When growing up, friendships just seem to happen. Stick a group of peers in a room together Monday to Friday, week in, week out, and eventually, bonds will form. Classrooms, clubs, neighbourhoods – regularity and consistency create the ideal incubator for interpersonal connection. These connections may be fraught with challenges, breakups, makeups, bullying and ostracism, but there always seems to be another friendship incubator around the corner. A new year, a new class, a new club.
Then we leave school and move into the workforce. Maybe we’re lucky enough to work in a team of peers. Maybe we meet people we like enough to share coffee or lunch, or even Friday night drinks. Very occasionally we might click with someone enough to become friends outside of work – at least until we move onto the next job.
But what if that’s not how we work? What if we’re not in a team of compatible peers, or we work irregular shifts or even alone? How do grownups make friends then?
For the last seven years, I have faced this dilemma, working for myself, by myself, in a small tourist town. I meet some people through my hobby and passion, dance, but only rarely do I feel a true connection. More often when I socialise, I feel a little awkward, on the outer, fundamentally different.
While I can socialise on a surface level, and have met some truly lovely people, rarely do I meet someone I feel comfortable enough with to connect more deeply. And while superficial interactions sustain me for a while, ultimately, they leave me drained, reminding me how alone and lonely I feel. It is depth I crave, depth that nourishes. But without a built-in friendship incubator, it seems impossible to find.
This lack leaves me vulnerable, needy. When I meet someone I feel close to, who I can go deeper with, I over-value their time, their attention. If they are not in the same position as me – as alone, as lonely, as needy – they don’t value my company to the same degree.
Recently this discrepancy hit hard. Someone I considered a close friend has taken me for granted. We had planned to spend Christmas Day together. But a few weeks before Christmas she told me she had accepted another offer and couldn’t spend Christmas with me anymore.
This is not the first time. My second year up here, we had planned to spend Christmas together. But on Christmas Eve she revealed she and her partner had made other plans and we were not invited. We had no time to organise anything else. I was a mess. Not only were me and my partner spending Christmas by ourselves, but it was also the first time I realised that what she meant to me was entirely different from what I meant to her.
I stepped back from our friendship for quite a while after that. From someone approaching my inner tier, I demoted her to a casual acquaintance. I couldn’t rely upon her the way I would expect to rely upon a good friend.
In the intervening years, we have continued to hang out. I have watched her mature, have supported her through troubled friendships, family upsets. Gradually letting her creep back into my esteem. In the past couple of years particularly, we have grown close, spending more time together, sharing secrets, supporting one another through the many challenges in our lives. We’ve even spent Christmases together. So there was nothing to indicate that when we made plans this year, she would ditch me again.
At first, I was able to brush it off – sort of. When people asked what we were doing for Christmas, I joked that we’d had plans, but our plans got a better offer. Luckily, we had enough time to organise something else with people kind enough to invite us to share their Christmas Day. I had come to terms with the rejection.
But then, thanks to social media, I saw that my friend hadn’t just accepted another offer. She and her partner had uninvited us, only to end up hosting another couple at their home. Whatever the circumstances, this was a whole new level of hurt.
I am again confronted with the truth about this friendship. Not that she has closer friends or friends she prefers to me, because I already know that. I also have closer friends, friends I would spend Christmas with if I could. It’s that it seems she values me so little that she didn’t hesitate to dump me at Christmas. To uninvite me to Christmas dinner so she could spend it with someone else. Not as well as. Instead of.
I know she still considers me a friend and that I haven’t done anything to deserve being uninvited. Yet it seems she didn’t consider how it might be for me. How being dumped at Christmas might land – the impact of her actions and choices. Because I have fewer close friends up here, I placed a much greater value on her company than she placed on mine.
For that reason, and because I was ashamed of being dumped, of misreading our friendship, I never really told her how it landed last time. So I guess that part is on me. I accepted being treated poorly and so it didn’t occur to her not to treat me that way again.
For those same reasons, I am now struggling with how to approach this. If I tell her how her actions and choices have made me feel, I risk her feeling defensive and losing her friendship altogether. It’s not like I can just bin one of the few close friends I have up here. Someone I catch up with regularly, whose company I enjoy, whose friendship I have valued so greatly. I don’t exactly have a glut of such people conveniently in my life.
One of the hardest things about moving up here has been the chronic loneliness. I long to find my clan here. But while I have met people I like and value, there are few people I see regularly who I feel close to, who I could count among my inner friendship tiers. And I don’t even know how to get to that point. Occasionally I meet someone I click with. But for one reason or another, it doesn’t seem to progress the way friendships did when I was younger.
I hear comparable stories from my clients, too. People who have moved here and struggle to form meaningful friendships, not just the surface energy-healing weed-enthusiasts who stoke conspiracy theories and boutique over-priced dietary-restricted produce.
But how do you get deeper? How do you truly connect when you’re not forced into the regularity and consistency of a peer group incubator, where odds are you will find at least one person with whom you click?
This incident has forced me to take stock. Over the past year or so I have withdrawn from superficial relationships. I have preserved my energy, investing in my inner tier, instead of trying to force depth with people who are only interested in surface, or whose depth is so alien to mine. Long before COVID, I learned to rely on telephone and video calls, on messenger chats and the occasional in-person visit. But now COVID has taken that last piece away, and I’m marinating in my loneliness more than ever.
Perhaps it’s time to reconsider my strategy. Try once more to connect on a deeper level with people who have drifted a little through time and circumstance. See if I can nurture those friendships. Even if they are further away, even if we have different priorities, even if it’s
exhausting more difficult. Or do I need to find another avenue – a quasi-incubator – to increase my chances of meeting someone who can offer what I need from my friendships?
Because maybe if I can feel less lonely, less needy, when someone who I count on as a friend doesn’t need or want me in return, it won’t hurt so much.
Or maybe I just have to accept that loneliness is one of the pitfalls of being an introvert. Of wanting something more than surface conversation. Of being a grownup, working alone, in a small town.