Why Do I Fail at Making Friends As An Adult?

Why Do I Fail at Making Friends As An Adult?

Estimated reading time: 17 minutes

Hey Dr. Nerdlove,

This isn’t a question about dating, so much as about mastering basic social interactions.

As a 30M, I’m embarrassed I’ve never learned how to do this, but I don’t know how to make friends. I seem to be especially bad at making friends of the opposite sex.

For context: I lived in the same town growing up and had a solid group of friends. I left for college and lived in several places for work but never made friends in these situations. Eventually, I moved to where my old high school friends were. It felt good to have a support network around me again – but also dispiriting that I had made such little progress as an adult.

Then, I had to move away again to attend grad school.

It has been exhausting – our first year is wrapping up and it has been really difficult to form friendships, regardless of gender. I try to invite guys in my class to hangout but I am always told everyone is too busy, even though I know they are going to parties or on weekend trips. It’s like I skipped out on a lot of exclusionary high school BS, but it is circling back now in my 30s.

And then there’s the other end of the gender binary.

Last week, I was blocked by two female acquaintances – up until that point, I thought I was getting along really well with both of them. Something similar happened with another classmate back in January, so there is clearly a pattern here.

I find it frustrating that I think I have made a (friendly/platonic) connection and am suddenly cut off. I understand part of the problem is that women are socialized to be friendly and not just tell guys to ‘fuck off’ when they get annoyed/bored/upset/uncomfortable with their interlocutor. I want to be respectful and supportive but am apparently being off-putting.

I didn’t notice any telltale signs of discomfort when interacting with them – I tried to ensure I wasn’t physically blocking their exit, steered towards appropriate conversation topics about class, hobbies, and work, as well as tried to pay attention to signs of boredom or agitation.

As much as possible, I try to let women initiate conversations. Only when these conversations end on a seeming high note (“Let’s get lunch some time!”) do I try and follow up with them over text. This is where everything seems to fall apart and I get blocked. Now I’m worried that I’m on some “Creepy Guy” list – and I honestly have no clue what I’m doing wrong.

This entire process has left me feeling lonely and miserable. Since I’m in this program for the next few years, I want to make friends or at least have some people with whom I feel comfortable hanging out. At some point, I’d even like to date. However, all of this appears to be a long, long, long way off. I literally cried myself to sleep last night.

I’m not sure how to even begin to improve my social calibration since it seems so misaligned at the moment. Any tips to find out what I’m doing wrong? Is there any hope of repairing any of these relationships and getting a second chance? When do I just take the ‘L’ and move on?

Not Even In The Friend Zone

Hoo boy.

OK, NETFZ, I think we need to take the friends issue and women blocking you issues separately. I suspect that there’s some overlap going on that’s leading to this, but these are going to require different approaches to help address things.

Let’s start with just trying to make friends as an adult, especially when everyone’s busy. The first thing I would point out is that having your high-school friends back as part of your social circle isn’t a bad thing.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand why it might feel like a failure at your part – that jerkbrain voice saying “look, you haven’t managed to grow past high-school…” – but they’re still your friends. The fact that they’re friends from a long time ago, when you felt like maybe you left things behind doesn’t make their friendship less valuable or less significant, especially if they are serving as a network of social support for you.

I would also suggest that maybe you should change how you’re looking at these relationships, especially considering the time that’s elapsed between when you were in town vs. now. It may be good for you to look back and see just how much those friendships and relationships have changed in those intervening years. If they’re exactly the same as they were back in high-school, then that would be an issue. That would suggest that people have been stuck in place and have resisted any sort of personal growth or discovery in the intervening years. But that’s really different from “we have a lot of shared history together that made it easier for us to reconnect and get to know each other as we are now.” There’s nothing wrong with having new friendships with old friends after all.

Now, meeting new people is going to be an exercise in patience and measured steps. The estimated amount of time it takes to go from strangers to acquaintances, acquaintances to friends and friends to close friends is pretty steep and significant. Even if it’s not 100% accurate, it at least works as a rule of thumb and a reminder that friendships are built over time.

