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  • Writer's pictureInlight Psychology

How to make new friends in adulthood: A psychological perspective (ft. Foura)

Updated: Feb 19, 2023

By Dr Liza Chervonsky, Principal Clinical Psychologist and Director of Inlight Psychology, Bondi Junction


Making friends as an adult is hard. While childhood and adolescence are filled with opportunities for socialising and play, adult life is often consumed by responsibilities and daily pressures, leaving little time for forming new relationships. As a clinical psychologist, I’m all too familiar with the loneliness and relationship dissatisfaction that so many of my clients feel. My clients want to have friendships. They want a sense of belonging, but it just seems too hard and unattainable.


Adults struggling with disconnection and loneliness are often encouraged to “get out there” and join social groups based on common interests such as books, sports, and hobbies. Others are encouraged to participate in mental health and peer support groups, particularly if there’s a common underlying mental health issue. These suggestions are definitely worth pursuing, but sometimes they just don’t end up being feasible for one reason or another. Realising the challenges that my clients keep coming against, I was driven to find something different, something that hadn’t already been suggested many times before. It was during this time of searching that I came across Foura, an organisation that aims to help adults form friendships through carefully selected gatherings of four individuals, who are matched based on common factors such as age, interests, values, and experiences. Intrigued, I reached out to the founder, Tam Al-Saad, to learn more about his approach and whether Foura truly had something unique to offer to those struggling with loneliness and disconnection. It is with our discussions in mind that I present the remainder of this article, in hope of providing some psychological insights into the challenges that adults experience in friendships and ways to overcome them.


Is it really that hard? I posed this question to Tam, to get his thoughts on the matter. Was Foura needed? Are the options that we already have truly not good enough? Tam spoke candidly about how almost half of Australians regularly feel lonely but are often too embarrassed to admit it [1]. Our society accepts that if a person wants a romantic partner, they will go on dates and put in effort to find one. It’s not considered weird or needy and people often talk quite openly about the dates they go on. His hope is that Foura can normalise adults’ needs for friendship and make it much more socially acceptable to go on meetups that are specifically organised for the purpose of finding new friends.


Tam also highlighted several factors that are commonly raised by members of Foura and in the general population, as to why they find it so much harder to make friends as adults and why more social opportunities are needed. As adults age:

  • Existing friends become less available, due to increased focus on work, settling down, and starting their own families.

  • People move further away from each other, as they start buying property that is more affordable in locations outside of the city.

  • Divorce can cause a division in friendship circles and people taking sides.

  • "Empty nesters" find themselves with a lot more “alone” time on their hands, after their children have moved out of home.

  • More people work remotely, causing a drift from current friends and fewer opportunities for socialising at work.

  • General changes in interests and values might lead to drifts in friendship, without easy ways of replacing those lost friendships.


The reasons listed above are good at explaining why certain friendships that used to be “easy” become increasingly difficult to maintain as adults age. But what about new friendships? Let’s say that you want to start to build your social circle. Why is it so hard to do this as an adult?


The effect of time, repeated exposure, and proximity – a brief overview


Friendship formation requires several key ingredients: physical proximity, time, and multiple exposures or interactions [2, 3, 4, 5]. The “mere exposure effect” is a psychological phenomenon that refers to people's tendency to like a stimulus more with repeated exposure to it [2, 5], while the “propinquity effect” (coined by Festinger and colleagues [3]), refers to people’s tendency to form relationships with people who are in closer physical proximity to them, such as living closer together in a college dorm. It has been argued that the propinquity effect, at least in part, can be explained by the increased “exposures” or opportunities to interact, which occur when people live or spend a lot of time in closer proximity to each other. Put simply, people need to have the opportunities to be able to see each other regularly and frequently to be able to form friendships. This may explain why it is so much easier to make friends in school when one has endless opportunities for interaction, with many potential friends, who are all within very close physical proximity.


