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A Common Habit That Costs Us Friends

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Just in time for my final year of college, a number of independently-moving disasters all converged to create an almost perfect rock-bottom scenario. On top of it, I lost all my friends.

I was studying a subject I didn’t care about, with a GPA of two-point-something (and falling), and I just couldn’t see myself ever doing it for a living. Since my cleverness was always my main source of self-esteem, my unprecedented academic troubles translated to an unprecedented collapse of personal confidence. In addition to this, my dad was sick, my sister was overseas, my cat was dead, terrorists had attacked New York City and my mom was trying to hold us all together.

As if by conspiracy, my best friends all moved away around that time. One had already gone, after his employment had dried up here, to live with his parents in Calgary. Not long after, another pair of them went to work menial jobs at a ski resort in the Rockies. Then a fourth one, whom I’d introduced to those two, thought it sounded pretty good and joined them.

So within a few months, I ended up with no confidence, a fragmented family, and a bleak future on the career front. What I needed most during this period was friends, and fate chose this time to show me what it was like, for the first time, to have none.

Given this unlikely collision of circumstances in my friends’ lives, I’m tempted to argue that it wasn’t my fault that I ended up friendless. But I know now that it was — I was taking an enormous risk by living with a particular habit, and you may be doing it too. In fact, I think it’s something millions of people do. 

The delicate structures that keep us together

You might be wondering why I only had four friends to lose. I actually had many more than four friends. However, these four were not only my best friends, but they each occupied critical points in my network of people.

We all have friends that we know only through certain other friends. Suddenly, I didn’t see my high school friends anymore because we all congregated around friend A. I didn’t see my former work friends anymore because we all kept in touch via get-togethers at friend B’s house. Friends E, F, G and H were great people and I liked them, but it we never made plans together without friend C. Friend D knows everybody — and I thought I did too, until he was gone.

I had no idea how fragile this structure was until it was broken and no longer attached to me. There were still people in the city that I was friends with, and could have hung out with, but it would have taken an uncharacteristically forward act of reaching out on my part, and that just wasn’t something I had ever learned to do.

Why had I never learned to reach out? Because I never needed to — there were always enough people in my life who did take the initiative to propose the plans, invite me to things, and call to see how I was doing. I almost never initiated things, because I already had more invitations for socializing than I wanted to accept, and I did like spending a lot of time alone. What had felt like social abundance was actually the growth of a dangerous habit: depending on others to create my social life for me.

Even after the catastrophe that was my early 20s, I didn’t understand that this was what was happening. Things got better on their own, and I still believed the collapse of my social life was due to circumstances beyond my control. A few friends moved back. I went back to school, met some new people, got more invitations to socialize, accepted some of them, and I had a social life again.

But then in 2012, just as I had become the most socially active person I’d ever been, it happened again, and my terrible habit finally became visible to me.

It was a lot less dramatic this time, however. There were no wars or illnesses or bad GPAs involved. It began when I went hyper-frugal to save up a job-quitting fund. I didn’t want to spend money on booze or restaurants or parties any more, so I said no to almost every invitation for nearly a year. Eventually the inviters stopped bothering, and I lost track of my biggest circle of friends. I did, however, still spend a ton of time with my girlfriend at the time, who is now my best friend. I would have been up the creek without her.

Then when I finally did quit my job in the fall, I stopped seeing a lot of another good friend, because we had worked out of the same office. He was, of course, another vital connecting piece, this time to my oldest and most important circle of friends. And they began to drift into the fog too.

The diagnosis was clear now: I had been a lifelong relationship freeloader. It’s scary to think where I would be without people actively picking up my slack. If they were all as passive as I was I’d be a very lonely man.

Relationships of all kinds take initiative and work, and because that work was somehow getting done in my relationships, I never saw it as a responsibility. I got away with it for so long only because I was blessed to know so many people who did.

Doing your half

It’s important to note that I wasn’t the only one being passive about my relationships. Many friends — E, F, G and H, for example — also could have reached out, and didn’t. And when you get two people who both depend on the other to reach out, there is no friendship.

After twenty years of this bad habit, I wonder how many of these failed, would-be friendships I’ve conspired in. It’s humbling, and kind of sad, to imagine deep and long-lasting friendships I’d have today if I’d picked up the slack whenever it was there.

I also want to make it clear that this isn’t purely the result of laziness either. For those of us with a history of social anxiety, there are long-running fears at work, even after years of improvement. I’ve progressed from being terrified of talking to tech support staff to being only slightly afraid to call certain friends. But as long as someone else is doing the work for you, it never seems like the right time to push yourself.

Whatever our reasons, I suspect most of us don’t pull our weight socially, and we depend, possibly without realizing, on that wonderful minority of people who are tirelessly connecting us freeloaders and cowards. I can identify a handful of these people in my life, and I’m sure you could too if you thought about it for a moment.

In every relationship there’s a certain amount of initiative that must be taken, by someone, in order to make sure you still see each other. It’s reasonable to assume we have a moral responsibility to do at least 50% of this work. We ought to be extending an invitation for every one we receive, roughly, if we value it when people do it for us.

This is true even in cases where we know that one party, if necessary, would do 100% of the work until the day they die, even if the other person never took the initiative. Who does the dialing more often, you or your mother?

It is something to take seriously. And in particular, we should give extra thought to the people we love whom we know have a hard time reaching out — especially this time of year.

Happily, I’ve begun to reunite with my dormant circles, after talking out this problem of mine with my best friend. But the first time I went to call a friend whom I hadn’t talked to in a while, I froze. It was scary to call someone out of the blue. It felt like I was about to bungee jump or something. It made me realize I have very little experience at doing that, or any of the other little skills it takes to be someone who actively maintains relationships.

