Why is it so hard to make friends?

May 20th 2014, I wrote: "I have a ton of associates, and acquaintances, in my life, but for years I've wondered: How does one move from acquaintance to deep friendship?"
Now, July 4th 2017, I understand the reasons why I don't have deep friendships quite keenly. I understand it so well that I begin to wonder if I'll ever bother to form deep friendships. Confused yet? Give me a minute – or twenty – to explain.

Raederle's high-school friend, and Raederle
It took me a long time to see it, but most people that I've ever met don't know how to form functional relationships. I thought everyone was making more friends that I was, but over time I've come to see that few adults ever make new friendships that are deep and lasting.
Consider when you were a child. You were emotionally vulnerable before you accumulated filters from your parents and society. Over time you began to internalize the judgments you heard from others:
  • "Don't go outside without a coat – you'll get pneumonia!"
  • "You ask too many questions. Nobody likes somebody so nosy."
  • "Those colors clash horribly! You're hurting my eyes!"
  • "Don't spin! You're making me dizzy."
You tell children, "Shut up!" because they are too loud.
You tell adults, "Speak up!" because they are too quiet.
As toddlers we're working on developing our identity and our personal boundaries. Read: Developmental Trauma. Unfortunately, most of us are taught by mother culture to reject our highest truths – our identities, our boundaries – in favor of societal norms.
As small children we're floundering in a sea of what we're not allowed to be. Parents, school teachers, guidance counselors and even the law tell us all about what we're not supposed to do – don't flunk out of school, don't kill people, don't lie, don't cheat on your spouse – but rarely do these figures of authority really teach us what to do.
Classmates will troll somebody for bad hygiene but unless the parents teach good hygiene, who is going to teach you how to wipe yourself properly? School is silent on this subject, and it isn't exactly a subject friends usually discuss. In the case of a child who is getting teased for smelling bad, he may internalize himself as a yucky person. Later, no matter how my good hygiene he learns, he's stuck with this negative belief about himself. Short of some serious consciousness alchemy, most people acquire dozens of negative beliefs about themselves as children that sabotage their adult goals and ideals.
We're given lots of general, impractical advice – "Just be yourself!" That is good advice, but good luck following it without a handbook! First of all, how do you identify your true self among all the bullshit programming that mother culture stuck you with, and the multitudes of conflicting opinions inside yourself? Read: I Am Multitudes, Not Monolith.
Noticed the growing number of introverted people?
More people are choosing to be themselves . . . in the privacy of their own homes! Read: "Just Be Yourself!" and Why that Doesn't Work for Introverts.

Raederle, 2016
Most people relegate all of these conflicting beliefs to their subconscious and adopt the same mentality as the dominant culture they grew up around. This is how psychological patterns pass from one generation to the next; as we mature, we learn to identify more with how our parents felt toward us as children than toward how we ourselves felt as children. So much for believing the masses aren't empathic – on the contrary, we're so chronically empathetic with others that we forget to believe our own personal experience!
As adults, we do the same things adults did to us and tell children:
  • "Don't [things I – the parent – judge as bad]"
  • "Do [generic advice without any actual tools for looking inside oneself for answers]"
Did your parents teach you how to have deep, connected, loving relationships? Did your parents demonstrate a deep, loving relationship?
In my observation, few parents demonstrate anything remotely close. Even romantic movies rarely demonstrate something enviable.
I grew up with such a keen sense of longing and loneliness that I spent the majority of my teen years learning from both books and personal experience what a deep, romantic, loving relationship was made up of.

Raederle (age 19) and her third love, 2008
Mostly, I learned what it wasn't in those first six years of my experience. Fortunately for me, I wasn't afraid of commitment, and because of this, each of my relationships limped along to their final conclusions with no avenues of reconciliation left untried. Dedication (or desperation) combined with fervent reading on the topic made me a local expert on romantic relationships by the time I was twenty.
Finally, after over a decade of seeking the answer to what a deep, loving relationship meant, I found answers. Although, that's another story. For a detailed treatise on love, read: What is love?

What makes friendships last?

