This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.
Loneliness is very widespread among young people today, with almost 10 percent of Brits under the age of 30 reporting they feel it often or always. The problem is, making and maintaining friendships as an adult isn’t easy, especially once you are out of school and beginning your work life.
According to a 2015 study, people’s social circles peak in size around the age of 25 and then begin to get smaller and smaller as responsibilities pile up. Women lose more friends around that time than men, and researchers believe it might be because they’re more likely to focus on their romantic relationships and securing a partner. No matter why, people in their late 20s tend to consolidate friendships, and that’s not a bad thing. In fact, it can be very healthy.
But what if you haven’t found your people yet? Or if you lose the friends you had because of a breakup or a move? Making new friends as an adult can be a very vulnerable and confusing process, so I talked things over with Guy Bosmans, clinical psychologist and professor at the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences at KU Leuven in Belgium.
To talk about friendship, we first have to discuss the topic of attachment, the “system that drives us to seek social contact and that is an essential function for survival,” as Bosmans defined it. Basically, you develop your attachment skills during very early interactions with your caregiver, whose role is to provide support for your needs. This first relational experience creates a pattern for the future, and influences you throughout your life.
“We are born with the biological need to receive care as a result of evolution, but we also have a need to care for others,” Bosmans said. “Of course, as you get older, this need stratifies and becomes more complex – if when you’re a child your primary need is to be protected by the parent in a physical sense, as the years go on, this role takes on a psychological form.”
Psychologists distinguish between four attachment styles: secure, where people don’t struggle with love and trust in their relationships; anxious, where people fear abandonment and need constant reassurance from loved ones; avoidant, where people are closed off and prioritise independence even at the expense of relationships; and disorganised, which is an unpredictable mix of all the negative attachment styles.
“Friendship responds to a need for attachment that is differentiated from what we have with our parents,” Bosman said. “It presents itself as less exclusive and therefore more fluid.” That’s both the good and the bad part of friendships: You choose to be together, without obligation – and you can just as easily choose other relationships, perhaps because they offer greater psychological satisfaction and well-being.
Friendships are quite unique in that way. Unlike family relationships, you’re not born into them, you have to choose them over and over again, like romantic partnerships. But they also differ from romantic bonds in that they are less structured and expectations are less defined.
Although they are typically discussed in the context of parents or partners, attachment styles influence our friendships, too. “How we learn to relate to others also affects the amount of time we spend on relationships,” Bosmans added. “Maybe you’ve started from a family that is not very affectionate and learned that relationships will be a source of discomfort,” Bosmans continued, “but if [our brain] receives new notions, it can overwrite [these patterns].”
One of the biggest friendship killers of your late 20s is romantic relationships. They take up a lot of time and emotional resources, which are not infinite, as anyone who needs a weekend to recover from their weekend would know. Besides, your late 20s are also a time when the relationship with yourself intensifies, which can rightfully lead you away from people you don’t click with. Psychologically, it also becomes more necessary for you to spend time alone, to carve out personal space.
That doesn’t mean that your need for socialisation stops when you are older; it just fluctuates throughout the phases of life. Friendships are all about finding comfort in someone who will confirm your importance, agree with you, debate you. As an adult, this need for validation decreases and shifts from the outside to the inside, as you form a more solid and compact identity. “From seeking affection and care, we move on to becoming those who provide that affection and care to others,” Bosmans explained.
But who says you need a ton of friends anyway? Based on current research, it seems that people with three to six significant friendships report a better quality of life overall. On the other hand, just one truly close person is enough to reap the benefits of companionship.
Of course, if you were to believe movies and TV shows, the only close friendships worthy of this name is the type that lasts a lifetime or close to that. The childhood next-door neighbour, the uni friend you still talk to every day, the roommate/BFF who moved out but is always around – we are often confronted with the expectation that close bonds are supposed to last for years and years. But that is not always realistic, as most people change significantly throughout their lives.
In an interview with The Atlantic, associate professor of communication Emily Langan broke down adult friendships into three groups – active, dormant and memorial. The first group includes people we can count on for emotional support; the second, people who we don't see frequently but are pleased to spend time with if the planets align; the third is people with whom we’re no longer in contact but still consider friends, thanks to a previously intense relationship.
Friendships can move from one of these categories to another depending on the circumstances and still maintain their unique value in your life. So, on second thought, your social bubble may be bigger than you initially realised, only the intensity of relationships changes.
If you are worried about your friendship surviving the test of time, though, you should know those that do are often based on a common language fostering a sense of sharing and belonging. This can happen over time based on past experiences, but it requires continued investment on both parts.
The purpose of the shared language is avoiding wasting time trying to explain yourself to the other. It is at the basis of that pleasant sensation of comfort that you feel when you talk to someone you know can understand you almost without you having to open your mouth.
Besides being a fundamental element for the stability of a friendship, constant sharing is also linked to security in your identity – I know who I am and how and with whom I want to communicate. In turn, self-assuredness is also what reduces the number of your friendships but intensifies their strength. When you grow and mature, it is no longer necessary to surround yourselves with people you keep in your orbit for the sole purpose of nourishing your ego. You only stick it out with the real ones.
In short, after the age of 25, your personality and friendships are more or less consolidated. So if you are suddenly thrust into a new environment, it’s normal to feel like it’s difficult for you to fit in, even if you meet people who share similar interests.
At that point, the only way to overcome these obstacles and make new connections is sheer willpower. You have to purposefully make time for your friends, be proactive about creating new relationships and put effort into maintaining old ones.
Sure, it’s challenging. But then again, finding treasure always is.