Being grown-up, out of college and independent is great. Really, it is. But let’s be honest, entering the “real world” also comes with several hard truths.
There is the hard truth that nothing—and I mean nothing—can prepare you for being a parent. The hard truth that we might be turning into our own parents—and that it isn’t necessary a bad thing. The hard truth that college did little, if anything, to prepare us for our first job.
And there is the hard truth that, after you’re out of school, there are new rules and new ways of interacting—and friendships often take a whole lot of work.
Marriage, moves, children, increasing responsibilities and changing priorities all make it more difficult to sustain friendships that were once so easy to maintain. Common interests, shared living quarters and an abundance of free time all made friendships seem so much easier and natural in our teens and early twenties.
And as obligations and responsibilities increase and free time decreases, friendships can run the risk of falling further down the priority list. Unless, that is, we recognize the rules have changed and that we must change, too.
So here are a few tips on how to build and maintain meaningful friendships during the turbulent times of your twenties and thirties and beyond:
Find common ground
Commonality is easy to find when we’re young. We go to the same school, we share the same extracurricular activities, we love the same music. But as we get older, differences become more numerous.
Some friends get married earlier than others, some have kids later than others or not at all. Some people go back to school, while others jump right into their professional career. All of these differences can begin to add up unless you choose to find common ground—shared beliefs or social causes, a shared past or simply your mutual respect for each other.
Be authentic. Always.
In our teens and early twenties, labels get thrown around like red solo cups at a frat party. Athlete. Nerd. Slut. Christian. Hippie. Fortunately, as we move into our later twenties and thirties, our lives become a melting pot of complications and divergent obligations and as we begin to realize that we cannot—and should not—fit into neatly packaged, labeled boxes of preconceived stereotypes.
As this happens, authenticity becomes more important than ever to being a good friend (not to mention personal happiness, as well), since it is impossible to have a real relationship if one or both people are pretending to be something they aren’t.
Vulnerability is uncomfortable. There is no way around it. But to be authentic, you must also let your guard down and let yourself be vulnerable. Although vulnerability creates the possibility of disappointment, vulnerability also breeds intimacy and opens our hearts up to infinite goodness.
Become friends with your family
As they say, friends are the family we choose for ourselves. But family can also be the friends that we choose for ourselves. After all, they’re always going to be related to you, so you might as well find ways enjoy the time you’ll spend together.
Let go of any sibling rivalry. Get over the fact that Mom and Dad might have gone to your sister’s volleyball games more often than your drama club meetings. Stop being jealous that your brother got into an Ivy League school. You just might find a really good friend somewhere in there.
Focus on what you can bring to the friendship, rather than what you are getting from the friendship
Whether it is humor, a shoulder to cry on, a bottle of wine or solid advice, focus on what you can bring to the friendship, rather than what you can take from it.
Even though we might be more mature, responsible and levelheaded, it is important to remember that we are all still human, each with our own flaws and shortcomings. Friends will disappoint you and let you down. And, at some point, you will probably disappoint others. Forgive them. Forgive yourself.
Get out there
Making new friends is a lot like dating—you just have to get out there. Introduce yourself. Endure awkward first conversations. Struggle through that awkward getting-to-know-you process. Most friendships aren’t just going to drop into your lap—you sometimes need to proactively look for friends.
Know when to let go of a friendship
This doesn’t mean that you need to “break up” or stop communicating, but it is important to know when a friendship has run its course and is no longer worth the personal investment so you can focus your time on the ones that are worth it.
Let go of the past
You are not the person you were in your teens and early twenties, and neither are some of your old friends and acquaintances. Understand that people can change. An acquaintance that you may have had nothing in common with while you were in college together may now be a potential friend due to new interests and maturation. Keep an open mind and let go of the past.
Put in the time
Like all relationships, friendships take time and energy. As a result, the quantity of friendships might need to decrease in order to maintain quality friendships.
Find your communication tool
Communication methods differ for different friendships, so it is important to find the optimal communication tool for each of your friends. With some friends, it might be frequent emails. With another friend, it might be less-frequent, but longer, telephone conversations.
Whatever the method, just find the communication tool that works for the relationship and keep at it.
Do good together
Whether it is volunteering for the church fundraiser or serving a meal at the local homeless shelter, few things can cement a friendship like doing good together.
Practice intentional hospitality
Open your home. Open your heart. Open your mind.
Fortunately, Facebook makes it easy to keep track of friends’ birthdays. But it is nice to celebrate more than the Facebook birthday. Pick up the phone and call your friend on his birthday. Send a card. Make lopsided cupcakes. Just do something that makes your friend feel extra special.
Don’t let online friendships replace real-life friendships
Sure, it is easier and more convenient to email or text, but there is not replacement for in-person, face-to-face communication. We live in a Facebook-ready, photoshopped, Instagram world, and we run the risk of using status updates and 140-character sound bytes as our primary means of communication.
While technology certainly makes it easier for us to keep in touch on a regular basis and might be the appropriate communication tool most of the time, personal communication is essential. Pick up the phone. Meet for coffee. Write a letter. Hug, laugh and cry together. Be there for each other. Not just in virtual way, but in a real-life way.
Christine Organ is a writer in the Chicago area, where she lives with her husband, two sons and two dogs. She writes at christineorgan.com about seeking grace in the everyday and she is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post. She is currently working on her second manuscript (tentatively titled "Grace, Wonder, and Everyday Miracles") while she searches for a publishing home for her first book (a memoir about her spiritual journey).