Why do so many of us (like myself) have such lasting romantic relationships, but no deep, lasting friendships?
Well, think about this, most relationships are borne of convenience: you work together, you live in the same area, you go to the same places, you share hobbies. But once the convenience is gone – you move away, they move away, you change careers, they change careers, etc – so is the relationship.
So what was different in childhood? Back before we learned to school our faces to neutrality we talked with abandon about the things we liked with open joy on our faces and we talked about the things we didn't like with open horror. We didn't worry about whether the other person might be repulsed by our likes or dislikes, and thereby our relationships were more honest. We scared away the people who couldn't handle our authentic selves. Those who liked us when we were children liked us for who we were.
This is why many people's deepest, truest friends are the people they befriended in childhood. And this is why so many people who didn't make friends in childhood still remain without deep friendships in adulthood.

Façade, Meet Façade

Moral judgment and political correctness replaces authenticity and nobody can befriend anybody because nobody can actually meet anybody else! It is as if you've sent your secretary to talk to someone else's secretary every time you encounter someone.
And thus, your friendships are based on surface-stuff – convenience and commonalities. Common cultural associations – shared favorite movies, shared sports, shared ethnic background – are something we know how to look for. But this isn't the stuff of deep, lasting relationships – friendships or romances. Lasting relationships are about necessities – that is, needs being met.
So how do we identify people who we can have a relationship of mutual need-meeting?
When it comes to hormonal attraction, our bodies know how to identify such people. We read it in their posture, their word choice, their facial expressions, their choice of clothing and in their subtle behaviors. Our subconscious is very good at selecting people who can meet our deepest needs. (There is a lot more to say here, but this is worthy of its own essay by itself.)
Consciously, we tend to suck at selecting people who can meet our needs.

Options versus Essentials

Meeting needs is the basis for a relationship that is functional. That is, a relationship that functions. You know you have a relationship that meets a need of yours when the person goes away and you deeply miss them. People who make your life "a little more fun" or "a little more interesting" are rarely missed when they're gone.

Playing Raederle's game, Heir to the Phoenix Crown at Queen City Conquest Convention, 2015
Relationships formed around commonalities creates options. Options are great. But options are optional. Optional relationships don't last because they are not essential relationships so you have no incentive to make them last. They create a false sense of belonging for a while, but deep down, you know that belonging is a thin veneer.
Is that actually a bad thing? Is it important to make relationships last? Why do we think it is?
We preach so much about avoiding co-dependency and yet we simultaneously put "until death do us part" on a pedestal. Which is really superior? A relationship that lasts forever or a relationship that serves a purpose for a time and then fades away when it no longer serves a function?
Well, I don't rationally believe that a life-long relationship is better than a short, sweet, useful-at-the-time relationship, but my heart believes so. Why is that? Is it just cultural programming, or is there really something desirable about this life-long attachment?
When we look at children and how vital the parent-child attachment is for the survival of the child, it makes sense that we're wired to seek a permanent connection with our parents. Likewise, when it comes to raising children, it makes sense to form bonds with people who you can rely on to be there for you and your child as a parent-partnership or as a community. Considering how many of us are still trying to compensate for the turmoil we felt as infants who were left to cry in cribs, it isn't surprising that this driving need for a permanent companion is rampant among our most fervent desires.
So why are permanent friends so illusive?
The primary people in my life are not people I can label my bosom friends, but rather, people who have titles of necessity: husband, parent, neighbor, in-law, and client. I can't change my neighbors without moving. My clients came to me because they have needs. My in-laws are my in-laws unless I un-do the commitment with either of my husbands, and whether or not I spend time with my parents, they're still my parents. But friends?

Raederle, Lytenian, Raederle's parents
We throw around the word "friend" a lot – just think of facebook – but rarely are any of these people we label our "friends" actually close to our hearts. Are these people whose opinion we would let sway our day-to-day habits? Probably not. But we may go through large changes in our daily lives – even uncomfortable ones – for a spouse (or a parent).
Because we're with our spouses because they meet needs.
I've met people at potlucks, yoga, dances, and festivals. Sometimes I see these people again in my own home for a retreat or workshop I'm hosting. Yet these people rarely remain potent figures in my life day to day, week to week, or even month to month. On lucky occasion it has turned into a several-month affair of exchanging knowledge, belongings, and favors – but these too fade away in time.

What is a friend?

