Let’s talk about memes for a second. I promise, this will all make sense, so stick with me.
For all that folks make oddly big deals out of memes, “meme magic” and and the like, I’ve found that they’re an interesting source of insight. I mean, part of why I got my ADHD diagnosis was because friends would share random “ADHD life is like…” memes and I realized that they were entirely too relatable. By a similar token, I’ve found that memes can be a reliable – and surprisingly accurate – way of reading the general mood of your community.
You likely have seen this to one degree or another; you see your friends and follows sharing memes and image macros that all fit a particular theme. The details or the specific formats may change, but they all address a similar topic or mood that clearly strike a chord amongst the community. In a real way, these serve as a form of… call it “safe” vulnerability. People are sharing their feelings about something that’s affecting them, but behind a sort of veil of irony that makes it acceptable. You may not want to talk about your frustrations with your family or your complex feelings about your mental health with your friends, but you can reveal your true feelings in a two-panel Office gag as a way of opening up instead. And, in the process, you’ll often discover that you’re not alone.
Now, I bring all this up because of how often I see variations of this go around on my social networks:
We’ve been living in an epidemic of loneliness for decades now; in fact, it’s something that many of my coaching clients complain about. Many, many people feel lost, isolated and alone, with few (if any) people they could turn to. However, the pandemic has taken that sense of isolation and turned it up to 11. Lockdowns, quarantines and the fear of catching or spreading COVID meant that almost all of us were cut off from our social circles for a year or longer. While the lockdowns ended and vaccines and treatments helped many feel more comfortable coming back to the world, we all looked around and realized how much our social connections had suffered.
That’s not hyperbole. A 2021 survey from the Survey Center on American Life revealed that 47% of Americans lost touch with many of their friends, while nearly 10% lost touch with almost all of them. That alone is significant. However, the survey also revealed that the number of Americans who report having no close friends quadrupled – from 3% in 1991 to 12% in 2021. That’s a horrible thing to realize… and worse, we often don’t know what to do about it.
It sounds odd to discuss a decline in close friendships as a crisis, but the label fits. Social isolation and chronic loneliness is as dangerous to our health as smoking. However, we can’t make up the difference just by throwing warm bodies at the problem. As it turns out, “ambivalent” friendships are bad for your health too. The loneliness crisis is about having close friends, people you can rely on and turn to for support.
This is why the answer isn’t just about making more friends, it’s about building strong friendships. Quantity may have a quality of its own, but the quality of our friendships is far more important than overall numbers. So let’s talk about how to build stronger, more intimate and fulfilling relationships with your friends.
Understand How (and WHY) Friendships Change in Adulthood
Let’s start with an obvious truth: our childhood and adolescence is a golden age of friendship. From kindergarten through college, we are in the perfect position to make friends – we are surrounded by other people our age for hours at a time every day. It’s much easier to put in the time it takes to go from strangers to close friends when you’re together at school and on weekends. But as we grow older, we lose that perfect storm of availability and opportunity. Responsibilities mount up, time becomes scarce and we never find such a large pool of our peers again.
But while we all understand that making friends after high-school and college is harder, what we often don’t talk about is why maintaining the friendships we already have becomes so much more difficult. Here’s the harsh truth: our friendships fall apart because we make them our lowest priority. We treat our friendships as unimportant, while we put family, lovers, hobbies and work ahead of them. Friendships become something we think we can put on pause until we’re willing to come back to them, but we rarely do. Instead, they become the emotional equivalent of a neglected pet; something we were excited about at first, but lost interest in when other things caught our attention.
And to be perfectly honest: we almost celebrate this behavior in a myriad of ways. Hustle culture tells us that the grind becomes before everything else and we make the time spent working a perverse source of pride. Similarly, we often treat interacting with our friends as a trial; how many memes have you seen about how wonderful it is to cancel plans and stay home instead?
Much like self-deprecating humor, these “joking-but-not-really” sorts of messages help reinforce the idea that our friends should be our lowest priorities, rather than examining why we’re still in relationships with people we apparently don’t want to see. These may be jokey-jokes, but they still hold the kernel of truth: that our friendships are often inconveniences and obstacles, not sources of strength and comfort.