So, is that it? Is exposure and proximity all that is needed? Not quite. Bear in mind that exposure does need to be relatively positive. We can all think of a situation where we have been stuck with someone unpleasant and no amount of exposure to that person helps. In fact, sometimes it makes them more intolerable as time goes on. For this reason, it’s worth reflecting on any behaviours you may be engaging in that could be leading to negative experiences in interpersonal contexts.


Behaviours that get in the way of building friendships

There are many ways that people can get in their own way when it comes to seeking out and developing new friendships. When reading the list below, consider if you engage in any of these thoughts or behaviours and whether it may be beneficial to modify them.

  • Wanting to “click” and have that “spark” Many people believe that forming a friendship requires an instant connection or a “spark” between two individuals. However, this is not necessary for a friendship to develop. If you think back to some of the friendships you formed in school, did they all come about due to an immediate spark? Or was it something that simply developed over time? Wanting the “click” or “spark” may cause you to dismiss numerous potential friendships before they have a chance of developing.

  • Being unwilling to give a person another go As proposed by the research outlined above, liking and friendship develop over repeated exposures to the same person. Unless the person was truly unpleasant or toxic, it may really be worth seeing them again. If you found the experience just average, that’s ok! Meet them again anyway and see how you feel next time. At your next meeting, you’ll likely have more to talk about, due to your shared experiences and greater familiarity with each other.

  • Looking for a “perfect fit” and not being accepting of differences Another obstacle to forming friendships is the belief that one should only surround themselves with people who are exactly like them. There are several issues with this belief. Firstly, it limits your understanding of others, your society, and the world, and takes you away from all the diversity and richness that could be crucial to your personal self-development. Secondly, you may not necessarily be as different as you think or you may stop noticing these differences as much over time. Think about some of your current friends. Are you truly that alike or are you just not paying attention to your differences as much?

  • Less openness, more defensiveness, or avoiding vulnerability It’s self-evident that having these defensive and closed off interpersonal behaviours would limit your success in developing closer friendships. These sorts of behaviours can unfortunately give off the impression of disinterest or coldness, even if that isn’t your intention. Often, these sorts of behaviours are driven by underlying insecurities and social anxieties, and a fear of vulnerability, all of which can be worked on through self-reflection, practising openness and therapy.

  • Unrealistic expectations and standards of others If you find yourself meeting a lot of people but feeling that they all fall short in one way or another, you may have unhealthy or unrealistic expectations of others. People are flawed and imperfect in many ways, but they generally mean well and have good intentions. Having high standards will inevitably lead to disappointment and frustration and a sense that no one is “good enough” to be your friend. If you find yourself in this headspace, it may be time to review your standards. Are your standards appropriate or are they simply fuelling frustration and disappointment?

  • Being a critical person (often due to underlying social anxiety and insecurity) Similarly to the point above, you might find yourself being highly critical of others. This often comes from perfectionism directed towards others and/or yourself, which can drive dissatisfaction, as well as insecurity and social anxiety. If you tend to have a very strong internal critic, this may be worth talking through in therapy. It can be difficult to challenge this internal critic without support from someone who can provide a different approach or perspective. This is because people with internal critics often start criticising themselves for having a critical voice once they become aware of it. This in turn, only serves to intensify their overall internal criticism and is not effective in diminishing it.

  • Focusing too much on superficial factors Focusing too much on superficial factors, such as appearance, wealth, or status, tends to keep relationships on the “surface” and reduces the chance of a meaningful and enduring friendship. It may be worth reflecting on when you began to overvalue superficial factors. Often this is rooted in early childhood or adolescence, where one might find themselves in a social environment in which superficial factors are unfortunately valued very highly (often through bullying, positive reinforcement, or explicit expression of these views by other children/adolescents or immature adults). It may be worth re-focusing on internal personality traits of others, such as kindness, empathy, openness, and authenticity, as these traits are better indicators of a healthy and positive friendship. Sometimes people avoid deeper connection due to an underlying fear that they themselves don’t have anything to offer beneath the surface. If this is true for you, then this is an important point to reflect on privately, with a trusted person or a therapist.

