reflection, wellbeing

10 Lessons On Active Friendship, Four Years Later

Is it actually possible to make real friends as an adult or are we stuck with the friends we made in our teens and 20s? I’ve spent a decent amount of time browsing blog posts and forums about this topic and there seems to be a general struggle among adults over 30 to make lasting and quality friendships. We’re still bombarded by the TV series friend groups that seem to have endless free time to hang out and resolve their conflicts in their hip, exposed-brick apartments. We all know that isn’t real life, but…. can’t we do better than slapping likes on Instagram stories and calling it a day? There must be a happy medium, right?

I first discovered the idea of active friendship four years ago, when we were in the middle of a serious pandemic. I found it fascinating, kind of like an anthropologist discovering things about an unknown culture. There was even an active friendship decision tree! Looking back, I probably found it fascinating because I hadn’t really spent much time with other humans. We had the quarantine, but on top of that I had moved to Madrid shortly before so my social circle didn’t have time to develop. Zaragoza was originally supposed to be a temporary stop during Covid but I liked it so much I decided to stay. Staying meant it was time to start all over again developing my real-life social network. So taking a deeper look at my friendships was much-needed.

Over these last four years I’ve been refining my ideas about connection as I’ve changed and grown and met many different people. Here are ten lessons I’ve taken away from the process of trying to establish active friendships as an adult in a foreign country.

On a long, solitary walk before making friends
  1. Alone time isn’t so bad. I learned how to be okay with a lot of alone time at first. In 2021, I went for long solitary walks and bike rides, spent a lot of time in my room and on my balcony, and took up running. This alone time helped me process the intensity of the prior year and figure out how I wanted to be spending my time. I can’t say I had a ton of creative ideas or inspiration, but I did some writing and plenty of thinking. Active friendship was a faraway idea at this point, something to aspire to, even with my old friends from the US. Periodic friendships with occasional phone and video call catchups were all I had, to supplement the passive social media browsing I still indulged in from time to time.
  2. Group activities are the quickest and clearest solution for meeting new people. In the fall of 2021 I discovered that signing up for group activities is a great way to connect and see the same people week after week. I signed up for a choir class and an Irish dance class. I love music and dance, and it was fun to meet people who had similar interests.
  3. Don’t give up too fast! Even when consistently attending activities, it takes time and courage to develop connections. Most of the other people in the group have families and other obligations. Add to the mix the fact that we were all wearing masks, and most of us were pretty socially awkward. I definitely did not feel like myself during those first months – I was tense, nervous, awkward, a little shy. I needed to push through that to start having conversations with people.
  4. Just showing up isn’t enough. I also needed to make an effort to see people outside weekly rehearsals. One-on-one time is essential to make that next step. I started texting a couple of people from choir to hang out, which led to me meeting their partners, and having regular meetups and conversations. This was a great way to start getting to know each other better.
  5. Using apps isn’t taboo at all. In addition to joining activities, I used Bumble BFF. I know we’re all used to using technology for everything now anyway, so there’s nothing wrong with creating a profile on Bumble BFF or Meetup or whatever other app can connect you to people. It’s a great starting point, and just like a dating app, you’ll need to meet a number of people before you find “yours” – and that’s totally okay.
  6. There’s a weird gap between letting go of people from your old life and actually having friends in your new life. In the process of working on my social life, losing touch with old friends was natural. Stepping away from Instagram and other social media accelerated the process. It created a void, but the void was necessary to see what I really needed. Long-distance friendships are lovely, but they absolutely aren’t enough, especially to be active friendships. Several of my old friends now take weeks or even months to respond to text messages, which I can respect, but I needed to manage my expectations and mentally sort them into the periodic or passive friend category.
  7. Expand your horizons. A lot of expats and foreigners try to stick to being friends with people who speak their own language. In my ten years in Spain, I’ve realized that people from your own country can be a mixed bag: they get a lot of things about you, but that doesn’t automatically make them good friend material. I tend to be much more drawn to try to have closer friendships with Spanish people. That doesn’t mean I never hang out with Americans – I definitely do! But I really appreciate the way of doing friendship that I’ve encountered in Spanish and French people.
  8. People honestly suck sometimes: be willing to know how much suckery you’re willing to put up with. In our 30s and beyond, people’s personalities and ideas are a lot more defined. Because of that, it’s easier to reject and be rejected. (This is probably the key reason why adults struggle so much with friendship.) We tend to know much better what we want and don’t want in our relationships. I personally am not willing to put up with certain behaviors anymore; things I would’ve put up with in my 20s might just be annoying now. It takes an open mind and patience to get to know people beyond their weird little quirks, but also boundaries to know if you just can’t handle them. And… to ghost or not to ghost? I haven’t figured that one out yet.
  9. It just takes TIME. Taking into account people’s busy schedules and obligations, adding up all the hours you spend getting to know people are necessary to evaluate whether they should truly be counted as active friendships. It takes a LOT of hours! Don’t try to take shortcuts. I’ve realized I need to take my time and let things flow. I’ll add a note here that it really helps if you’re not traveling out of town every weekend and can actually make plans with the people in your own city.
  10. Don’t be afraid to open up, but know it won’t always work out. (Just like dating, right?) During all this time getting to know people, you’ll inevitably end up sharing personal things about yourself. It needs to happen to form a bond. But remember that you need a balance: don’t overshare or trauma dump. I recognized on several occasions that I was spilling too much and needed to pull back sometimes. However, don’t be discouraged if after all that sharing and all those hours, the friendship doesn’t really evolve. This was a tough one for me to swallow. We’re all evaluating each other and sometimes we just aren’t a good fit.
With these girls, it’s kind of like therapy but without the trauma dumping

So…. after all these hours and meetups and evaluating people, how do you know if someone is the right kind of active friend for you? I’m not sure I have it completely figured out, but there are some people that I just feel right with. Why? Here are three common pillars:

1) Mutual support: we congratulate each other on our achievements and encourage each other in our goals. We ask each other how our projects are going. Both sides need to be responsive to each other. If someone shares their achievements in hopes to get congratulations or help from you, but there are crickets or unsupportive comments when you share yours, this may be a yellow flag. Pay attention to this and proceed with caution.

2) A spirit of genuine generosity: It doesn’t mean that you need to fight to be the first one to pick up the tab or that things always have to be exactly 50/50. You can just feel when friends are generous: there’s a flow of giving and gratitude. But if you start feeling taken advantage of, notice when and why, and maybe pull back a bit. Does the person seem to show up only when they need a favor? Do they seem just a bit… stingy? Or on the flip side, are they a bit too generous and does it feel like love bombing?

3) Listening and being a good listener: It seems so obvious, but I’ve realized that we adults desperately need to improve our active listening skills. My job involves listening to people all day, so sometimes my listening muscles are tired at the end of the day. And I’m the first to admit that I think about all the things I could say during conversations while others are talking. So I’ve been doing a lot of work on this in the last year, trying to rein in my comments so others know I’m listening, ask good questions, and remember details about what people tell me. Good listeners are are such a gem when you find them. Do they ask follow up questions? Are they paying attention? Or do they get distracted, constantly looking at their phones or around the room while you’re talking?

This is still a process that I’ll always be working on, but settling into one city and seeing the same people has vastly improved my social life and helped me bond with some really incredible people. How’s adult friendship working out for you?

Picnics are a fun active friend thing to do



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