Why It's Much More Difficult To Make Friends As An Adult

Are you socially inept or is it science?

Recently an acquaintance of mine was lamenting how much harder it was to make friends now than when we were younger. It occurred to me that this sentiment isn’t uncommon. In our teens and early 20s we’re raining new friends. We can bond over a drink in a bar, a shared university class, or even a bus-ride home … but when we’re older the old friendship-tango becomes significantly trickier.

Why? Why do we lose our capacity to develop these significant relationships?

In a 20-minute pop quiz , I asked some of my aged friends why they’re not out there hooking up (from a friendship perspective) anymore.

Here are the top six outcomes:

We’re jaded

By the time we’re in our 30s we’ve experienced significant friendship breakups. You know the ones -- when you discover: your bff is shagging your boyfriend, or gossiping behind your back, or a general emotional vampire, or is stealing stuff (legit!) out of your house (the latter has happened to me -- and some of said stolen things weren’t even small, they were largish, like a DVD player).

As a result you become friendship-jaded, you start thinking that everyone needs to be scrutinized before they reach the inner friendship sanctum -- and few (if any) meet the mark. You can perceive the inner klepto in them from a mile away!

Your dance card is already full

You already have a close friendship circle, and you don’t see any of them anyway! You’re always telling them you should catch-up for coffee, but the plans are never made, or someone always cancels at the last minute. Those friends have been carefully curated over the years. You’ve weeded out the kleptos and nymphomaniacs and ended up with people you’re comfortable with. You trust them, they trust you – you’re both comfortable. You’re not willing to take a walk on the friendship-wild-side. You’re not taking any more applications until there’s a permanent vacancy.

People who want new friends in their 30s clearly have an issue (otherwise wouldn’t their dance card be full too?)

There appears to be a social stigma associated with friendship-courting post your late 20s. One becomes cautious of said people. Here’s the mental process we follow when a new acquaintance begins the friendship-tango with us. Why do they want new friends? Shouldn’t they have enough friends already at this age? Why do they not have existing friends? There must be something wrong! Conversely, we’re worried about making the first move with someone we fancy as a potential friend because of the stigma that comes along with it. They’ll think I’m some sort of social pariah!

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Making new friends is hard (subtext: you have to leave the house)

Most of us lead busy lives -- in-between work, kids, a potential significant other and multiple existential crises there’s no time left to be out there befriending odd-bods. By the time you get home, you’re tired -- Netflix / Stan and the couch are in close proximity, and they don’t talk back. You can simply switch off, and enjoy a guilt free couple of hours of Younger without the mentally taxing experience of conversation. No need to shrug on an outfit fit for public consumption and brush the hair. Your home accepts the ‘broken’ version of you, the once you’ve been concealing from the outside world since … well, since always!

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You’re out of practice (you can’t quite remember how it was done in the first place)

Do you give them your number or ask for theirs? Suggest brunch or a drink after work? How do you move them from acquaintance to friend-zone? You can’t quite remember the process … it seemed much easier back in the day, somehow it’s become stilted and awkward … too much!

READ MORE: Here's How To Make Yourself More Likeable

Everyone seems so different now -- the roads have diverged

Back in your 20S, everyone seemed similar. Most of them went to university or worked, lived with their parents, or rented a flat – now the differences between people have grown exponentially. You have the parents, the yoga types who are always on an ashram in India, the dog people, the workaholics, the virtual alcoholics who lose their keys after a night out… you get the drift. We’ve all become intolerably different! You don’t understand the dog people, or the green juice sippers, the vegans, the beer-obsessed …. It’s too much.

That’s the qualitative research, based on small focus group, but, what would the social scientists say about it?

Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford might argue that we’ve reached our numerical friendship quota. Famously, Dunbar indicated there were circles of friends based on intimacy that we could cognitively understand: five best friends, 10 friends and 150 acquaintances. In fact he went onto say that the upper limit of people we can remember is 1,500. Dunbar argued that this was part of an evolutionary process -- 1,500 is the typical number of people in an ancient Roman city, or Viking settlement.

So perhaps you haven’t just become socially inept over time, as an “older” person you’ve simply hit the limit of friends you can mentally compute?