All the more reason to get used to it, and never make the other person do the heavy lifting again.

I’ll leave it at that, because what I’ve said so far has either rung a very loud bell for you or it hasn’t. Besides, I want to finish this article by noon, because friend K — a tireless connector of people — has invited me to lunch.

***

Photo by Joe del Tufo

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Mike December 1, 2014 at 12:08 am

I identify with this. What do you think causes the anxiety underlying the reluctance to reach out? Is it a fear of possible rejection? The fear that you need someone more than they need you? The fear if appearing needy perhaps? Its probably all of these. The weird thing in my view is that it is the nervousness itself which is probably off putting for people if anything. Its like a self-fulfilling prophecy. The upside to that is that it isn’t our true selves that others might not want to engage with, it is our lack of confidence which makes us a little rigid and therefore and awkward to be around.

Mike

David Cain December 1, 2014 at 8:17 am

I think these are all common reasons, and I think they reinforce each others. If you’re afraid of rejection, then you don’t reach out as much, and then you don’t get any experience reaching out, so you feel even more exposed and out-of-sorts whenever you do, which might come off as nervousness. Like all fears, it becomes stronger whenever you do what it says.

Karen J December 1, 2014 at 6:56 pm

“Like all fears, it becomes stronger whenever you do what it says.”
Wow, that’s an important Ahah, David! Thanks for sharing that. :)

Chris December 1, 2014 at 2:25 am

Great piece!

I’ve struggled with realizing this myself lately. All of my friendships were kept together by the other person initiating, not me. When everyone moved onto university, I didn’t see everyone as often and didn’t get as many invites. My relationships have seriously suffered due to that, similar to how you were saying.

So I’ve made a rule with myself to try and force myself to be more of an ‘initaitor’. Once per week, I make an active effort to invite someone out to doing something. If they aren’t able, then I have to find someone else. But either way, at least each week I make sure to reenforce a lot of the relationships that would fade if the other person wasn’t always initiating.

My biggest struggles with this so far have been thinking of fun things to do, and dealing with feelings of responsibility for other people’s fun. If I invite out multiple people, it starts to feel like my “responsibility” to ensure everyone has fun. Also, I start being really critical and have difficulty thinking of things to invite others to do that would definitely be fun for them.

Curious what you think, and if you’ve experienced anything similar!

Tisha December 1, 2014 at 7:11 am

For Chris,
I relate very much to your comment. What I’ve learned to do is choose something I’d like to do (a new restaurant, bar, movie, museum, etc.), decide where and when I want to do it, then invite people. “I’m going to the beach Saturday morning @ 9-would you like to come with me?” For me that takes the edge off feeling responsible for other people’s fun. Good luck.

David Cain December 1, 2014 at 8:32 am

This is a really helpful way of thinking about it Tisha. I’m going to try this. Thank you.

chc December 1, 2014 at 11:15 pm

Yes, this is exactly how I do it. I plan to do something and then I invite people. And if they don’t want to do it I may try someone else or I am also happy to go alone. That way I am neutral on whether they decide to go or not, plus it is their choice and I don’t feel that I am forcing them to do something they would rather not do. They don’t feel obligated to say yes because you’re already doing the activity anyway. An example would be that I would call my friend Sue and say “I’m going into Seattle on Saturday would you like to come” or I might call my friend Heather and say “I’m just going to have a cup of tea. Would you like to join me”. In either case if they say no, I just phone another friend and ask them or not, just depending on how I feel. I don’t take it personally if they say no and I also don’t feel responsible for them having a good time. I feel like people have to be responsible for keeping themselves happy- I can provide the activity but you are responsible for keeping yourself happy. Me, I’m pretty happy no matter what I’m doing.

David Cain December 2, 2014 at 11:05 am

I love this approach, thank you.

David Cain December 1, 2014 at 8:26 am

Being responsible for whether it ends up being fun is a big part of the aversion for me. I worry that I’ll pick a bad restaurant or something. But that’s just another reason to get used to the risks of reaching out. The likelihood of a total disaster is really small. And it’s not as if a boring get-together is going to ruin a friendship, but not seeing the person at all just might.

George December 1, 2014 at 2:55 am

Yes. And you can be so busy with the friends you do connect with, are comfortable with, that you don’t notice that your overall “pool” is reducing. You’re out all the time! But actually, your group has narrowed because you haven’t been tending it – something you need to make more effort with as time goes on, because people get into relationships and settle, and so on, and won’t necessarily just happen to be there when you are seeing other people.

David Cain December 1, 2014 at 8:29 am

Yes. And I suspect that when you “water the plants” in that way, a lot of those people will start reaching out more too, because they realize how rewarding it is to do it.

Chris December 1, 2014 at 3:11 am

Thank you for writing this post. I can definitely relate to being too passive in maintaining my friendships. For the longest time my MO was: if you are in front of my face you have my undivided attention, warmth and connection but if not you better come to me. And for a long time it never seemed like a problem because I’ve always had a seemingly limitless stream of attention and social options. But it is a terrible way to treat close friends. It is such a pleasure to be invited and reached out for and I too often deprive my good friends from those gestures of affection that reinforce the fact that I love them and am grateful for their presence in my life. It is something I try to change every time I notice it. But for me, it is one of those slippery mindsets that doesn’t want to be properly seen in the light and I lose track of it so easily. Probably because it is something about myself that I don’t like to admit. So, thank you again for reminding me to remember to keep reaching.

David Cain December 1, 2014 at 8:31 am

Those of us who do like a lot of alone time have that added hindrance — we often get enough social activity just the way things are, so we never feel a need to reach out. But it’s still unfair, and it can lead to the kinds of breakdowns I’ve described here.

