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Making Friends in a New Town Has Never Felt So Exhausting

Thursday, June 23, 2022

By Cate Stern

Before our family moved to Charlotte, the thought of whether we’d like it — and whether we’d make friends and settle into new relationships — never crossed my mind. Developed over several years of taking our kids to parks, sharing weekly meals, and spending nights out together, my friend group in my last home was dynamic and strong.

Nearly three years have passed since our relocation, and I admit I am struggling — not to meet new people or to “get involved,” but to build a group of good friends. (I also find myself wondering: is everyone playing tennis without me? The answer is probably yes.)

Organizational psychologist Adam Grant has said that “On average, it takes 50 hours of interaction to go from acquaintance to friend and 200 hours to get to close friend.”

But are these face-to-face hours? Do interactions on the PTA count? What about all these events I’m attending — when they’re not canceled? What does the data say about side-line chitchat at my kids’ sporting events? I haven’t kept a log of my friendship R&D hours, but it sure feels as though I’ve exerted a massive effort with mixed results so far.

I’ve joined the Parents’ Association at my kids’ school and a local organization that supports the city’s major museum; I’ve suggested and planned playdates and dinners and drinks and coffees and exercise classes and many walks; and I even went so far as to attend a charity auction by myself, while eight months pregnant. Surely, one should not have to work so hard for friendship.

I don’t remember it ever feeling so exhausting. I didn’t participate in Greek Life, but sometimes I wonder if what I’m experiencing is less like dating — the usual metaphor applied to friend-making — and more akin to rushing a sorority.

Sometimes I wonder if what I’m experiencing is less like dating — the usual metaphor applied to friend-making — and more akin to rushing a sorority.

Scrolling through social media, my acquaintances seem to be playing a lot of tennis and also attending very stylish and fun fortieth birthday parties. Who, I wonder, will come to my 40th birthday party? I have just under two years to figure it out.

Our early twenties are friendship development’s primetime, which is followed by its nadir in our thirties through our fifties. For me, it comes down to this: “We should get dinner.” Replace dinner with lunch or coffee and it still works. This is what I hear all the time. This is what I say a lot. And I mean it when I do, but realistically I know I’m not getting dinner, lunch, or coffee with every person who makes the overture.

The biggest barrier is time. Work schedules, exercise classes, school commitments, religious and volunteer obligations, and extracurricular activities for the kid. Throw in an aging parent and one could be forgiven for dropping the ball on their friends.

Of course, there’s also a pandemic to navigate. Are we dining indoors? Outdoors? Are we eating anything at all? Will babysitters watch the kids? Or maybe one of our children becomes ill or has a bad day. So many schedules and health statuses must align for a gathering to get off the ground.

A recent group text of mine illustrates the point: Three families trying to plan dinner in January ended up considering a date in March. And then there’s the question of why bother with friends if you have a built-in best friend in your spouse? In The All-Or-Nothing Marriage, psychologist Eli Finkel describes how Americans prioritize marriage to the extreme, which “blinds us to how important other types of relationships are.”

I’ve been told that Charlotte can be tough — it’s hard to establish oneself in the existing social fabric. Maybe I’m focusing too much on that and not enough on the wonderful recent transplants around me. In Big Friendship, Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman suggest that seeking friendship with those who are also seeking something works better than trying in insert oneself into “an existing tight-knit group or onto the calendar of someone with long-established social ties in the area.”

I miss consistent dinners with close friends, a language built on inside jokes, the joy and comfort of shared experiences. I’ve directly benefited from the help a network of good friends brings: carpool for the kids, an extra set of hands planning a party, a sounding board for new ideas. I know what it’s like to have close friends step in when disaster strikes.

As Zen master and spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “Friends can comfort us and help us in difficult times, and they can share our joy and happiness.” This hits home more than ever as my mom navigates life after losing my dad this summer. A friend and former neighbor of my mom’s stayed with her for weeks after my dad passed, helping her organize her home and providing companionship.

I miss consistent dinners with close friends, a language built on inside jokes, the joy and comfort of shared experiences.

A concept that arises repeatedly in friendship literature is the benefit of being seen for one’s whole and authentic self. Author Amanda Fairbanks captured this sentiment in a recent Instagram post: “One of the lessons I’ve learned from Covid is that you really just need a handful of like-minded souls in your orbit — the ones who see you, who get you, and with whom you can share the truth of what’s actually going on in your life.”

A friend recently told me that in her new town in Connecticut, she started golfing and playing pickleball like everyone else, even though it felt antithetical to her former existence as an urbanite. But now she enjoys it.

Another friend praised the large mom’s group in her new town in Virginia for helping her make friends. But she lamented the difficulties she encountered in making “couple friends,” saying that “so many husbands avoid the steps required to build community.”

Yet one more friend, who recently relocated from New York to North Carolina, told me that he’s happy to be proactive and commit the effort to making friends, but that such displays of interest in friendship can be met with disdain — one can’t appear too eager.

Friendships can be complicated, but they are essential: they help us live longer and they create a space where we can share our joys and sorrows. To develop these bonds, we need not just hours, but also joint activities, face-to-face interaction, and specific types of communication. Namely, jokes and self-disclosure.

But there are days I fear I’ve missed the boat on deeper friendship in my new city. I recently found myself rattling off an exit plan to my husband. “We should move back where we have established relationships. Who here is going to help if something happens to us?” I asked. Maybe I was really asking this: Who here will see and accept the whole me? Where do I belong? And then the next day a new friend who had heard we were in isolation left a few bags of groceries and games for the kids on our porch.

This simple act later compelled me to buy bagels for someone facing their own health issues. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, “To create a good community, we first have to transform ourselves into a good element of the community.” I’m heartened to say that it’s never too late to try again — even if it will be considerably harder than before, even if that means restringing my racquet and heading to the courts. It’s worth it.


Cate Stern is an attorney and mother of three in Charlotte, North Carolina. Her writing has appeared on the blogs Motherhood Untitled and Not Safe For Mom Group. She is currently working on her first novel.