Unfortunately, time becomes an increasingly precious and rare resource as we get older. Part of the reason why it’s harder to make friends as an adult – leaving aside the cultural issues that make it harder for men to make and maintain friendships – is that life gets in the way. When we’re kids or in college, we’re in a place that’s almost custom built for making friends – we’re around people more or less all in the same stage of life for eight+ hours a day, five days a week.

Once we get older, suddenly we have obligations and responsibilities, we have work and overtime and chores and errands, relationships and children and so on. Finding the time to hang out gets harder and harder, especially if you already have social obligations to maintain.

Grad school is its own level of hell when it comes to time management. A number of my friends who’ve gotten post-grad degrees have all agreed: grad school isn’t something you finish, it’s something you survive. For most, trying to maintain anything but the most important connections in your life is a nigh-impossibility between trying to juggle things like course work, TA workloads, research, dissertations and oh, yeah, things like sleep and meals. Things that aren’t of screaming importance tend to fall by the wayside,  if only because there’s only so many hours in the day.

This is why I don’t think people are lying to you or being clique-ish when they say they’re too busy. It’s that they already had those trips or parties on the schedule and – don’t take this the wrong way – you’re not at the level of friendship with them where they’re going to fight to find more flexibility in their social calendar. It’s not a measure of your worth as a person, just that you’re not there yet.

This is also why embracing weak ties becomes key and finding the areas where you can start putting in the time that helps bring you closer with folks. You may have to adjust your expectations at first, in part because some asks are just going to be too much. For a grad student, hanging out with someone new on the weekend may be just too hard to fit into one’s schedule, even if they really, really want to. It’s a lot easier to, say, start by making small talk before or after classes, or grab coffee and walk together to your next lecture or before office hours for the undergrads.

Yeah, it means that it takes longer to get to the point where you and they are able to start making weekend hangout plans, but forward progress is still progress. 10 minutes here, 15 minutes there… before too long you’re talking about real time spent together. It may not be as fast as you wish it were, but those smaller asks on their time are a lot easier to fulfill and help build to larger ones.

Now for the women… look, once is happenstance, twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action a pattern, and that’s the point where you have to really consider that you’re doing something wrong here. Figuring out precisely what is going to require a fair amount of self-examination of your behavior in as dispassionate and rational a means as possible.

This is, admittedly, going to be hard. Part of it is going to be because – as you said – you’re lacking a certain level of social calibration. But another reason why it’s going to be hard is that it can be hard to look at your own behavior without either drawing conclusions based on your own assumptions or turning it into a shame spiral that ends with your declaring that clearly you’re the worst creeper to ever creep and nothing will ever change.

This would be much easier if you have a third party – ideally a woman –  whose judgement you can trust and who can be completely (if tactfully) honest with you. Having someone that you can turn to and say “hey, this keeps happening; have you noticed something I’ve been doing/saying that would be a problem” can be invaluable. At the very least, it gives you a starting point to work from, even if they can’t pinpoint the exact issue.

That having been said, I suspect that at least part of the issue is that you’re coming on strong with everyone. I think a lot of this comes from the fact that yes, you’re lonely and you’re trying to fix that… but I think that loneliness is pushing you to act in ways that are out of keeping with the level of connection you have with folks.

You want to have those connections with people very badly and it’s entirely understandable, but if you’re letting that desire have too much influence over your actions, you may be coming off as needy, intense or both. Asking for a level of friendship or connection when you’re not quite there can feel uncomfortable or awkward under the best of circumstances. Remember what I said about making asks on people’s time when you’re not quite there yet? I think that’s in play here.

Yeah, it’s frustrating when it feels as though being honest about what you want gets read as excess neediness, but this is really as much about that social calibration and emotional intelligence as anything else. It’s a little like what I told Overthinking and Overwhelmed about trauma dumping; it’s behavior that suggests that you either can’t or won’t read the room and aren’t paying attention or valuing the other person’s time, feelings or boundaries.

