IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Asking someone on a friend date and a romantic date can bring up similar fears

Progress in the battle against Covid-19 has ushered in a return to socializing. For many, that's uncomfortable.
The anxiety of making new friends can feel nearly identical to the experience of asking out potential romantic partners.
The anxiety of making new friends can feel nearly identical to the experience of asking out potential romantic partners.K.L. Ricks for NBC News

“What sort of free time do you have outside of kids and work?” I asked.  

Mia had just washed and cut my frizzy mop and was about to begin styling. There is no relationship like the one a woman has with her trusted hairstylist. Mia is the only person I allow near my scalp with a pair of scissors, and it’s been that way since I met her over 10 years ago. Still, my heart pounded as I worked up the nerve to ask her on a lunch date.

Because I’d known her for so long and liked her so much, I thought maybe it was time to become friends. Not just artist-client friends, and not just Facebook friends. But actual friends. 

When the “Sex and the City” reboot and the “Friends” reunion special made the rounds, they were more reminders of how alone I sometimes feel.

“Oh, not much. I usually go horseback riding with friends,” she said casually. “We do that every Saturday. Me and my five closest girlfriends. It’s nice downtime, and our kids play together during the week. We’re all getting together tonight, actually.” 

For a brief and embarrassingly sad moment, my gut clenched. I’m 41 years old and have no idea how it feels to be a person who can call her five closest girlfriends to get together on a random evening. I don’t have a core group of female friends and never had — not even as a child. 

After hearing about Mia’s incredibly full and happy life, I lost all nerve and changed the subject. She’ll never know how close I came to an attempt to initiate a friendship, and how I felt like a failure for trying to worm my way into her neat and tidy social life. When she finished beating my hair into submission, I left her studio with a smile and a wave, hoping that she hadn’t caught on.

The anxiety of making new friends can feel nearly identical to the experience of asking out potential romantic partners. Yet the latter difficulty is widely understood and commiserated about. Movies, TV shows and the shelves at any bookstore overflow with examples and advice. In contrast, the lack of attention to the hurdles of making friends — especially as adults — compounds the isolation and confusion that those of us who struggle with this can feel. 

“We have an epidemic of unacknowledged loneliness,” Shasta Nelson, founder of GirlFriendCircles.com, a website for women who want deeper friendship connections, told The Detroit Free Press. A recent advice column in The Daily, the University of Washington student newspaper, pointed out that freshman year of college is “one of the few times in life it’s socially acceptable to be lonely,” leaving the rest of us too ashamed to talk about friendlessness

But now’s the time we need to talk about it — and banish the idea that it’s a shameful condition. This social epidemic is likely to get worse as our health epidemic recedes. Progress in the battle with Covid-19 has ushered in a return to socializing

With the new wave of group activities, social media once again offers endless reminders of how some people are brimming with friendship and close ties. My own feeds are flooded with pictures of female friendship — large groups of women who seem to have known each other since time immemorial, their posts littered with private jokes and hashtags signaling a Fort Knox level of impenetrability. The message to would-be interlopers is clear: We have all the friendship we need. Your attempt to infiltrate our lives is cute, but not necessary or desired.  

When the “Sex and the City” reboot and the “Friends” reunion special made the rounds, they were more reminders of how alone I sometimes feel. Images of women living happily together, their friendships batting away all of life’s curveballs, had always seemed too far out there. Where are the shows about middle-aged women without that core group of friends and connections? Why are we interesting enough for the occasional psychological analysis but largely unworthy of representation in film or television?

Paul Krauss, a therapist and clinical director of Health for Life Counseling in Grand Rapids, Michigan, said loneliness in middle age is common — with up to 36 percent of all Americans reporting in 2020 that they felt “serious loneliness” — while the very pursuit of friendship is fraught with barriers. 

“When you’re younger, there are built-in opportunities to bond and form friendships with people through school, sports and extracurriculars,” he noted. “As we get older, we’re potentially more mobile, and there are far more limitations on our time because of all of our responsibilities, such as paying bills and caring for family.”

Forging adult friendships also requires taking risks. “People often don’t want to put themselves out there because they have to be vulnerable,” Krauss said. We know scientifically how valuable friendships are to our health — which could be part of why the stakes seem so high. Now that the pandemic is receding, friendship and connection are at the forefront of many peoples’ minds. 

For Krauss, strategies for making friends in middle age center on intentionality and accountability. “If you want to make new friends, you also have to be intentional,” he said. “Ask yourself: Am I engaging in groups and finding activities outside of my comfort zone? Are you putting in the time and the effort? Are you holding yourself accountable?”

Accepting failure is also part of the process. “You have to allow failure to be OK on your way to making friends, because you’re going to have times that it doesn’t work out,” he counseled. It’s helpful to keep in mind that the obstacles that can result in that failure while we try to make friends can be a lot less personal than those in dating. Would-be friends, for instance, are often just too swept up in the details of their own lives to make room for others. 

I still might not be ready to ask my hairstylist on a friend date, but at least I can take solace in the fact that for all the loneliness I feel, I’m not alone in feeling it.