A few weeks ago, I (Dixie) was deep in thought about how extended family networks affect support structures for nuclear families. After writing an article discussing the issue, I was really nervous to send that piece to my local friend, Kate, because she receives a lot of support from her parents; yet, she is very interested in making close nonfamilial friendships. I didn’t want my wonderful friend to be offended.
But Kate turned out wholeheartedly to agree with my article. In fact, while she doesn’t have as much trouble getting help with the kids as parents without family nearby sometimes do, she does have a hard time getting people outside her family to reciprocate when she reaches out to try to form a friendship.
People don’t mind leaning on family, Kate notes, because family is safe and easy. But making new friends requires emotional vulnerability and energy, which can bring out all sorts of insecurities. It’s a lot easier to fill a social calendar with things that don’t actually require a lot of emotional effort than to reach out to new people. We worry: What if these new people don’t like me? What if they think I’m a bad parent?
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But if you don’t develop friendship, what happens when your parents become older or your family moves? Whom do you rely on then? Whom will you lean on when the time comes that you must largely be the support structure for your parents, not the other way around?
Our souls need friends
Friends truly are necessary for us all. As the word of God tells us in Hebrews, “[L]et us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another” (10:24-25, ESV, emphasis added). Our souls need friends.
In my earlier article, I (Dixie) made several suggestions for ways that individuals can reach out to try to build more support. However, difficulty initiating these relationships is not the only thing preventing the building of strong, close, practically supportive friendships.
For, try as you might, you cannot force others to reciprocate your offers of support and friendship. Additionally, most of us are overwhelmed with our current responsibilities and lack time to devote to friendship. In fact, in a recent Substack poll on the matter, the top votes on the question of “What keeps you from developing closer friendships?” went to “No time” and “[I] try, others don’t respond.”
These responses are, in our view, related. They illustrate how we are designing our culture and our own personal lives in ways that overemphasize independence and isolation even though we suffer tremendously from feeling alone. (And this applies to single people just as much as it does to families.) So let’s address each problem in turn: first the problem of time, and second, the problem of reciprocity.
Why do I not have enough time to invest adequately in friendships?
Because I choose not to.
Most parents are overwhelmed by the sheer number of responsibilities, both major and minor, that they must fulfill. We are responsible for everything from clipping our baby’s tiny, soft nails, to earning money to feed that baby, to actually feeding that baby from our own bodies in the case of a breastfeeding mother. Yet we also need recreation, a social life and dates with our spouses. And the kids need activities to help them grow well and be socialized properly. There’s just so much to do.
But in reality, part of being an adult means choosing between goods. The good of friendship may come into conflict with the good of keeping up certain cleaning standards or with the good of each child participating in multiple organized activities, or even with the good of doing a certain kind of professional work.
We are guilty of overscheduling, too.
So we must ask ourselves honestly: do we really want to live in such a way that we have no time to help our friends? Or even to make friends?
We, Dixie and Kate, do not want to live that way. So, what do we do?
- Cut some activities for the kids. Children today are more socialized in their sleep than their pioneering peers ever were; give them the outdoors and some friends, and they will be fine.
- Lower our hospitality standards. Throw out anything rotten and wipe down the toilet, but if there are dishes not finished, just fill the sink with soapy water and hide them all under the suds. Most messes can quickly be hidden for the duration of a social call.
- Be more relaxed. We can make a personal effort to let go of some of our perfectionism.
We make time for the things that we value. It is up to us to decide where friendship should stand in our personal and family hierarchy of goods.
Lack of reciprocation
Why do others not reciprocate when I reach out, such as when I ask for help or when I invite someone over? Why do they not also ask me for help or invite me to their homes?
There are two main possibilities here. Either they just don’t like you that much (fair enough) or are not interested in making more friends, or they lack the social skills and confidence to perform the friendship dance, to effectively “date” a new friend.
Presuming that two people have the time (see above) and the inclination to become friends, they still need to have the social skills in place to actually engage in building a friendship. In a culture that lacks friendship-building customs for adults, parents especially, this is easier said than done.
Say you meet a new person at the park, and you get along well. A lot of things have to happen for this to develop into a friendship. Let’s break it down into manageable parts.
- Introduce yourself by name, first and last. Since we aren’t taught to introduce ourselves, often we just don’t. Extend your hand and begin. Then, when you have had a nice chat, ask to exchange phone numbers. Take the connection from ephemeral to concrete. It feels awkward, but you can do it!
- Follow up a few days later by inviting your new acquaintance to get together. Have a time, a place and a plan, and state them specifically in your invite.
- Plan your friend date. Be clear how long the date will go, so that no one is left wondering when to tie up the smalltalk. Perhaps you can offer coffee and a treat, and then signal after an hour that you have to go to an appointment now, and it has been so nice meeting them. Don’t make the first date a four-hour, emotionally intimate event. Just invite ‘em over; it’s okay!
- If you have children, set boundaries for them lest your time be spent corralling them instead of talking to your friend. Remind them not to interrupt; this is their chance to play with their new friends! Remind them which toys to share and which to leave stored, where they can play and where they cannot.
Follow up with your new friend a week or two later to suggest another gathering. And then, if they fail to reciprocate after that, you have two options: either just let it die off and invest your energies elsewhere, or mention to your friend you’d love to see their home sometime. It’s a little awkward, but just say it once and see what happens. Then drop it if no invitation is forthcoming.
But remember, reciprocity is a dying art, and you may have to accept friendships where you do most of the initiating. This will not last forever, but it is a season that can stretch on rather lengthily. However, friendship is still worthwhile even if it takes more muscle than we prefer. A good friendship with mutual enjoyment and reciprocal aid is built on a foundation of many little encounters. They are not wasted, even with the effort and occasional awkwardness.
If you want to draw others to you and start a trend in your community, consider thinking through how you might integrate a calling culture into your life. Food is a big part of these things, but it doesn’t have to be a whole meal and it doesn’t have to be fancy. Just keep some store-bought cookies and coffee on hand, or bake a plate of cookies, and you are set!
Friend-dating can be scary when we live in a culture that values busyness and undermines reciprocity. But it is worth trying to teach yourself how to move beyond these problems if you really value mutual and supportive friendship. You may have to keep reaching out, even after being rejected; you may have to let your guard down a little and let an unexpected visitor come into your untidy house; and you may have to cut back on your own or the kids’ activities to open up a little extra time. But it is worth the effort. Be countercultural, and let’s end the loneliness and isolation, friend by friend.