How to Have Closer Friendships (and Why You Need Them)

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Like so many people, I grew up watching the TV show “Friends,” dreaming of the day I would be living a glamorous city life surrounded by a group of close friends. Over the years, I’ve made lots of friends: childhood friends, work friends, college friends, writer friends. I have friends who like to hike, and friends who like to chat over coffee and friends who live far away but whom I talk to a few times a year.

But close friends? “Friends” level friends? The “I can tell you anything and count on you always” kind of friends? Not so much. A childhood friend and I had a falling-out, never to be repaired. Another close friend moved away.

In groups of adults, you often hear some form of this complaint: It’s hard to make friends as an adult. And if, for whatever reason, you don’t stay connected to your childhood or college friends, you can end up in your 30s (or 40s, or 50s) knowing a lot of people, but being close to very few of them.

Do we even need close friendships?

When you’re overworked and overwhelmed, the motivation to have dinner with a friend versus turning on Netflix and eating pizza with your spouse can be hard to summon. But the research is clear: Close friendships are necessary for optimal health and well-being.

“We are social and communal creatures,” said Serena Chen, a social psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. “When we are intimate with another person, we can experience positive mental and physical reactions in our body, mind and heart.”

Dr. Amir Levine, a psychiatrist and a neuroscientist and the author of “Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find and Keep Love,” has studied humans and animals as a way to understand human bonding. “Social connections are the most powerful way for us to regulate our emotional distress,” Dr. Levine said. “If you are in distress, being in proximity to someone you’re securely attached to is the most effective way to calm yourself.”

What exactly does closeness mean?

If you look to popular culture to understand close friendship, you’ll be left with a few common tropes: the friend who will take a bullet for you; the friend you can call in the middle of the night and they’ll be there for you, no matter the inconvenience; the friend with whom you can share anything.

True close friendship (unsurprisingly) does not need to be quite as extreme. “A key to close friendship is intimacy, and a big part of intimacy is being able to be fully yourself and be seen and understood by others,” Dr. Chen said. “When people close to us don’t ‘get’ us, it’s undermining to intimacy.”

Reciprocation is also a key element to creating intimacy. Dr. Chen explained why all the people you know on Facebook or Instagram don’t necessarily count as close friends: “When we post something on Facebook and people give us affirmation in the way of nice comments or encouragement, that feels good, but it doesn’t necessarily create intimacy because there’s no give and take.” A big part of intimacy is that both people feel they are seen and understood by the other person.

If being close to others is so beneficial, shouldn’t it come naturally?

If close friendships really are vital to human well-being, it would seem that we would be intuitively skilled at making them. But it turns out that the opposite may be true: Close friendships are so important to us because they are so difficult to form.

According to John Cacioppo, a social neuroscientist who specialized in the study of loneliness (he died in 2018), humans would have evolved a built-in bias against easily making friends because avoiding an enemy would have been more important than making a friend. “If I make an error and detect a person as a foe who turns out to be a friend, that’s O.K., I don’t make the friend as fast, but I survive,” Mr. Capiocco said in a 2017 interview in The Atlantic. “But if I mistakenly detect someone as a friend when they’re a foe, that can cost me my life. Over evolution, we’ve been shaped to have this bias.”

In the modern world, that tension is more nuanced. “There is a longstanding debate in the sociology community about what humans want more: to be admired or known,” Ms. Chen said. She explained that admiration came with a lot of perks: It feels good, it has social benefits, there may be status and even financial gains to be had. But being admired and seen in ways that don’t line up with how we actually see ourselves — perhaps not as confident and successful as others think we are — can come at the cost of feeling understood by and close to others.

Culturally we are also more focused on career success, financial accomplishments and family milestones than we are on connection with others. Sue Johnson, one of the leading psychologists in the fields of bonding, attachment and romantic relationships, and the founder of the International Center for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy, pointed out that when someone lists his or her life goals (or even New Year’s resolutions), rarely does making close friends or getting closer to existing friends get mentioned.

“When it comes to friendship, we put quantity over quality, so it becomes a question of how many people will show up to your birthday party,” she said. “The real question is if you can open up and be vulnerable with a few of these folks. Are you willing to tune in emotionally and respond if they reach for you?”

5 ways to make your friendships closer

If you want closer friendships, the first step is to decide you’re going to do something about it. “We think about relationships as things that happen to us, but the truth is that we make them happen,” Dr. Johnson said. Getting closer to your existing friends requires making the time and being intentional.

Once you have determined to work on your friendships, here are five techniques to try.

1. Create a foundation of security (hint: Answer that text)

Before we can attempt closeness, we need to have security. Through his research, Dr. Levine has identified the five foundational elements of secure relationships, which he refers to as CARRP.

