The Dating Rituals of Making New Friends

I didn’t want to come on too strong. I wanted to woo without seeming desperate and be assertive, yet not clingy. I wanted to casually mention we both favored the western omelet at West Side Diner without revealing that I’d stalked her Instagram. Tell her we read the same books and both really seemed to like our moms. When someone waxed philosophical in the class we both signed up for (fate), we hid our smiles at the same time. Alison seemed like the perfect ten. But was our latent chemistry all in my head?

Trying to make new friends as an adult can feel a lot like the search for that special someone. After years away from my home state, I moved back to Rhode Island when I was 28. And in that first year, I spent over $1,000 in classes, meet-ups and organized social gatherings dedicated to trying to make new friends.

“It’s not that I don’t have friends, it’s just that they don’t live here!” is a sweaty explanation to make to a new acquaintance. But in my case, it was true. My college friends from Boston had mostly left the city. The new people I’d met through my 20s living in Albuquerque and Chicago weren’t just miles away, but actual time zones.

In theory, being a Young Adult™ in Rhode Island should have left me overwhelmed with social possibilities and invites to Friendsgivings. According to state census, in the post-recession years, Providence, along with Boston and Rochester, NY, had the greatest percentage of total young adult (age 18-34) in-movers. When looked at in dating parlance, however, “I don’t have many friends … readily available and around me,” can seem as big a red flag to a potential bestie as finding yourself on a date with someone who’s never had a long-term relationship. Or whose only ex is a model living in Canada.

As much as making friends is like dating in the search for common interests and the desire to not text too much lest you scare the other person away, it can also be harder. If a would-be friend ghosts you, it stings. When searching for a significant other, most are looking for their primary partner. It’s understandable, albeit disappointing, when you’re not the candidate to fill that singular role. But because people can have plenty of friends, learning you’ve been culled from the herd is different. The idea that someone may not like you simply on a human level — what friend rejection may seem tantamount too — can feel deeply personal.

Yet, as nerve wracking as courting new friends can be, it’s an essential part of how we feel fulfillment.

In a 2013 article published in The Atlantic, one study showed that seeing a close friend each day brings the same amount of happiness as a $100,000 raise. That same article quoted sociobiologist E. O. Wilson as having written, “To be kept in solitude is to be kept in pain and put on the road to madness.”

While I wouldn’t have directly identified my desire to “put myself out there” as a means to avoid a Lovecraftian road to madness, I did realize that if I didn’t put in the work to broaden my network of BFFs, my life would feel significantly lonelier. Did I, too, not yearn for game nights? Or people I could watch reality TV with in reality and outside of group text?

I mined RISD continuing ed classes, AS220 workshops, gyms, book groups, trivia nights and friends of friends. I tried reconnecting with cousins. I wondered if my own hobbies and interests were inherently anti-social, and therefore unworthy. (The spiraling-out phase, familiar to anyone who has spent too long on the dating scene.) When out of the blue, Alison asked if I wanted to get together for breakfast one day, I was elated. Clearly the consistent compliments on her accessories, coupled with getting to class early so I could sit near her and offer to share my bag of pretzels, had paid off.

Our breakfast went well and Alison and I hung out a few more times. She even invited me to meet her kids (huge), but in the end it turned out we were more second-tier buddies who got together for structured activities than the type of friends who would plan a vacation together. The initial spark of friend chemistry began to flicker, if not fade.

As I met new people, I appreciated the worth in these relationships and one activity at a time, my life felt fuller. I was playing the field and being rewarded with thoughtful, interesting people. I couldn’t manifest that “the one” would appear, but I had to trust there were plenty of fish.