NickyP December 1, 2014 at 3:54 am

I have always been like this – I remember my mother telling me when I was very young that I couldn’t always expect that friends would come to me. I’m edging close to 50 now and only just developing the confidence to reach out to friends myself, rather than relying on someone else to do it for me. This has come about largely because my husband, who has been my friendship conduit for the last 20 years, has been suffering from anxiety and depression and has retreated into himself. I’ve had to do the heavy lifting in relation to maintaining friendship for the first time. It’s been scary, but rewarding.

David Cain December 1, 2014 at 8:36 am

That’s another upside: when our situations push us to do things we’re not used to, we grow as people and fill in the gaps in our skill sets. But sometimes we don’t even know what we’re missing until something happens that makes it clear.

Sharon December 1, 2014 at 4:27 am

Great piece and thanks for sharing this perspective. As I was reading your post I kept thinking: I am usually the one doing all the initiating and organising in my social circle. And it is tiring, especially when you are always the one to call, text, initiate catch ups etc. A lot of the time I don’t hear from a lot of my friends unless I contact them first. In some cases, many of them are happy to hear from me and eagerly respond while others don’t respond at all or reject the proposal to catch up. The majority of my friends are rarely the types to spontaneously contact me and say ‘hey, how is your day going?’ or ‘want to hang out this weekend?’ I know that I wouldn’t see many of my friends if I did not initiate as much as I do. It makes me wonder if they are genuine because I do believe relationships should have a 50/50 input. Any tips for those of us that are putting in the effort but not necessarily seeing it reciprocated?

Lorrie B December 1, 2014 at 6:55 am

Sharon, I’m like you – the one who initiates, coordinates, comes up with the plan and then makes it happen. At the age of 50, I started seeing imbalances in some friendships; in particular, one group of gals who had been getting together for a long weekend every year. When I was unavailable one year to do all the work, no one stepped in to take my place and it just didn’t happen. This got me thinking about the value of my efforts, and whether or not they were appreciated. Long story short: one woman was weeded out, and she revealed herself to be an opportunistic type … basically a frequent taker and rarely a giver… not a bad thing in and of itself, but once revealed, hard to see past.

We need to re-assess our friendships (or not call them that) when they are too lop-sided. On the other hand, my authentic friends are grateful for my ability to take charge, and can sense when I’m tired and it’s time for them to take the reins for a while. Friendship is teamwork, too!

David Cain December 1, 2014 at 8:40 am

Good to hear from the other side. As a representative of the relationship slacker side I want to tell you that it’s nothing personal. Relationships should be 50-50, yes, but they probably aren’t even thinking of it like that. I’m 34 and this just occurred to me now. Most of us just act out our habits and have no idea how they come off to someone else. As for what to do on your end, I’m not really sure. You could always bring it up in a non-accusatory way, by telling them how you’d love it if they’d make the plans next time, but I’m not sure if it would take. We are so habit-driven and I know a lot of us just don’t have “initiate plans” in our repertoires at all. It would take a certain personal insight about relationship responsibility to get someone to change. You could always share this article with them :)

chc December 1, 2014 at 5:24 am

This is such a great post. I just sent out Chrismas Cards where I talked about how very important my friends are, really the most important thing in the world to me. And then to read this really solidified those feelings. I’m really extraverted so it is easy for me to reach out but for a lot of my friends it is harder to do. Do I wish they would do more, yes but I also understand. The thing is that I have concerns for them because they have not developed the skills to maintain friendships and they could easily end up without the support system they need.

David Cain December 1, 2014 at 8:43 am

Yeah, and I’m realizing I don’t really know what to do from your end to get people to realize that. For me it took two total breakdowns of my friend-circles to really get me to even think seriously about it. And people had told me how important it is to reach out, but it just never seemed necessary and I never really considered it.

Ida December 1, 2014 at 6:00 am

Like the photo–good job

David Cain December 1, 2014 at 8:41 am

This is another photo from the great Joe del Tufo!

Mrs. Frugalwoods December 1, 2014 at 6:13 am

I was just thinking about this over Thanksgiving. My husband and I have moved so many times since college that we have friends scattered all across the country. And, I’m terrible at keeping in touch. It’s not that I don’t value the people or the relationships, I just forget, time elapses, and then it feels awkward to reach out.

I do maintain regular email contact with my closest friends, which I’m happy about and, we always pick up right where we left off when we see each other. But, it’s a constant struggle in our increasingly mobile world.

David Cain December 1, 2014 at 8:46 am

There is an upside to the superficial communications trends in the modern world though. There are ways now of keeping some kind of line open without too much personal risk and without too much work. The odd text or email can really keep us from totally drifting away from each other. We just can’t depend entirely on it. It has to set up real interaction.

BrownVagabonder December 1, 2014 at 7:10 am

I have been told that I am the kind of person who gathers people – I am the one who organizes parties and get-togethers and brings people together. I love bringing new groups of my friends together and seeing new friendships form. But I have noticed the same as you said – a lot of people don’t ever initiate contact on their own and I spend a lot of time weeding/purging friends who aren’t givers out of my friends’ circle. In the end, it results that I have a group of friends who are all my best friends. It is a special place to be in. I hope that you can find that happy balance between solitude and hanging out with friends.

David Cain December 1, 2014 at 8:48 am

Thanks BV. I am moving towards a stronger network, where I’m directly connected to more people, and it feels good.