Our language doesn't have a way to differentiate between the friends that are actively a part of our lives and people we've met who we still respect, care about and think of occasionally. The later sort of person is something I have buckets of. There are lots of incredible people who were actively part of my lives for a short time who I still have contact with on occasion. I call those people my friends, and according to the rules of our common vernacular, I'm entirely correct to do so.
The simple definition of a friend is thus: "A person whom one knows and with whom one has a bond of mutual affection, typically exclusive of sexual or family relations." How broad! That could include virtually everyone you've ever hugged in your life – depending on what sort of person you are. For some social butterflies, that would entail thousands of friends.
But this essay isn't talking about those kinds of friends. I'm talking about the sort of friend who is actively in your thoughts, your considerations, your activities – and most especially – your heart. We sometimes call these people "best friends" or "bosom friends" or "close friends."

Why do friendships fade away?

It is because you're not meeting their real needs and they're not meeting yours. Not in a sustainable, meaningful way. Part of the issue here is lack of open communication about needs. How often do you talk to your friends about your unmet needs? It isn't exactly casual conversation: "Oh, yeah, by the way, I feel this gnawing emptiness inside because I feel misunderstood by everyone. I have this vision for how I want my life, and my world, but I'm too afraid to share it with anyone, so I never pursue it because I don't believe I can do it alone. I just thought I'd mention it. What are you unmet needs, by the way?"
The people you can discuss your unmet needs with and who will strive to meet them are the most essential people in your life. If you don't have any such people, the lack of them is (usually) profoundly felt. When you lose someone so essential in your life, it feels like a death or a limb amputation – these people are what support your sense of completion, direction, and often even your self-image.
Every action we take – from brushing our teeth, to eating, to going out and singing karaoke – is an action specifically designed to meet a need of ours. We don't have to consciously be aware of the motive for it to exist. In fact, most of the motives that people are aware of are rationalizations that have little to do with the real motive. For example, it is common for someone to be terribly overweight and believe their motive is that they like food. In reality, the motives at the subconscious level have to do with feeling protected (by a layer of fat and by the distance that eating can create at a social event), feeling unappealing and thereby safe from unwanted sexual attention, feeling safe through feeling large enough to be an unappealing target for violence, and so on.
Another example is smoking. The subconscious positive intention behind smoking is often a social motive – smokers are automatically in a clan with other smokers; smokers take breaks together and bond either silently through mutual communion or through conversation or both. Smokers often use smoking as a way to force themselves to have regular breaks from work that they would otherwise overwork themselves with. Smoking can also have the motive of being a food-habit replacement in order to stay thin and thereby more appealing to the opposite sex (for anyone not offended by their smoking habit, of course).
You see, being fat isn't about food. It is about feeling safe and comforted. Smoking isn't about nicotine. It is about companionship and feeling at ease. Yes, food and nicotine have addictive components, but these components are easily overcome when the real need is addressed through another means.

What are needs?

If needs are the key to lasting relationships, what are needs? And what makes them needs?
A need is something that makes or breaks your experience of life – with the need met, you feel you're living life the way you're meant to live it, and without the need being met, you feel emotionally destitute in that area of your life.
Our foundational needs are universal – feeling appreciated, feeling safe, being nourished, etc. Once they're understood, you can create a deep relationship with most any other willing person because you and they have the same needs. It is simply the strategies for meeting those needs that vary so much. Read: Universal Human Needs.
It is said that the best way to have friends is to be a friend, and perhaps what is meant by that is thus: The best way to have friends is to meet the needs of other people. It is certainly the best way to make money: meet the needs of others in a way that they can pay you for it. Whether it is a service or a product, people pay money when they foresee the exchange somehow meeting one of their needs.
I've spent my life unsure how to start being someone's friend. I think to myself, it would be so easy to be their friend if they decided they wanted to be mine. But why should they take the risk of investing their time and energy into being my friend when I have yet to prove to them that I would actually make a good friend?

Why bother making friends?

As I started this essay, I'm no longer sure there is any reason for me to bother trying to create lasting friendships. If our entire life is about meeting our needs – first our most basic ones, and then our higher needs – then our relationships are about meeting those needs too.
What needs can a friendship provide to me?
What can a friendship provide for you?
For me, I have yet to encounter people in situations where they consistently meet my needs as friends. In fact, people often hinder my ability to meet my needs. For example, I often have found that hiking with other people makes it impossible for me to connect with my body and with nature. Instead of getting the connection I want, I often feel frustrated with the people hiking with me. Connecting with nature is something I usually do best when I'm on my own.

