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Friends: what’s the point?

Who cares if science says we need friends? This is actually what motivates us when it gets hard.

Last Friday, some mom friends and I gathered for a park play date. Despite the blue skies and sunshine, which managed to warm the teen-temps up to near 40, the covering of the play structure kept solid patches of ice on the ground from thawing. Now, imagine 20 kids in all sorts of ineffective footwear attempting their usual play activities on sheets of frozen snow. It was like watching a low-level ice capades – with less cool tricks and far more crying.

We’d been there about 30 minutes and my 9-year old still resisted jumping into the melee. This irked me, because he’s typically quite brave when it comes to social interaction. Also, after three years of homeschooling in the shadows of 2020 pandemic isolation, he NEEDS friends. And it’s hard enough for me to nurture prolonged relationships with other adults while managing parenting, work, marriage, and other obligations. Now I have to concierge a pre-teen’s social life, too?!

As I vented all this to my friends, one replied with an intriguing question: “How would you react if someone dropped you off at a wild corner bar and told you to ‘go make friends?’”Shit. She had a good point. I’d probably do exactly what my son was doing – hanging out on the perimeter, observing the action from afar, calculating his chances of slipping and embarrassing himself, and concluding it’s not worth it.

Making friends is tough at any age. When you’re five, you’re likely to get smacked in the event of miscommunications or disagreements. At 37, the hits are more emotional than physical – but no less painful. After a recent breakup, my friend Carly is facing the prospect of having to make an entirely new set of friends. This happens in committed romantic relationships – one partner is more extroverted than the other, making friends more easily. My husband is like this. It’s convenient for me to sit back and let him do the heavy lifting of meeting and vetting people who then, by default, become my friends, too. Socially, I’m like the sidecar to his motorcycle.

Now, though, more than a decade into marriage, I’m realizing I need to make my own friends, too. Much like physical strength, the whole process of relationship building requires emotional muscles that atrophy without regular use. (Mine are fairly useless at this point). With awe and admiration, I’ve watched Carly and others keep at it through multiple ghostings and weird moments, wondering – as we all do – if we’re doing it right… if maybe we are just too weird.

We can take some measure of comfort in knowing that these anxieties and second guesses of ourselves are a completely normal, however uncomfortable, part of the process. In fact, you have to intentionally ignore the part of your brain screaming “THIS FEELS WRONG, RETREAT TO SAFETY” in order to push toward familiarity with another human. Sometimes, you’ll reach out – maybe ask to friend someone on Facebook or muster up the cajones to get their phone number – and face plant into an invisible wall of silence. Other times, you’ll make successful connection only to find the person in question has serious opinions about people like you (or that your own skin crawls when any innocent topic you broach entices them to proselytize about the ills of modern society). No, thanks. On to the next one.

This is a time-consuming and decidedly cost-ineffective process. There is simply no other way to build relationship without putting in work. It’s old-fashioned, arduous, and emotionally exhausting. But the reward of making even one solid friendship is well worth it – science repeatedly says so. Does this factual knowledge help to motivate us in any way? Not really. Here’s what will: knowing that others are out there on the same grind, enduring the same mix of rejection and apprehension, in hopes of finding you. We’re in this together. Ultimately, that’s the whole reason we seek each other out in the first place – so that when I inevitably slip on a sheet of playground ice, you’re there to lend a hand and laugh it off with me, to let me know I’m not in this alone.

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