Friendship is Hard Work

I've been struggling with friendship lately. There's a growing and unsatisfied desire for deep strong friendships. As the sense of lack has grown, I've wrestled with how to remedy the problem.

When the new year came, I made a serious effort to identify the areas of my life that needed real growth and development. This weakness in friendships was one that stood out significantly. It's a problem that's been growing on me recently, but has been under the surface for a long time. The desire for friendship is basic and common for humans. You can satisfy this desire with true deep friendships, but it's also easy to satisfy it with a high quantity of shallower social interaction.

I've spent my life so far allowing this desire to be satisfied mostly with broad social interactions via day to day life. Don't get me wrong, I've had plenty of friendships, many of them strong, but apparently not the kinds that could have trained me to maintain and nurture deep adult friendships that I should be having right now.

Starting as a very young child, going to public school provided more than enough opportunity for friendship. Just the exposure to that many other kids of the same age made it easy to find a few to like or with similar enough interests to make friends. And even when they weren't strong or really good friends, just being at school for most of the day provided enough social interaction to keep the basic need satisfied.

The important part of this was that it required very little effort. I had to go to school. I didn't have a choice but to be around all of those other kids all day. It was nearly inevitable that I would develop at least casual friendships with a few others. It's an automatic and built in part of life at that age.

Even before I was old enough to be going to school, I was going to church with my family. Just like school, I had to go to church. So similarly, this was an automatic fulfillment of the need for social interaction. And even more than school, you have something very powerful in common with everyone else there. It's very easy to develop strong friendships with the few other kids of your age when you already share one of the most important parts of your life (your faith) and you see eachother at least once a week, often more. This realm of church relationships continued from childhood churchgoing, through teenage youth group, all the way through my college bible study groups. These are usually where my deepest friendships came from. Regular church attendance waned since college, and hasn't been providing this social fulfillment for a while.

When I got a bit older, I started having jobs. In college, I didn't invest myself in class or extra-curricular activities as much as I did in high school, but I threw myself into my job. Again, I became friends with many of my coworkers; we spent countless hours together every single day. But I spent the majority of my time with them during work hours. This is a kind of friendship, but in that environment, the relationship can never really develop and mature.

The automatic socializing that school, church, and work provide are a cheaper substitute to the true reality of actual friendship. They are important, necessary, and good in their own right. But, they can trick you into thinking your needs are satisfied; they don't actually give you the real thing. These shallow and automatic social interactions that day to day life provides are the frozen yogurt to the full fat dairy ice cream that is a deep and mature friendship.

A few months ago, I made one small change and one large change to my life that brought this unsatisfied desire for friendship to the surface.

The small change was canceling my podcasts. I had two podcasts, each with a dear friend of mine. In both cases we first met through work, but these were the rare case where I transferred these friendships outside the exclusive environment of our workplace and started spending routine scheduled time with them recording shows. This was an incredible way to develop our friendships. The microphones and recording software between us didn't really matter, but they gave us plenty of time set aside to sit across a table from each other and talk and learn and nurture our relationship. I canceled the shows because podcasting was no longer interesting to me as a creative outlet. I don't think that was a bad idea. The bad idea was failing to fill in the giant gap I created in our dedicated time together. I never replaced that with any other kind of quality time, meaning these relationships have faded in strength. I was no longer putting in the work required of a mature adult friendship. I wasn't putting in the work because the work felt like it was for the podcast, not for the friendship. And without the show, I failed to realize new work needed to be commited to the friendship.

The second larger change was getting a new job. My old job was mentally and emotionally taxing in general, but especially in the amount of social interaction that was required. I worked in a very small space and was required to directly interact with dozens of people every day. Just like my old college job, I made plenty of friends there. But my friendships stayed inside the context of the workplace. The amount of social energy required just to survive the workweek left me with very little desire to seek further socialization otherwise. Even if the friendships I was inside of at work were shallow, they felt like they were satisfying my larger human desire for interaction and connection.

My new job could not be more different in terms of social interaction. My new team has eight people, a fraction the size of my former team. And it actually provides very little opportunity for socializing with them, suddenly removing forty hours per week of intense socializing and friendship interaction.

Combine that with a sudden drop in time spent with my two closest friendships because of my podcast cancelations and I've found myself struggling with friendship lately. And because so much of what was satisfying my need for friendship all my life was actually just shallow, day-to-day life interpersonal connection, I'm not actually faced with a sudden lack of friendship, but a sudden realization that I've always lacked it. The lack of friendship has always been there, I've just been noticing it lately.

Friendship, like any intentional relationship, requires effort. This sounds so obvious and dumb when stated explicitly, but I've just spent the last four months actually really learning that. I was putting in some of the work without realizing it with my podcast friendships. But all of the rest of my friendships were just meandering along as the conditions of my life allowed them to without the input of any real effort on my part. Then I removed the two biggest sources of friendship fulfillment from my life. I wasn't doing any of the work that was now required to at least maintain and hopefully nurture and develop the friendships I did have. I found myself with a deep sense of lack and atrophy.

Because I relied for so long on life's tendency to provide me with the conditions for plenty of automatic social interaction (school, church, work, etc.) I assumed that good friendship was easy and effortless. I'm thankful for this period of realization that has taught me that this is untrue. The requirement of work is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of maturity. I somehow managed to grow into an almost thirty year old man before I really learned that friendships require care and nurturing just as much as any other significant relationship in your life. Time to apply this lesson and actually start putting in the work.