  • Consistency (Do these friends drift in and out of my life on a whim?)

  • Availability (How available are they to spend time together?)

  • Reliability (Can I count on them if I need something?)

  • Responsiveness (Do they reply to my emails and texts? Do I hear from them on a consistent basis?)

  • Predictability (Can I count on them to act in a certain way?)

Once these five elements are in place, it can pave the way to a deeper connection. “From an attachment perspective, once we feel safe, we can start being more adventurous and playful, which helps us at work, raising our kids, in every aspect of our lives,” Dr. Levine said.

That doesn’t mean that you have to respond to texts within the hour, but it does mean that you need to create a baseline of responsiveness and availability so your friends feel secure in your friendship. Likewise, if you have friends who are flaky, unresponsive or unreliable, it will serve you to try to see if they can become more CARRP and if not, look to other people for close friendship.

“We often tell ourselves that we shouldn’t care if somebody cancels plans or we can’t count on them, that we should be more laid back and stop being so needy, but that’s the same as fighting against biology,” Dr. Levine said.

2. Pay close attention

The next step of creating close friendships is to just open your eyes. Humans have a unique ability to read emotions by mimicking subtle facial expressions.

“Intimacy starts with attention and attunement,” Dr. Johnson said. “When you look at somebody with your full attention, your face muscles start to mirror their facial muscles within milliseconds. If you aren’t giving them your full attention, you can miss it completely.”

This mimicry helps us empathize with the emotional experiences of the other person. The next time you’re with a friend who is sharing something about his or her life, Dr. Johnson suggested that you look that person in the face and give your full attention. This will create a psychological sense of connection. “As bonding mammals built for connection, this makes our nervous systems hum,” she said.

3. Let yourself be known

If you want to be seen for who you are, you have to be willing to stop pretending to be somebody cooler or smarter than you are. Admit that you binge watch “Honey Boo-Boo,” are jealous of other people’s accomplishments or don’t always brush your teeth before bed. Make that goofy joke. Share that less-than-flattering detail.

“You have to try to help people understand and accept you, which conversely means you have to understand and accept yourself enough that you believe you can make somebody else’s life brighter just by being in it,” said Donald Miller, author of “Scary Close: Dropping the Act and Finding True Intimacy.”

In his 40s, Mr. Miller said, he had a successful career as an author and public speaker and an audience that adored him, but lived without true intimacy in his life. Determined to connect with others, he learned that the only way to get the intimacy he was searching for was to start being more honest about who he was.

Helping people understand and accept you may sound intimidating, but getting started is easier than you think. Dr. Levine suggests that the next time you’re with a friend, start diverting the conversation into exposing more vulnerability. When your friend responds in a way that feels supportive, give positive feedback by saying how helpful that was, or what a good perspective your friend has on your situation.

4. Take your friends on a test drive

Most of us would consider a close friend somebody we could call in a pinch. But if you, like me, have a romantic partner or live close to family, you might rarely find yourself in a pinch that requires a friend. I recently had to undergo a minor medical procedure and my husband wasn’t able to go with me. “Why don’t you call one of your friends?” he asked me the night before, naming a couple of friends who might be available. I didn’t have a good answer. Sure, these were pretty good friends, but were we medical-procedure close?

When I posed this situation to Dr. Levine, his suggestion was simple: Take them for a test drive. “Ask for help even when you don’t need it so that when you truly need them, you’ll feel more comfortable reaching out and you’ll have a better sense of how they will respond.”

He suggested that the next time I had an issue — a tricky work situation or I needed help coordinating a birthday dinner — I should go out of my way to lean on a friend. Not only is this a low-risk way of testing how reliable a friend is, it also builds closeness. “When we give someone a chance to show up for us, we pose an opportunity for greater bonding and closeness,” Dr. Levine said.

5. Accept that closeness isn’t one-size-fits-all

I asked the same question of everyone I interviewed for this article: How much closeness do we need? Each person gave a different answer, each of which boiled down to this: It’s not that simple.

Dr. Chen said that it varied from person to person; some of us need dozens of connections, some of us need only two or three connections, but we all need some closeness to others. Dr. Johnson emphasized that building intimate connection in our love relationships is even more essential than building it in our friendships. Mr. Miller said that it had to be the right people. Dr. Levine mentioned that being able to confide in somebody or call in an emergency is only one type of closeness, and not necessarily the only important kind.

What all of the experts agreed on was this: Intimacy with other people — whether it’s a spouse, a family member or a friend — is one of the most profound ways to be happier, healthier and calmer. As Dr. Levine said, “It’s so potent that it will work much better than any Xanax out there.”