It’s important to note, however, that this plays very differently based on the genders of people involved. Between men that behavior can feel annoying, but not necessarily threatening. But a man who may be coming on excessively strong or seems needy – especially beyond the current level of their social connection – to a woman? It may not feel like a threat to one’s safety, but certainly like someone who’s going to be making unreasonable demands on their time and attention.

A lot of women find themselves in the position of male friends and acquaintances treating them like a combination of friend, therapist and social secretary. It’s exhausting under the best of circumstances, and even more so when it’s someone they don’t know that well. I wouldn’t be surprised if the amount you were messaging them was getting to a level that felt excessive to them. I would wonder, for example, how much you’re following up with them, especially if you have those nebulous plans of “get lunch some time” and the like. If you’re texting them constantly and trying to set up times, getting the brush off or non-committal answers and continuing to message them? You may be overwhelming them and making them feel pressured to a level that makes them feel uncomfortable.

You know that you’re doing this in good faith and don’t want to push… but that doesn’t mean you’re not still doing it without intending to. Unfortunately, intent doesn’t really change effect, and you aren’t close enough that they feel that they can say something.

Or it may be possible that they did and you didn’t realize that this is what they were saying.

I think in this case, dialing things back a lot is going to be helpful. It sounds like you may not be at a ten but you may well be somewhere between a seven to a nine and you need to be at a two; you want to be less golden retriever puppy and more friendly-but-wary older cat.

This is a time when the green/blue to white ratio can be a good rule of thumb while you work on your calibration. That is: pay attention to how much you’re texting vs. how much the other people are replying. If you’re seeing that the blue or green bubbles (i.e. your texts to them) are out of proportion to the white bubbles (their replies to you), then you may be over-texting them and you need to dial it back a bit.

I would also suggest that you go back through those texts and see if you can identify places where they may have been giving you the wave-off. If there’s a lot of non-committal replies to invitations or comments about how busy they are, especially shortly before you got blocked, that will tell you that there’ve been signals that you were missing.

Now this doesn’t mean that you need to be doing word-count checks for the rest of time. These are guidelines to help you while you work on developing your social calibration. As the saying goes: if you want to break the rules, first you have to understand the rules. Getting better at social calibration means that you’ll be better at understanding which relationships are getting a little out of balance and which aren’t… even if they don’t conform to the “rules”.

But this takes time – often more time than it feels like you would want to spend. But unfortunately, there really isn’t a way to speed-run the process, not the way that we could as kids. So, as much as I know you wish it were different, you need to be willing to be patient and start a little smaller. Spending time with your old friends can help with those feelings of loneliness while you work on calibrating yourself.

You may also want to take a similar tack and find a local hangout that you enjoy and just go there regularly. Becoming a regular at your favorite coffeeshop or hang-out bar means that over time you get to know the other regulars and slowly start to build relationships with them by making small talk and working up to bigger topics as you get to know each other.

Similarly, focusing more on connecting with folks while on campus for short amounts of time on a regular basis will help a lot more than trying to jump up a level before you’ve put in the time. A little restraint – even when it feels like you’re trying to dam a river in full flood – goes a long way. “Slow and steady wins the race” may be a cliché, but it it’s a cliché for a reason and it applies as much to making friends as it does to other areas of life.

Slow your roll a lot. Be at a two, rather than a nine and focus on small, regular interactions instead of trying to move to bigger ones that require more time commitment from others. It’ll do you a world of good and ultimately mean you make friends faster than you will if you continue as you are now.

Good luck.

Dear Dr. NerdLove:  I met a guy on bumble. Really great guy, he’s decent, soft spoken, loving and caring. We are dating for almost a month now. He lives in another city so we are not able to meet much and he is an introvert as well.

When we started chatting, he said that he was looking for something casual but is open for long term relationship as well. Me on the other hand, feel like I am already in love with him because he ticks on all of my checklist points. Now, we flirt a lot and chat sometimes but he is a doctor so he is really busy.

I am confused about how should I proceed with this, I feel like marrying this guy, but it is too soon to even say I love you to him. Please guide me.