Friendships are living things; if you neglect them, they weaken. If you neglect them for long enough, they die. And it’s all too easy to let those relationships fall into neglect; keeping a friendship alive means that you make its maintenance a priority in your life. This means, amongst other things, keeping those lines of communication open and staying in touch at the bare minimum. But “staying in touch” is a deceptive concept, and in these days, it’s easy to lose sight of this. Social media – which is often sold to us as a way of staying in touch with our friends – is, in fact, often a detriment to our friendships. We feel like we’re staying in touch with our friends – why, you gave a “like” reaction to Jeremy’s post about his lunch just yesterday! – but we aren’t.
Those likes, comments and shares are the empty calories of friendships. They may keep the relationship alive… but they don’t nourish it. They do nothing to build or strengthen those friendships. At best, they create the feeling of interaction and connection, without the actual benefits. And worse, when most of your friendship is conducted via Facebook or Snapchat or what-have-you, then it’s all too easy for those friendships to fall off your radar entirely. After all, every social network is algorithmically driven, which means you may not see posts from your friends. How many times have you suddenly realized that you hadn’t seen a post from Adriana from college? Two months? Three? Ten?
Here’s the thing: strong friendships are defined by the way we treat and rely on those friendships. If you can’t turn to them for meaningful support when things are tough, then the friendship isn’t that strong. The mark of a strong friendship is less “let me know if you need anything” and more “I’m coming over right now to help you with this”; that can be a high bar to clear, and it gets even higher when most of your interactions are down to which emoji you give to their post.
If you want to build better, stronger friendships, you have to treat them like they’re a priority. You need to act like those friendships are important, rather than just something that can be maintained with surface-level interactions. You have to be proactive about it.
Of course, it’s easy to say this. But how do you go about putting this into action?
To Build Strong Friendships, Start With Fixing Weak Ones
One of the ways we trip ourselves up when we talk about building strong friendships is that we almost always default to thinking about new friendships. This is part of why we struggle so much with loneliness; it’s hard as a grown-ass adult, especially as men, to make close friends after college. The estimated 200 hours to go from strangers to good friends can seem like a Sysiphean task when you have to balance work and other responsibilities in the mix. It’s far too easy to let them fall down the list of priorities when you’re already feeling like there’s not enough hours in the day. And of course, when we let those connections falter for long enough, we end up feeling like we have to start from the beginning… again.
What we often don’t consider is that we can also reconnect, rebuild and strengthen old friendships – the friendships that we allowed to fade or weaken, or the ones that never progressed past a certain point. These are often the friendships that we think of as being “group” friends; that is, these are the friends who are just part of our social circle, not people we’re close to. Others are the friendships that we treated with benign neglect. We didn’t mean to let them go, it’s just something that kind of happened over time and we didn’t notice until much later. Yeah we may still “like” their photos on Instagram or retweet their fun quotes, but we haven’t had any quality interactions in a while – not even a chat in the DMs.
Many times, these are “friendships in waiting”. They’re people we could be closer with, especially when we already have overlap in both mutual friends and mutual interests. Or they may even be more uneven friendships, ones where one person is putting in more effort than the other. These are usually the friendships that we don’t put as much effort into, for any number of reasons. However, many times, those reasons are distractions, excuses rather than explanations. The real story is that, more often than not, we’re afraid to make ourselves vulnerable and put ourselves out there.
And in fairness, it can be hard to say to a casual acquaintance that you want to get to know them better. The same fear of rejection that we feel in dating exists with our friends too. In some ways it can even be worse. Which seems more pathetic to you, asking someone for a date, or asking someone to be better friends?
But, funny thing: we can’t be better friends with someone if we don’t make an actual bid for connection. And it needs to be an actual bid for connecting with them, specifically, not just a general call for more friends. However, what ultimately holds us back are the stories that we tell ourselves about others. We convince ourselves that they don’t want to be closer friends with us. After all, if they did, wouldn’t they reach out first?
Why, it’s almost like that meme I mentioned at the start!