Raederle's Garden, June 2017
For further illustration, here is a short list of my strongest needs – the ones I feel most often go unmet and thereby drive me to seek out further satisfaction:
  • I have a strong need for significance which I meet through teaching, writing, giving lectures, organizing retreats, creating board games, and creating art. I don't need friends for this need to be met. I only need fans, followers, clients, or apprentices. The relationships I have with these people are much more satisfying than the people who chit-chat with me and don't take what I have to offer seriously.
  • I have a penetrating, ever-present need for being understood – to be seen deeply, to be felt deeply, to be heard truly, and to grok another person in the fullest way. This is a natural part of a consciously loving, committed, sexual relationship for me. This does not seem to be a natural part of platonic friendships in the pervasive culture I'm enveloped by. I have repeatedly try to bring a relationship to the "consciously loving" level without commitment and without sex and have yet to succeed. In my surveying of others, it seems that only a small fraction of people actually do succeed at this.
  • I have a driving need to express myself which is highly tied in with the above two needs. It helps create intimacy through feeling seen, and it helps create significance and recognition through giving other people something to appreciate. Expressing myself in art and writing is best done alone (for me, personally). Expressing myself in dance or in spoken word is best done with an audience but once again, they need not be my friends. On the contrary, strangers seem to appreciate my work much more profoundly than the people who take my existence for granted.
  • I have a need to be touched – to be caressed, to be massaged, to be stroked, to be cradled. This intimate need is not something I want fulfilled outside of a consciously loving relationship. Sure, I enjoy a massage from a stranger, but to have this need met in its entirety, I need full nudity, complete comfortability with the other person's body, complete trust in their intentions, and an atmosphere of feeling grokked by the person who is caressing me. This is definitely not something I've found in platonic friendship, or even in friends-with-benefits situations.

My Best Friend

All of the above said, I did have a friendship with a woman forty years older than myself who met a lot of my deep emotional needs. I called her my best friend for three years. Our connection only fizzled out due to her moving thousands of miles away to be with her grandchildren. So what made her my best friend?
I met her at a raw food potluck. She and I were outliers – actual full-time raw foodists. It was a lifestyle for us, and it was our lifestyle for the same reasons.

Raw Vegan Potluck at Raederle's place, 2014
We had the same health problems and we'd both turned to raw foods as our solution. We shared an immense amount of physical commonalities than neither of us had shared with anyone else. She was the only person who could prepare me a gourmet meal I could eat. Nobody had made me food in years, and here she was delighted to do so!
I came over to her place for brunches that she would prepare. I met her needs to feel important, needed, appreciated and nurturing. She met my needs to feel loved, nurtured, and understood. She couldn't understand all of me, which is something I crave from my husbands, but she could understand an aspect of me that nobody else could – my struggle with my body and my journey with my diet. She and I shared a communion of food and words that we could not share with the rest of society. We knew intimately what it was like to be isolated from meals and mainstream events.

Raederle's best friend, Raederle & Lytenian, 2014
We were genuinely useful to one another because we provided each other with implementable, practical tips. We thrived on each other's insights and observations. We lent each other eye-opening books. It was she who lent me The Continuum Concept, the book she credited with turning her "into a thinking person."
Since she moved away in 2014 I have definitely felt her absence in my life.

Needs Met By Friend Groups

Most friend-groups I've been a part of have lasted less than six months. The fragile tethers that hold little groups of four or seven people together are easily broken by a single person moving or changing their priorities. All it takes is a disillusioned organizer or one inspired entrepreneur going in a new direction to break up the habitual friend gatherings.
I've experienced one exception – a writer's group where the core members attended for a solid three years every two weeks. What kept nine people together for seventy-two regular gatherings?
Our commonality was writing, but I believe that writing is a need-meeting strategy that indicated we all had a profound underlying need to feel heard through our written words, and perhaps many of us also shared the strong need to be significant through our writing.
The writers varied in their styles – poetry, fantasy, science-fiction, non-fiction, essays – but we all enjoyed listening, sharing, receiving and giving feedback. It was during these three years that I built my reputation as an insightful editor. I was in good company that was always demonstrating to me how best to edit – as well as giving me a number of examples of how not to.
We bonded so much that we had additional excursions together – Halloween parties, picnics, plays, hiking, and gaming gatherings. We were a group of writers who'd turned into a group of friends. I was the youngest, being in my early twenties, and we spanned across all the ages in between going up to a couple of members in their late sixties. We had a pretty even balance of men and women. We lived in very different parts of the city and led entirely different lifestyles. And yet none of those differences mattered – we'd formed friendship out of meeting needs.
So why did it end? Why didn't we continue on forever?
Two members moved away. One stopped writing, absorbed in a career unrelated to it. One of the published authors in the group became too busy with their events, travels and other priorities. One member adopted children from another country and became very busy with other obligations. All of these happened over the course of what would have been our fourth year, but attendance was down and we eventually officially closed the group.
I was sad that ended, but looking back on it, our three years together was a wild success. I find that I'm making peace with the reality that all friend-groups are temporary parts of life.