  • Entitlement, selfishness, and narcissism It can be difficult and painful to realise that your own thinking and behaviour may be contributing to social difficulties. If you tend to get angry or frustrated quickly when things don’t go your way in a social interaction or if your socialising is primarily motivated by social climbing, showing off, or gaining something, you may be driven by some level of entitlement, selfishness and/or narcissism. This can be a difficult pattern of behaviour to change. However, if you are recognising this in yourself you have already taken one of the most difficult steps, which is admitting that your own cognitive and behaviour patterns need to change.


So what’s the “take away” in all of this?

  1. The first step is to seek and create opportunities. Meetups that revolve around exercise or hobbies can be a good place to meet people, but people don’t always join these activities primarily to meet new people and so one may find themselves putting in effort that is unreciprocated or even unnoticed. It’s important to bear this in mind and continue to put in effort, with a healthy expectation that friendships develop over time and not everyone is there for the same purpose.

  2. Organisations like Foura create the exact kind of opportunity where people come together for the specific aim of meeting new people. It can get people to the right place, for the right purpose. However, this is where effort, self-awareness, and persistence are all required. Make sure that you are being as open as possible to the experience and work on the psychological barriers that make it difficult to do so.

  3. Maintain momentum and remain open to any further opportunities to see the same people. Repeated exposure over time is key in developing friendships.

  4. If you are realising that you have many psychological barriers that are interfering in your friendship pursuits, it may be worth speaking to a friend, parent, trusted person or psychologist about these difficulties.


Can therapy help people struggling to building connection and friendships?

Therapy can be an important tool in helping people work through their challenges in building connection and friendships. A therapist that is well trained in interpersonal issues will also use the therapeutic relationship with the client as a model of healthy interpersonal behaviour. Your therapist is, after all, another human being that you can practice having a healthy relationship with. Therapy is unique in that you can discuss many of your interpersonal reactions and defenses, in safety and without fear of judgment. This, in turn, can help you build self-awareness, resilience, and emotional intelligence, which can lead to stronger and more fulfilling connections with others. It can take courage to acknowledge and work on your challenges, but the results can make it all worth it.


 
Dr Liza Chervonsky, Principal Clinical Psychologist and Director of Inlight Psychology, Bondi Junction

Dr. Liza Chervonsky is the Principal Clinical Psychologist and Director of Inlight Psychology in Bondi Junction. She has a strong interest in personality, relationship and interpersonal issues and uses a relational and attachment lens in her therapeutic work. She also borrows from a number of other therapeutic modalities that work well with interpersonal issues, such as schema therapy, ACT, DBT, CBT, parts work (IFS), psychodynamic and mindfulness. As the head of Inlight Psychology, Liza surrounds herself with a team of psychologists who share in her interpersonal and relational approach to therapy.


If you would like to book an appointment with Liza or someone on her team, you can contact Inlight Psychology on (02) 8320 0566 or contact@inlightpsychology.com.au


To learn more about the team, click here: https://www.inlightpsychology.com.au/team

 

Reference List

  1. Bornstein, R. F. (1989). Exposure and affect: Overview and meta-analysis of research, 1968–1987. Psychological Bulletin, 106(2), 265-289. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.106.2.265

  2. Festinger, L., Schachter, S., & Back, K. (1950). The spatial ecology of group formation. In L. Festinger, S. Schachter, & K. Back (Eds.), Social pressure in informal groups (pp. 48-61). MIT Press.

  3. Hall, J. A. (2019). How many hours does it take to make a friend? Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 36(4), 1278-1296. https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407518778899

  4. Montoya, R. M., Horton, R. S., Vevea, J. L., Citkowicz, M., & Lauber, E. A. (2017). A re-examination of the mere exposure effect: The influence of repeated exposure on recognition, familiarity, and liking. Psychological Bulletin, 143(5), 459-498. https://doi.org/10.1037/bul0000085


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