But… funny thing about that. We look at memes like this and find them incredibly relatable because it speaks to our experience. What we don’t realize is that our (potential) friends feel the same way. It’s incredibly easy to fall victim to the illusion of asymmetric insight, where we know far more about how others feel and think but assume they have no idea about us. In reality, many of the people in our lives – people we could be closer friends with – are making the same assumptions about us that we are about them. We’re basing our decisions, not on facts, but on vibes that we treat as fact.
We make similar assumptions about why they can’t or won’t want to spend time with us. We assume that their schedules are too busy, that they don’t have the bandwidth to hang out or that they’d not want to do the things we’d be interested in doing. However, we don’t have concrete facts to back this up. At best, we usually have piecemeal information about their lives and schedules that we picked up via osmosis or social media, and we filled in the rest of the blanks ourselves. We are, in effect, making up a person who’s rejected us already and we react to that instead of reality.
To be sure, this doesn’t mean that every weak tie is a best friend waiting to happen. Not every casual acquaintance is going to want to go for the friendship upgrade. But most of the time we don’t actually know that this is true. We’re guessing, and those guesses are often more informed by anxiety and a fear of embarrassment than by fact. So we have to be willing to put ourselves out there, make ourselves vulnerable and make that bid for connection.
Now, it’s important to be flexible when we offer an invitation to spend time together, especially if our potential friends say they can’t join us. Many times, the issue isn’t a lack of interest, so much as logistics. Being flexible makes it much easier to make plans happen; people who are interested will work with you to find the time or event. And at the end of the day, the activity is the least important part of the bid. The point is to get that face to face time with them.
Preferably literally, if at all possible.
It’s best, if possible, to prioritize people who still have a connection to your current life. It’s easier to rebuild a friendship with someone who’s still at least tangentially in your life; when you have to functionally start over with someone you haven’t seen in years or even decades, you’re going to have to work much, much harder.
Again: not every friendship can be rebuilt, revived or upgraded. A three-strike rule can be handy here, especially if they don’t offer an alternative time, date or activity. One refusal is happenstance. Twice is often coincidence. Three, however, is
enemy action a message, and that message is “thanks, but no thanks.”
But, I hear you ask, what do you do after you’ve reached out to someone?
Treat Your Platonic Friendships Like Your Romantic Relationships
Here’s a secret for building stronger friendships, especially friendships you’re trying to build back up: bring the same energy and creativity you bring to your friendship that you bring to your dates.
Friendships thrive best when friends spend time together, preferably in person. However just as doing the same ol’ same ol’ can damage your romantic relationships, if you and your buds are doing the same thing every time you get together, things are going to get boring, quickly. And if you’re trying to build up a friendship, boredom is the enemy.
Instead, you want to treat getting together with your friends the same way you treat planning a date.
That is, you want to put some genuine thought and effort into planning something that you would all enjoy or would bring you closer together. This is especially a problem for men, where toxic ideas about masculinity and manhood create absurd rules and restrictions that leave men feeling emotionally isolated… even as we long for closer connections. Having stronger, closer friendships requires effort, intentionality and authenticity. By bringing those factors together, you’re better able to create shared experiences that lead to lasting memories – things that bring you closer together because you had these experiences together.
This is actually something a lot of men crave without realizing it. One of the things that creates lasting friendships are shared experiences that others wouldn’t understand because they weren’t there. This is part of why road trips, camping and the like feature so prominently in “boy’s weekends”; they’re shared adventures that help solidify the idea of being part of a crew or community. It’s something that you share together that others simply haven’t had, with the attendant inside jokes and references to mistakes, misadventures and misbehavior. Even hardships or screw-ups can go from “this is awful” to “that was crazy, look at what we pulled out of that mess!”
What you don’t need to do is plan these platonic dates around booze or suitably “manly” activities. Yeah, getting drinks is quick and easy, and alcohol can be the cheat code to vulnerability, but “getting drinks” can get old quickly and many folks either don’t drink or would prefer things that didn’t revolve around bars or beers. Much like planning romantic dates, a little creativity and thinking outside of the box is welcome – especially when you choose to do things that are off beat or unique.