Natalia December 1, 2014 at 7:38 am

Great article, some parts most definitely ring the bell, so to say. My friendship story is such, that in my early twenties I moved eleven time zones away from everything familiar. From Moscow, Russia, to Nevada desert. I left behind all of my family and all of my friends. It was twenty years ago, Internet was not what it is now, international calls were very costly, so I relied on writing letters to keep in touch with my old crowd. Eventually I lost contact with all of them, but to this day I think of them from time to time.
Even though I suffer from social anxiety myself, somehow I am always blessed with friends. I don’t reach out much, but I have an open mind and heart, and sometimes I feel that people who become my friends are “given” to me at the right moment. In the last five or eight years, the soul -searching period, I have learned to treasure even very brief interpersonal relationships, but without attachment. Just like the little internet postcard circulating on Facebook says: people come into your life – some for a reason, some for a season, and some for life. If you look back, you will know for sure who is who!
Lots of love to you and your family!

David Cain December 1, 2014 at 8:51 am

I feel like that too. Even though I’ve been really passive with making and keeping friends, I do end up with wonderful friends that do seem to arrive at the right time. I like what you say about looking back. I can look at all my friends now (and even former friends and girlfriends) and they all seemed to teach me something I needed to know at the time they arrived.

J December 1, 2014 at 8:44 am

Thanks for posting that, David! I noticed that I have been doing the same thing, but didn’t really know what to do about it. I get invitations to so many things, and I like to spend time locked in my room, too. But I also like my friends, so your article hopefully helps me to get some things straight.

David Cain December 1, 2014 at 8:53 am

I guess any kind of habit change involves a bit of a push. You have to get yourself to do something that’s at least slightly uncomfortable. But in my experience that goes away quickly. The second time you do something is significantly easier than the first time, and so on.

Cassy December 1, 2014 at 9:08 am

Thanks for writing this. I appreciate it being someone who has an opposite sort of habit – I feel that I am one who usuallu reaches out to others and makes a lot of plans. When, out of laziness I suppose, don’t reach out to make plans, more often than not I find that I dont have plans because no one else made them. Sometimes I greatly appreciate this because I have had some very clarifying moments when spending time alone. However, sometimes I get an idea that others don’t really want to spend time with me, which of course leadsto some terrible feelings of loneliness and self-doubt. So, it is very refrshing to hear this perspective.

David Cain December 1, 2014 at 4:01 pm

Today I’ve heard from a lot of people like yourself, who are on the other side of this problem. I hope it is helpful in not taking it personally when people don’t reciprocate. There are a lot of reasons people don’t but it’s probably not because they don’t want to see you.

Cait Flanders December 1, 2014 at 9:30 am

I’m somewhere in the middle of this. I’ve moved so many times, lived in 4 different cities and have friends all over North America. It’s not easy to stay connected to everyone I care about, but I try to by at least sending random texts or emails whenever I’m thinking of them. (You’ve been the recipient of some of those, I’m sure.) So, in that sense, I do make the effort to reach out and also see people when I’m travelling to different cities.

I say I’m in the middle of this because I still get a lot of social anxiety at the thought of being in large group settings – and I’m certain it stops me from meeting interesting people, gaining new experiences, etc. But just the thought of going to a conference alone, for example, is so scary/uncertain that I still can’t seem to talk myself into it. Later, I regret not going, but I still can’t push myself to take that plunge at the time.

When I look back, I think I’ve always been this way. I’ve actually never really had a “group” of friends. I remember wondering if that was weird in high school, because I’d see all these little groups/cliques. I didn’t belong to any of them, and yet I was friends with people in all of them. I think I’ve come to realize that I much prefer one-on-one time with people, or being in small groups of 3-5 max. So I’ll put a lot of energy into my individual friendships, but I wouldn’t plan a dinner party, per se.

The other thing I wondered about while reading this is how much age/interests contribute. As we grow up, we all go through life experiences at different ages. For example, one of my best friends got married and had 2 kids before the age of 25, whereas I’m still single at 29. For us, that’s not a reason to stop talking/socializing, but you often see married couples hangout, people with kids hangout, etc. And then different career paths and hobbies take us in different directions, as well.

Anyway, I think I’m rambling now. This was a beautiful post, David, full of vulnerability and truth. Thank you for continually sharing your experiences, and for always giving us something to think about.

David Cain December 1, 2014 at 4:12 pm

Hi Cait! I am just figuring out what kinds of get-togethers I prefer, because it’s always other people doing the planning. I like one-on-one lunches and coffees with people, although I wasn’t always comfortable with that. I always worried that we’d run out of things to talk about and then just stare. But that really doesn’t seem to happen much. I like crowd settings too, but my roaming-and-mingling skills aren’t that great. I am always nervous about going to group things but I’m almost always glad I went. It’s weird how it takes so long for consistently positive outcomes to convince us to give up our old habits.

Nathan December 7, 2014 at 1:40 pm

I feel the same way, Cait. I’m in the military, so I’ve made good friends at every duty station, but once we transfer I don’t stay in touch very well. I am also not very gregarious in crowds and prefer close one-on-one or small groups. I in a unique job now that has not provided the readily-available friendships that previous units have, and it’s made for a lonely couple years.

Like you, I also make an effort to catch up with friends when I travel, but these are never that fulfilling, nor are brief conversations on Facebook. My best friends have been those I spent time with in person, and I miss them, but phone calls feel awkward for some reason. Maybe it’s a guy thing, maybe just me, but I find it easier to talk when engaged in an activity. (This often means I am cleaning the house or pacing when I’m talking on the phone.)

After 15 years of service, I feel like I already have too many friends to keep track of, so it’s hard to feel the desire to go out and make more to lose contact with. So I’m looking forward to settling down, when I can, and being part of a stable community, like the one I grew up in.

Until then, I need to take the advice of David and some of the commenters and stop relying on others (especially my wife) to create my social life. I especially liked the advice of chc to just say, “I’m going to ___, if you’d like to meet me.” It reduces the anxiety of rejection and gives the other person an easy out if they can’t make it for whatever reason.

