Why Is It So Hard to Make New Friends As an Adult?

by Chapin Clark
Originally Published: 

Making new friends becomes even more fraught if there’s a spouse or child in the picture. Your choices are no longer your own. Say your kid hits it off with a classmate, but the parents are pescetarian Scientologists who think Two and a Half Men is genius. Tough shit, you’re hanging out with these people. Your fledgling’s nascent social skills take precedence.

But the dynamic can play out in other ways, as well. Several years ago my wife and I met a couple in town with young sons. Our kids played well together. I liked the parents. She was a video editor, and Catholic. He was an advertising copywriter and filmmaker, and Jewish. They were funny, charming, and gracious, newly arrived from Los Angeles. They invited us over for brunch on a warm spring day. We had a great meal and lounged in their comfortable, tastefully furnished home before adjourning outside to watch the kids run around in the backyard.

On the drive home, content in my post-brunch haze, I thought: “Hey, this is nice, we’re making some new friends.” I looked over at my wife, who was quiet. It soon became clear she’d had a very different reaction to our morning and wasn’t interested in further contact with them.

It didn’t make sense to me. At the very least, it seemed premature to make any final judgments. But she was adamant, and I decided not to press the issue. I was immediately anxious about how I would handle my next interaction with this couple. Already I mourned our stillborn friendship.

Not only did we not reciprocate, I felt as if, out of solidarity with my wife, I had to break off contact with them. This approach was complicated by my running into them everywhere—at the farmers’ market, at Dunkin’ Donuts, at the bookstore, at the movie theater, on the train, on the bus, in restaurants and parks. I didn’t know what to say. I was angry at being put in a position I didn’t choose. I was embarrassed by my own behavior. It never occurred to me I could have chosen something different—say, to have my own relationship with the husband.

So I took the next logical, mature, and completely reasonable step: I began pretending I didn’t recognize them and that we had never met.

Every time I returned home from one of these non-encounters, I made sure to tell my wife, jokingly but not really jokingly, “Guess who I saw today…” This reached new heights of absurdity once I found the male half of the couple and I shared several professional acquaintances. Friends of mine at the advertising agency where I work were friends and former colleagues of his. Social media brought us closer still: we followed the same people on Twitter. I watched from a discreet digital distance as he carried on conversations with mutual friends.

Years of this passed—years!—until one day I wasn’t married anymore and it occurred to me there was no longer anything preventing me from getting a drink with this guy. Divorce is arduous and unpleasant in many ways, but one advantage is you can go back to choosing your friends regardless of anyone else’s opinions. It is a kind of social rebirth.

He and I are now friends, but I still haven’t acknowledged to him everything that was going on—in my household and in my head—during that strange time. It still makes me uncomfortable.

Would you like to be my friend? I’ll understand perfectly if you don’t.

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