Going on hikes is one option; after all, if every other profile on Tinder or Bumble is gonna be about how much they love hiking, it makes sense to go for hikes with your bros. However, if the Great Outdoors in your area is, well, not so great, you might plan an urban hike or an art walk. You can also play tourist in your own town and do all the activities that you don’t do because you’re a local. You might take classes together, especially something that teaches you a useful skill like wine tasting or cooking. If you like building or getting your hands dirty, you may try a hand at gardening or putting Legos together. You could start a pub-quiz team or join an amateur sports league or try your hand at an escape room together.
You don’t even necessarily need to do anything terribly important; since the “together” part is more important for strengthening a friendship than the activity, you might just get together to run errands and just appreciate the hang-out time. And, of course, it’s good to just get together for the sake of getting together. There’s a lot to be said for just chilling together without plans.
As a general rule of thumb: if you think that something might be a fun date idea, consider doing it with your friends instead.
However, there’s more to strengthening a friendship than the activities you do together.
Someone’s Gotta Be Vulnerable First. May As Well Be You
Let’s talk about one area where friendships fall apart for men in ways that they don’t for women: we have “activity” friendships. Yes, I realize this seems odd after several hundred words about planning friend dates but stick with me.
Women’s friendships are often described as “face-to-face”; that is, they’re about bonding, sharing and spending quality time together. They get together specifically just to spend time with their friends, talk about their lives and so on. Men’s friendships tend to be “side-by-side”. They’re predicated on activities rather than spending quality time together. The activity is the driving force behind getting together; any bonding or sharing is often an outgrowth of the activity, rather than the goal. Even then, we’re often afraid to go deep and instead keep to shallow levels of intimacy.
The perverse part of this is that men, when we’re honest, want friendships that’re more like women’s friendships. However, we’re afraid to actually make the bid for bonding time because the restrictive ideas about manhood say that it’s stupid and suspect. We’re taught to laugh at the idea of getting together to talk about our feelings or see it as being girly. And yet, the cliche is that you get enough beers into a bunch of men and suddenly you’ve got the “I love you, man” cuddle puddle.
That cliche exists precisely because of the aforementioned toxic ideas about manhood and male friendships. We want that level of closeness and vulnerability, but we aren’t supposed to want it. So we create excuses that allow us to share intimacy in the way we want. It doesn’t “count” if you’re drunk, after all. Or else we have to dress it up in “manly” drag to make it palatable – sitting around the fire in the woods or while out on the lake fishing or those aforementioned road trips.
Now, having those bonding moments on the road or around the fire or in a cabin in the woods isn’t a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination. However, this limits us in how we conduct our friendships by restricting the behavior that actually brings us closer together. The artificial restrictions on how men conduct their friendships ultimately forces us into shallow friendships and thus ones that are more vulnerable to falling apart. Think about it; when is the last time that you talked to a guy fried about more than getting a news update about their life? Or a surface-level conversation about work, sports, investments or who you’d want to bang?
Being good and close friends means being willing to be vulnerable with each other. You have to be willing to open up to each other without the need for excuses. This can, admittedly, be difficult. Socialization is a motherfucker, especially with decades of being told that Real (Straight) Men Don’t Do That. We resist this, even when it’s clearly what we want, out of a fear of shame or mockery. So it’s understandable, even reasonable that while we work on those feelings, we may need the side-by-side friendship at first. But we can plan times to hang out that encourage that vulnerability and intimacy without needing excuses to let our guards down first. We can plan activities that encourage openness and sharing, rather than focusing on surface-level feelings.
One of the best ways to create these opportunities for sharing and vulnerability is to plan activities that give a permission structure to open up. This can often require being willing to take a risk and think creatively, especially when it involves something not traditionally “manly”. One fascinating example came from 2020, when Men’s Health published a story about a group of men created a “Bromance Book Club”. A group of friends, stuck at home during the pandemic, would hold regular get-togethers to read romance novels and talk about them. While it started off as a chance to laugh at something absurd, it quickly became an opportunity to talk about love and sex in a real and authentic way.
That may not be your particular cup of tea and it doesn’t need to be. The point is the sharing; the activity just creates the opportunity and permission to do so. However, no matter what you plan, someone’s still going to have to lead the way. And since someone has to, it may as well be you. Giving a lead-in – “hey, can I be real with you?” – helps set the tone. It lets folks know that you’re asking for something serious, and you’d prefer them to take it seriously.