Rumble In The Bumble

OK, RITB, I’m going to lay this one out bluntly: you’re not in love with him, you certainly aren’t anywhere near a point where you should be thinking about a long weekend in a cozy B&B never mind marriage and you really need to take a long deep breath and just chill out.

Right now you’re setting yourself up for some serious disappointment. What you’re feeling and expecting is going to be very out of line with not just where he’s at but what he’s offering. When these two aspects start to clash – and they will, soon – you’re not going to like how it turns out.

Let’s start with the most obvious: when someone says they’re “open” to long term, that doesn’t mean that they’re looking for one necessarily or are even interested in one should the opportunity arise. They’re saying that if the right person comes along, if circumstances are right and if they’re feeling it, then they’re not going to say “no” to a long-term relationship. That is very different from someone saying “Yes, I’m looking to settle down and meet my forever person”.

When someone says that they’re looking for something casual but are open to long term, what they’re saying is “I don’t want strings or commitment and that’s not going to change any time before I’ve decided I’m done being casual, on my schedule, not anyone else’s’. I might accept a long-term relationship if I meet my dream partner, but don’t expect more from me until I explicitly say so.”  

And despite how that sounds… that’s not bad. Most folks who say that almost certainly should drop the “open to” part (because at the end of the day, they’re really not; not in any reasonable definition, anyway) but they at least know what they’re looking for and are open about it. It’s an opt-in situation. The problem is that some folks focus too much on the “long term” and don’t parse what “open to” is really saying.

(Some guys are actively deceptive about this, but that’s a different can of wax entirely.)

It’d be one thing if you, too, were cool with something casual without the expectation of commitment, but were willing to consider something long term if it all worked out. But you’re not. You’re already looking for something he isn’t ready, willing or able to give. So right off the bat: you and he want radically different things.

That difference between what you want from him and what he wants in general are going to be in conflict. When that conflict happens, he’s not going to decide he’s done being casual, he’s going to decide he’s done being casual with you.  And no, you can’t count on riding this out and hoping that you’re going to be the one he settles on when he decides to settle down. Leaving aside that I don’t think you’re going to be able to hold those feelings in for long, I think the process of trying to wait it out is going to be incredibly corrosive to you.

Then there’s the fact that a) you’ve been seeing each other for just a month and b) it’s long-distance. So I’m going to go ahead and guess that you’ve seen each other… what, three times max? That’s no time at all, even with all the texting and flirting. You know next to nothing about this guy, you don’t spend much time together and you think you’re on a different relationship track than him. Your attraction to him seems to be far more predicated on how he is on paper than your actual relationship and you’re letting that fill in a whole lot of blank spaces.

I understand being excited about someone. I understand the thrill of the new getting people carried away. But there’s enjoying the thrill of the new and there’s mistaking it not just for love but for long-term compatibility when you aren’t even at the level of knowing what breakfast cereal he prefers. I can all but promise you: this is a very different relationship for him than it is for you.

I get the feeling that this is, if not a first relationship, definitely one of your first ones. You sound very young and a little inexperienced, so I’m not surprised that the excitement of it all is getting ahead of you. But I will say that right now, with the way you’re feeling, this is going to end in tears. Yours, specifically.

I’m not saying you should break up with this guy or expect to be broken up with. What I am saying is that either you need to radically temper your expectations or decide to go looking for someone who’s on the same page as you. There really is no in-between here. if you want to keep seeing where things go with this guy, then you have to do so knowing that there’s no expectation of commitment or exclusivity. Holding on in hopes that he’ll change his mind or that you’ll change it is both unrealistic and the invitation to unnecessary and avoidable heart break. If you want a person who’s actively looking for the same things you are… you need to find someone else.

I promise you: as nice as this guy is on paper, there’re just as many who are just as nice – possibly even moreso. And, more importantly: those people are looking for the same sort of relationship you are. If you’re looking to settle down, rather than thinking you might, someday, if the stars align… you should be looking elsewhere. And the time you’d be spending waiting for him to change his mind is time that you could’ve been spending with someone else who’s already on the same page as you.

Good luck.