Among all that, though, sometimes I feel like the hardest part is meeting true friends that you really share interests or mindsets or attitudes with… I can be friendly with anyone, but it’s rare to find someone I really connect with. And yet, connections take time, and taking a chance with someone. It’s kind of like dating. I wasn’t very gregarious at that, either.

Riss December 1, 2014 at 9:40 am

David, thanks for another meaningful and important post. I really appreciate the simple and understated way that you discuss topics which matter so much to us all. In a world where we’re constantly having people shouting as loud as they can to get our attention for all kinds of things – many of debatable importance/worth – your way of sharing your message is such an inspiration and a relief.

David Cain December 1, 2014 at 4:12 pm

Well thanks Riss :)

Klarita December 1, 2014 at 10:07 am

I have the opposite situation, always the one who is organising things, inviting friends, bringing people together. What I have observed is that many seem to take it completely for granted. It is hardly ever reciprocated and they have no problem flaking out at the last minute. It’s disrespectful and hurtful, and in recent months, I guess they have lost a friend (in me) because I refuse to make the effort anymore. Despite being happy by myself (in fact I think I need more “me time” than most people), it makes me wonder sometimes, when I am left to my own resources all weekend because nobody bothered to make any plans, whether the problem is in me. Thanks for pointing out that, in effect, it’s not.

Kimberly December 1, 2014 at 10:21 am

Interesting article. If I look over my life, I see that I have serial friendships that ebb and flow. Just a handful of close friends at one time and then acquaintances. I think a lot of that stems from being an introvert. I wouldn’t say it’s social anxiety (although it may have been at the past). But more the fact that I find many social interactions (parties, gatherings of people I don’t know well) to be exhausting.

I need plenty of alone time to recover from my job (I own a retail fiber art store and have lots of interaction with customers daily). So on my days off, the last thing I want to do is go out and socialize. I have a handful of very close friends that I spend time with regularly. But the work involved in maintaining a broader circle feels like too much of an energy drain.

What are your thoughts on introversion and how it relates to making new friends or widening a circle? I find small talk to be exhausting, but that is often what is required in the early stages. I know that I am passive as a friend because I rarely invite people out because I worry that it is as much an energy drain on them as it is me.

Susan December 1, 2014 at 10:27 am

Thanks, David, for another insightful post. I’ve been on both ends of the spectrum at various times in my life. When I’ve been at my best, it’s been more of a give-and-take, with some plans being initiated by others and some by me. I’ve also let some friends slip away over time because no one takes the initiative, so we just drift apart. Now I regret that.

A few years ago, I moved to a location where I have lots of family, but despite my best efforts, so far I’ve made absolutely no friends with whom I don’t share DNA. There are several factors — I work at home so I have no office colleagues and my kids are grown so I no longer interact with the parents of their friends — and on the rare occasions when I do meet people it’s proven impossible for me to reach out and suggest getting together. All of this has made me realize how incredibly lucky I was when I had a very active social life — lunches, dinners, happy hours, movies, parties, odds and ends — and I’ve vowed that if I ever have the opportunity again, I’ll be an active organizer. On the positive side, like you, I enjoy having lots of time to myself, but this is the first time I’ve ever experienced real loneliness and it’s disconcerting.

Thankfully, in addition to get-togethers with family, I am in close touch with a number of friends through social media. People can slam Facebook all they want, but it’s a godsend for people whose friends are now far flung and otherwise inaccessible.

David, good luck with striking the balance you want between supportive friendships and alone time.

David Cain December 2, 2014 at 10:55 am

Thanks Susan.

Duska Woods December 1, 2014 at 10:45 am

David, thank you for your generosity in sharing this insightful post with us…. being known as exceptionally outgoing and friendly person who can start conversation with anybody even waiting in market food line, I never could understand the social anxiety until recently. My daughter has no friends, her father, never did either. I was the source for our soicial life and still am. My son, from very outgoing Italian artist father is also very outgoing, still has friends from highschool and Cooper Union college, calls his his friends ‘brothers’ and they are in constant touch, socialize, watch football games in each other houses etc. My question is, could it be some genetics involed here? My mother, who was shy used to tell me that i was just like my father, outgoing, very extroverted and friendly. I do not remember my father as he was a revolutionary who was executed by the Nazis at the end of the war. I am wondering how is it that I am ‘just like him’ when I don’t even remember him let alone spent enough time with him to learn by the example? How is it that my daughter from a mother like me is just as shy as her father?. I am not claiming this might be a proven fact, just my personal observation. Of course one can learn and acqire social skills and overcome the social anxiety just like any other shortcoming that makes us so very human and unique
.

David Cain December 2, 2014 at 10:53 am

I imagine genetics could definitely have something to do with it. Social impulses are complicated, and I wouldn’t doubt that both conditioning and genetics are factors.

Art December 1, 2014 at 11:14 am

Very true. I could use some of improvement in this area as well.

Simon Somlai December 1, 2014 at 12:55 pm

Yeah keeping in touch is essential. The way I do this is by picking 3-4 people I want to stay in touch with and send them something on a weekly basis

This can be a funny anecdote, a picture, a song, a question, … just something to keep in touch. With my closest I make it a priority to meet once a week. Or AT LEAST once each two weeks

Elena December 1, 2014 at 1:41 pm

David, thank you for this insightful post.

The idea of relationships taking of all kinds take initiative and work, is so important to our own lives but also an important step to creating an equitable society. I wonder what the gender balance is between the social initiators who do the emotional work, and “relationship freeloaders” as you described yourself at one point. My experience has been that the former group skews female and the latter group, male. I’m using very broad strokes here, but I feel it’s important to acknowledge how gendered this dynamic often is, and how shifting it to more a more equal dynamic between peers can be a way to move toward overall gender equality in our society.