Raederle with friends & husbands playing her game, A Voice of Conscience, 2017
I no longer believe in the fiction that only permanent things are worthwhile investments. As all chefs know, your masterpiece creation is destined for digestion!

Cravings for Commitment

I'm a commitment junkie when it comes to relationships, which is why I found a merely "open relationship" unsatisfying and unhelpful, but found polyamory – multiple, committed, loving relationships – to be a profound solution. Read: How We Became Polyamorous.
My husbands and I don't have to worry about the longevity our relationships. We're firmly planted in nourishing need-meeting soil. We give of ourselves willingly and happily to one another. We've committed to meet each other's needs – for life.
Could friends have that kind of commitment too? I've wanted it to be possible. I've wanted to build my own family out of people that would never drift away, never drift apart.

Raederle & Husbands
For my husbands and I, our core vow is to fall back in love every time we fall out of it. But friends don't make that vow. Friends have a tacit agreement to respect each other, but not to belong to one another. And maybe that actually makes sense. After all, individuals would have a hard time finding new, expanding experiences if they only stuck with the same people indefinitely!
When reading The Celestine Prophesy I noticed there was a message beneath the messages: keep exploring, keep meeting new people. The book contained the overt message that each person we encounter we have a message for, and they have a message for us. But there was a backdrop message in the format of the book – the way the main character flowed through relationships with people like a droplet of water flowing through other droplets of water in a river. When we flow through encounters with people, we open up to all the possibilities in the universe – we blow open our own potential.
So perhaps all this seeking of solid companionship is actually masking a fear I have about flowing freely into everything I could be. In other words, I'm deeply attached to my sense of identity.

Understanding Your Unmet Relationship Needs – An Activity

Ready for an activity? Take out a sheet of paper and draw shapes in different colors, each shape representing a need of yours that you have in relationships. You could have a red star for "affection" and a blue square for "appreciation" and a green triangle for "a sense of communion." You choose the colors, shapes and need-titles based on whatever impulses or inclinations you have.

Raederle, June 2017
Then, after you have four to seven needs represented on your sheet of paper, select one need and focus on the shape you've outlined. Focus on its empty space and imagine it filling up. Take the color you outlined that shape in and begin to slowly color the shape in. The entire time you're coloring, focus intently on that need. What does it feel like? What does it look like? Who meets that need for you? When do they meet it? Are you getting enough?
Notice how the shape is filling up with color and stop coloring when the shape is as full as you are. You can try to calculate this with your analytical mind: "Oh, I think I get this need met about 30% of the time, and I think this is now about 30% colored," and that has value. But I believe you'll find more value in letting yourself color the shapes intuitively. Stop coloring when it feels like it matches the level of "fullness" to the corresponding shape within you.
Go forward with all of the shapes on your paper until each one feels like a reflection of your internal condition. Date the paper in the corner with one of your pencils so that you can later reflect on how things have changed over time. This snapshot of where you are now will inform you where you want to go from here.
What need is most neglected, i.e. has the most white space inside it? What need was represented by the shape you colored the most fully? Overall, how does the portrait look to you? How are you feeling about your level of needs-being-met?
This is a great exercise to do with an intimate partner or with your family. Imagine if your entire household deeply understood what needs were going unfulfilled for everyone else in the household. This is one of the key beginnings to fostering conscious love.
I trust that you've found this article illuminating. If you want more on these subjects, please visit the other links you'll find all over this page, and subscribe below.
— Raederle, The Consciousness Alchemist
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