You will likely get a certain amount of deflection through humor or pushback at first. This is often a knee-jerk reaction, a bout of defensiveness that was taught rather than felt. However, being willing to open up about a personal subject is an invitation to your friends as much as a request.
By going first, you’re functionally giving them permission to do the same. Talking about your goals and frustrations, your fears and dreams is sending a message: they’re allowed to be vulnerable, too. You would be surprised at how quickly this can open the flood gates of being vulnerable. More men than you’d think have been waiting for someone to give them that permission.
To be clear: this isn’t about suddenly unleashing a torrent of feelings-vomit. It’s just a strategic reveal of who you really are and how you really feel. It’s important: ask for reassurance or commiseration, rather than solutions. We’re socialized to see solving problems as a way of providing value, and as a result, that’s often our first impulse. But by asking if they have faced similar issues, or asking just to be allowed to vent, you are creating space for them to just listen… and to share something of their own.
Yeah, it’s hard to get past that initial defensive stage. Being willing to be vulnerable with other guys is hard, which is why we do it so rarely. However, it’s amazing just how good it feels when you get there.
Friendships Require Maintenance
Of course, it doesn’t do much good to put the work in to strengthening your friendship if you don’t also put the work into maintain it. And I mean to actively maintain that friendship, instead of the low-effort/low-investment that we often fall back to. Once again, it’s useful to look to our romantic relationships as a guide to how to maintain our platonic ones.
Consider this: we would all agree that keeping track of our romantic partners’ important days is part of being a good boyfriend. You obviously would want to remember things like her birthday or your anniversary… but also the little things, like when she graduated or got her first real job. These are the signs that you pay attention, that you recognize the things that’re important to her. By that same reasoning, keeping track of the dates that’re important to your friends are the mark of a good friend. Sure, you know his birthday, but about his kids’ birthdays? How about significant days in his life – both the good and the bad?
That’s not a small thing. Remembering, for example, the anniversary of his parent’s death can be as important as knowing, say, the day he proposed to his girlfriend; that may well be the day he needs some dedicated time and care from his friends.
Similarly, you want to be engaged and present in your friendships, just as you would with your romantic relationships. Follow up with them when they tell you about a thing they’re doing or when they have something coming up. Ask them for updates or how it all went, instead of waiting for them to tell you. If they do (or did) something for you, make a point of letting them know how much you appreciate it. Even if it’s something as minor as recommending a movie or suggesting a band, tell them how much you dug it.
Get to know some of their interests and give them a try; this becomes a quick and easy way to become closer.
You also want to plan regular get-togethers, to help keep the friendship active. Having these bright spots on your calendar can make getting through the upcoming week or month that much easier. Even virtual events – especially when you can’t be there in person – make a difference.
Don’t be afraid to hype them up, especially to others. Having someone tell you – or others – how awesome you are and how much you’ve done for them can feel amazing.
It’s also important to be there for your friends – especially when it’s not “easy” or convenient. Part of why some relationships flounder is because we aren’t there when our friends need us the most. For all the jokes about how “real” friends help us move bodies, there’s truth to be found there. Sometimes the friend you need the most is the one who’ll show up at a moment’s notice because things are bad. Friendships, like relationships, aren’t only about the good times. They’re also about getting through the hard times, too. Especially if you can get through them together.
I’m sure many of you are pointing out that this is about how you show up for your friends and wonder how you get your friends to do the same for you. This is a reasonable question. The answer, as unsatisfying as it may be, is to show them the way. Much like with being vulnerable, you often need to be the friend you want to have. Modeling the behavior you would want to see from them helps create that permission structure that allows and encourages them to do the same for you. By showing them that you are being fully present with them, you’re demonstrating and setting the standard that you want them to match.
Yeah, it’s hard work, and you run the risk of finding “friends” who aren’t willing to invest the same level of effort in return. But – much like with romantic relationships – this is part of how you learn who is worth keeping in your life and which friendships you can let go of. But if you put the same level of care and attention into your platonic relationships that you do to your romantic ones, then you’ll help build the kinds of friendships that last a lifetime.