David Cain December 2, 2014 at 11:04 am

My initial guess would be that connectors skew female, but I’m not sure why. Part of it may be that males are more likely to be taught that they shouldn’t need others, and so they shouldn’t let on that they desire companionship, validation or intimacy. That’s a guess but it fits my experience as a male.

sarah December 1, 2014 at 3:21 pm

Yes this was me 5 years ago – I always thought of myself as an ubersocial person. Then I moved countries and felt so alone for the first time. Over the last 5 years I have had to become the connector. It is not my natural role and it is tiring, especially when I realise that so many other people rely on me and I would NEVERi see them otherwise. I find myself feeling resentful sometimes, and it makes me feel so grateful to those in my old life who I always took for granted. I have to say, I don’t feel relaxed into my social life like I used to when it was effortless, I don’t feel as ‘safe’ – but as you demonstrate, it is a false security that can collapse at any moment.

John December 1, 2014 at 9:21 pm

Thanks for the encouragement! You’re more of an introvert correct? I am for sure, so it’s nice to have a reminder to be the connector so to speak.

David Cain December 2, 2014 at 11:05 am

Yes, definitely an introvert. It is certainly possible to be an introvert and a connector, but part of the hindrance is that introverts need less social time, and so they’re liable to get enough simply from passively accepting the invitations they get on a regular basis.

Chris December 2, 2014 at 10:10 am

Hi David, what a GREAT post. A lot of what you wrote resonated with me and I’d like to add that a mistake I’ve made was to let relationships with friends whither away when I’ve gotten into a relationship with a new woman. I let her handle the coordination of social events. I let her friends became my new friends. I didn’t make my own social plans with my friends. Then, when the relationship ended I was left to revive friendships with my true friends. Never again!

David Cain December 2, 2014 at 11:06 am

This is another common thing, for both men and women. I’ve seen it so many times and I’ve done it myself: someone starts dating someone new, and suddenly their friends don’t see them anymore. I am determined to never let it happen again.

Susan December 2, 2014 at 12:10 pm

Interesting. In my experience — and as a female, it pains me to say this — but it’s my women friends who disappear when they start dating someone new, and then they reappear after the relationship ends. It’s very disheartening and causes me to question the true depth of their friendship.

Also, regarding the issue of being an introvert, here’s an experience I’ve often had and I’ve heard other introverts say the same thing. Someone issues an invitation and I accept eagerly, but when the time for the event approaches, I become less enthusiastic and even consider cancelling. When I get there, I have a great time and I’m glad I went, but the same cycle occurs the next time around. Thus is the curse of those of us who crave companionship but also truly need time alone.

David Cain December 3, 2014 at 5:03 pm

I find I see less of my male friends when they get into a serious relationship, but they maintain a sort of lifeline by occasionally coming out, and then when they do they talk about how they’ve missed us all.

I also do the thing where I accept an invitation and then start dreading it. I have flaked out before. But I have a hard time doing it when it’s an individual, because telling someone you’re bailing is as nervewracking as showing up. When it’s a group thing it’s easier (although not necessarily better.)

NickG December 2, 2014 at 1:29 pm

Thanks for the insight. It is something that most of us probably struggle with. I myself have been guilty of this most of my life. Something I’ve been doing to rekindle old relationships that seem too far gone to just call up is send random mail at non-holiday times. Usually, it’s a postcard that has been heavily manipulated to show that I’m putting time and unique and individualized energy into the communication. It’s a small gesture that has big meaning to the right folk. And those are the ones I want to keep.

Thanks again for the article, David!

Travis December 2, 2014 at 2:02 pm

Thanks for this, David! While your entries usually hit close to home, this one is 100% bullseye. I’m curious – do you have any suggestions for making new friends? How have you done it in the past? Not only have I never been the initiator in existing friendships, but new friendships have always seemed fall into my lap – until now.

I’m recently single out of a four-year relationship, in a big city, without any close friends or even acquaintances (I entered the relationship soon after moving). I am no longer in school, and everyone at my current workplace is older than me, which has seemed to make connecting/relating difficult. Like you, I enjoy keeping to myself, and my interests are all solitary pursuits. That said, I’ve discovered how much I need social connections, and the loneliness has forced me to analyze my situation.

I’ve never had to start from scratch before and I feel completely lost. I’m determined to improve my situation, but don’t really know how to approach the problem. I’ve tried going to bars alone to meet people, but that seems to be the thing NOT to do in this situation. Thanks for any insights!

Karen December 2, 2014 at 10:12 pm

How solitary are your hobbies? There must be SOMEONE in this “big city” that you can share it with? To Google! Stay away from bars, though. Striking up a conversation in a bar for friendship is…yeah.

I also just moved to a bigger city, and have started both pursuing old hobbies and investigating new ones. I may not become best friends with everyone I meet in the classes/events, but I figure if I have the balls to at least show up and smile, I only really need a few people to respond positively to get a network started. I think the key is to focus on enjoying yourself; even if you don’t make a new best friend, at least you had a great time!

David Cain December 3, 2014 at 5:01 pm

I’m curious – do you have any suggestions for making new friends? How have you done it in the past?

Not that I’m *good* at this, but I recognize that it’s really a numbers game. Have non-superficial conversations with as many people as possible. Some of them will make you both want further conversations. One of you will have to contact the other and make plans.

How you get yourself into those conversations is the trick. Opening up to friends of friends is a good place to start, asking them questions about their lives, looking for common ground. I have used meetup.com, classes, etc.

