying to turn small talk into real talk, here are a few questions to get the conversation started.
Though making and keeping friends as an adult isn’t easy, they can make life feel so full. And honestly, I was pleasantly surprised by the sweet simplicity of these connection experts’ tips — I can’t wait to talk all about them with my friends.