Karen December 2, 2014 at 10:00 pm

I stopped reaching out to people I thought were pretty good friends last year, after realizing I was doing all of the work to see them. We’d seen each other through bad jobs, accidents, life transitions, relationships coming and going. I’d rationalized it – they were busy/had kids/adjusting, I had time/was on vacation, whatever. They’d professed that they appreciated that I kept in touch and were excited for me to visit/call. But then I see the Facebook posts of their trips and milestones, the occasional text reply said everything was going great…and I realized they weren’t using their vacation time to see me, they weren’t checking in with me, the cancelled/no-show catch-ups were never rescheduled unless I pushed for them. It made me question the friendship. So I stopped, just to see if I was missed.

I still haven’t heard from many of them.

“I’m scared,” “I don’t know what to do,” “I’m just terrible at keeping up with people”…these excuses are lame. How is it that hard to show someone they’re worth the effort? It’s hurtful and insulting, especially after a long history. Maybe I just thought we were closer than we were.

David Cain December 3, 2014 at 4:55 pm

“I’m scared,” “I don’t know what to do,” “I’m just terrible at keeping up with people”…these excuses are lame. How is it that hard to show someone they’re worth the effort? It’s hurtful and insulting, especially after a long history. Maybe I just thought we were closer than we were.

As I suggested, these people are probably not aware they’re doing this. They certainly aren’t thinking about it in the terms you describe here. In many people’s cases it is actually very hard to reach out in ways that may be easy for you.

Y December 3, 2014 at 12:13 am

David – After reading your post, I realized that I almost always leave it to my parents to initiate interactions. Rarely do I call my grandparents, who live in another country, by my own volition. That was my most poignant takeaway from your article. Thank you for that. I am going to make more effort to take the initiative in staying in touch with my close family members.

For others: There is a website called meetup.com that is a great way to meet people based on shared interests. It’s not a dating site. Here is an interview with the founder http://betabeat.com/2012/02/interview-with-scott-heiferman-ceo-of-meetup-full-transcript/

Frankie December 3, 2014 at 2:21 am

Can so relate to this. I seem to struggle to make friends and have always relied on the generosity of ‘node’ friends to organise gettogethers (to me, social relationships are like looking at the sun – too dangerous to do directly!). Everything seemed fine until I realised I felt trapped; I couldn’t socialise unless one of my node friends wanted to, and if they didn’t, I resented them. This strained the few direct relationships I did have. It also meant I never got to do what I wanted because someone else was always in charge. I became an angry, frustrated person; not someone people want to be around! Really difficult to admit to so thanks for posting David!

Ted December 3, 2014 at 3:42 pm

Great article! Although I do a lot of initiating, I find it very tiring (especially since people are so busy and I get a lot of rejections), and it’s refreshing to hear it’s not just me. Also, it’s helpful to know that others aren’t initiating not out of spite, but rather they just didn’t think to do so or they have social anxiety. Sometimes I wonder to myself, “why is this so difficult?” because no one else seems to struggle with it. Glad to hear I’m not alone. Thanks for writing this!

M December 4, 2014 at 3:29 am

I like this article. I was always the one trying to keep in touch with others and it has annoyed me, since I expected that my so called former “friends” would do the same, but they didn’t. I used to help always my friends, even though my friends have been far away in a different country / continent…but now I feel it’s all not appreciated what I did. I feel that people nowadays just take advantage of what they can get, without giving something in return. This world has become so selfish, everyone has become selfish. Shurely people have there own life and problems (we may not know about) but isn’t friendship about taking and giving from both sides? On top I also experienced as many describe here alot of moving to other places, changing jobs, female friends getting married and having children…etc. But if you want to be friends with someone, you make an effort to do so. Isn’t it? Maybe I am just old school and things have changed these days….Maybe we should be our own best friends and see what happens (if old friends come back or new friends join in). Once more thank you, for posting this.

Free to Pursue December 5, 2014 at 10:40 am

Like everything in life, connecting is not all about “us”. We all have our lives to live and, regardless of whose “job” it is next to connect, what matters is just to, well, connect.

I’ve reached out more often now that I’ve taken back control of my schedule. It’s been good and I’ve managed to drag more people out for coffee, lunch, dinner, etc. than they may otherwise have made time for.

I don’t begrudge the people I need to reach out to if I feel spending time with them enriches my life in the moment. Besides, true friends can just pick up where they left off, no matter how long it’s been.

Scott December 5, 2014 at 10:19 pm

I have a more basic question I struggle with. Why have friends at all? Knowing you’re an introvert, I’d love an article on that. Your writing is exceptionally lucid.

NEET December 7, 2014 at 7:03 pm

Great post. It gave me a new perspective on my current situation.

What you described here resonated deeply. I am basically a man living alone – complete with dark room, visitor unfriendly, no calls besides from mother. My roommate is the very active social connector, and without him there might be a lot of problems that I couldn’t have solved.

I guess it’s some delusion of grandeur, that I could survive alone, do everything alone, and not need any friends in my life. I have few friends, and I thought, “That’s enough”. In reality, I live in a very small expat community, and communication between each other is vital (especially in a foreign country), but I’ve never given out my phone number, and even when I did, nobody had ever called except for a few times for a few months for something extremely important.

It’s kind of a self-fulfilling cycle for me. For me, less friends = better, because when the time comes, when I have become successful, I could go up to them and scoff “Hah! That’s what you get from not being in my life!”. That’s the kind of end result I want – to flaunt in their face, their foggy existence in my social stratosphere. A victory driven by pure, ecstatic ego.

But after reading this, that might not be so viable after all.

Thanks for the insight.

Ahsan December 9, 2014 at 10:22 am

Great article. I always knew i was at fault somewhere but could never understand what i was doing wrong. I was halfway through realising it and you helped to put the pieces together. Thanks so much. I’m glad i realised this sooner than later and hopefully i can take the right steps to get rid of this habit.

theFIREstarter December 14, 2014 at 4:16 pm

Huge bell loudly rung for me.

I’ve always been a bit of a freeloader but am a lot worse nowadays, I rely on my wife to do the bulk of our connecting. I rationalise this because we will be married forever (hopefully!) and I am busy doing other stuff :) which is pretty poor I know, but the system seems to work for both of us. Of course the downside is that I don’t really get to choose who I get to keep in touch with, which is a bit silly really.

I think with facebook etc there is almost a lower incentive to maintain active relationships because you “know” you can always get back in touch with someone if you really needed to (obviously it doesn’t work like that in practice, you just drift further apart and become more disconnected with their lives until you probably end up muting their feed and forgetting all about them!)

Anyway, a good timely article for this time of year to reach out to some people I haven’t spoken to for a while, thanks :)

Anne December 21, 2014 at 12:57 am

Thank you. As an initiator that makes up that small minority, I sometimes think that no one else puts an effort in and doesn’t care about the friendship. I really value when someone reaches out to me, planning all the time isn’t fun either!
I always remember that friendship is a two way street. If I don’t hear back, I tend to stop the communicating.

Armand December 24, 2014 at 11:45 am

I can really relate to this. Most frustrating is the inability at times to explain why I simply don’t feel up to the challenge (hyperbolic, maybe) of interaction. The feeling of exhaustion after a day at work and wanting to lock myself away and then getting myself caught in the frustration of feeling like I’m missing out. Worse yet being the reason I have missed out. But reading this did open up a door of sorts to new thinking. Sometimes you just have to see what is seemingly obvious spelled out for you, I suppose.

B December 25, 2014 at 1:11 pm

I think this kicks off from lack of confidence and also those experiences of being bullied by people around. At some point of my high school days, I really believed that I am good-for-nothing. That in turn created the dilemma and deep fear of having the same experience again. Then there’s the secret challenge that I had thrown to myself: “look who cares”? As a result, I spent a long time without a single friend. It takes enormous effort to open up in front of people from this level. But one trick worked like magic! I started imitating the behaviour of my initiator friends. I talked like them, I asked people out, initiated conversations. I started having friends again. All of them did not respond well, but at least I got few people to hang out with. I feel more comfortable around myself. I will not say my fear is history now, but at least it’s become private thing.

Genevieve Hawkins January 13, 2015 at 5:46 pm

Very good perspective and interesting post. It happens in families too–I realize after my aunt and father passed away last year that they were both the main connectors to the rest of the family–the ones who called me and emailed me while I was in Thailand and traveled from one side of the US to the other to keep everybody together at family gatherings. Thanksgiving and Christmas were hairy–where to host it since my aunt is gone and it was always at her house? I’ve reluctantly tried to pick up the slack but still have two uncles I’m nervous to talk to, mostly because I never really did without Dad doing the talking…

Enzo January 19, 2015 at 4:00 pm

I am so grateful I read this article, it almost seems as though it is written for me. I have had the exact same problem of lack of initiative in friendship for years, this article has been such a wake-up call for me. In university, I have been friends with people who are very much different from me, academically or socially etc. The relationship didn’t last long. Every time trying to reconnect with them seems so hard because I think I would come across as stocking them . These usually aren’t my immediate friends but still friends I care to keep in contact. But since I don’t have much in common with this person, I’m too afraid that trying to initiate a conversation with him would just be too weird. This happens to so many of friends whom I was close friends with in the past, but since we moved on to live difference lives, our relationship died out. Over time, I was too scared to ask them how they are doing, at the same time, I was frustrated I can’t help but seeing the interaction just dying out.
This makes me lonely at times and think “have I just not met the right group of people?” So I have always been on the drift from one friend to another.
I am an introvert but I love socializing with people, it doesn’t tire me out. But I know I am not good at reaching out, making new friends and mingling in group social situations.
I massively agree to David’s word “If you’re afraid of rejection, then you don’t reach out as much, and then you don’t get any experience reaching out, so you feel even more exposed and out-of-sorts whenever you do, which might come off as nervousness. ”
The fear of rejection is too big of a problem for me. It’s something I’m going to need a lot of work on from now on.

David Cain January 20, 2015 at 9:20 am

I really think the only solution is to take initiative even while it feels weird or makes you uncomfortable. Otherwise it only gets harder.

Cara January 27, 2015 at 11:12 am

I’m a very one-on-one socializer, but what to do if I’m the one who initiates all the time? I do it because if I don’t, then I have no one to socialize with. I’ve tested the theory many times: (Me to self): “Hey, I only ever see friend A if I’m the one who suggests it. Let’s see what happens if I stop suggesting and leave it to them to do next time.” And invariably I don’t hear from them. It starts to feel like I’m bugging people.

John January 28, 2015 at 7:54 am

Perhaps I’m late for this party, but how do I acquire friends if I have none?
I had a full class of friends at school, but then I moved to another distant city for university, spending all the time here on the Internet or uni. There I had another friend (I’m still with him), of ten people class.
Now I graduated, working with 3 men who are ten years older and and too different for me. My lifecycle is home-work-home and I don’t know how to break that vicious circle. I’m just sitting alone somewhere in the world and don’t even know where to reach out. Wat do?

Actually there is even more important question: why? I don’t know why I need friends, I just have a craving for someone and feel empty alone. I skyped with random people online, but we didn’t stick, like two pieces of wood. I’ve got a feeling that most important thing that binds people is doing common things together and I just need to start belonging to some movement, but there we go to the first question, and well forget this one, I’ll try to figure out what to do with people when I’ll find them, so once again how do I acquire friends / stick with new people?
Thank you.

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