7 Ways to Increase Personal Satisfaction in Your Adult Friendships

This guest post is by Tara E. Nusz , D.Ed., a school psychologist who blogs at Do These Kids Make Me Look Crazy?.

This morning my daughter told me that her best friend is a girl named Sarah. When I asked her why Sarah is her best friend, she answered, “Because we both have the same sneakers!”

I should probably mention that my daughter and her “best friend” are five years old.

image by lucasbite

They haven’t yet developed unrealistic expectations about interpersonal relationships. They’ve never defined themselves by whether their mother-in-law likes them, or how many positive reviews they’ve received from a supervisor, or whether all 306 of their Facebook friends acknowledged their birthday.

Once I exited my school years, I quickly realized that developing friendships as an adult is entirely different from fostering friendships in a high school or college setting.

As an adult, the opportunity to become acquainted with others is more limited. Sure, you might meet some interesting people in your work environment, but you’re also hampered by the need to meet deadlines, navigate professional alliances, and maintain professionalism.

Our interactions with others tend to be fraught with purpose; serving on the same committee at church, working together on a new project, or supervising a new employee.

And when we are lucky enough to form a friendship with another adult, sometimes it may feel as though this new relationship is not as emotionally satisfying as those from our childhood. Why is that? What can we do to increase our personal satisfaction with our adult friendships?

1. Recognize the positives in others and spend time with them in environments that allow them to shine.

Think of about some of your friends. What are some traits about them that you adore? My friend Rick tells hysterical stories at parties. Kathryn is a supportive friend, particularly when times are emotionally hard. Lisa is my only friend who will honestly tell me which clothes flatter my figure when we go shopping together.

Those are fantastic qualities. But expecting these positive traits to transcend environments and circumstances is unrealistic. While Rick may be a fantastic storyteller, he also tends to be a poor listener in a one-on-one conversation. So instead of being disappointed when I try to tell him about my rough week at work and he tunes me out, I stopped pouring my heart out to him.

Kathryn is very supportive, but tends to fade into the woodwork while in a group. Instead of being embarrassed by her lack of charisma when I attempt to introduce her to new friends, I try to set aside time for just the two of us.

Lisa is a fantastic shopping buddy, but her boisterous personality can be a little overwhelming when we spend more than two or three hours together. Therefore, we continue to enjoy shopping, but I decided not to invite her on an annual camping trip.

It’s not fair to expect all friends to be appealing in all circumstances. You’ll both just walk away disappointed. Instead, take time to notice the types of situations in which you most enjoy spending time with that friend, and plan accordingly.

2. Recognize that not every friendship is necessarily for the long term.

When I was completing my internship in school psychology, I quickly bonded with another intern who was sharing the same supervisor. Our supervisor was somewhat limited in his ability to mentor us, so we spent an inordinate amount of time searching for answers to our most pressing questions, critiquing each others’ work, and most importantly, venting about the day-to-day emotional burdens that result from working in the mental health field. Honestly, I’m not sure I would be the school psychologist I am today without her wisdom, quick wit, and calm demeanor.

But once our internships concluded, our friendship waned. Not from ill will or a lack of appreciation for one another. It was just time for us to move onto the next chapter of our lives, and finding time for one another in our busy schedules became less of a priority.

It’s important to recognize that friendships come and go based on our specific social or emotional needs at a particular point in our life. Consider these friendships to be blessings, albeit temporary, rather than relationship failures.

3. Establish equilibrium between give and take.

There have been numerous evenings during which I’ve sat with the phone pressed against my ear, listening to a friend pontificate about their latest woe. Maybe their job is stressful, their most recent love interest is unworthy, or their finances are in dire straights . . . again. While true friends don’t jump ship at the first sign of trouble, it’s also important to be choose friends who are contributing something to the relationship.

Situational stressors aside, does the friend on the other end of the phone ever ask how you are doing? Does he/she listen when you answer? Do they follow up with questions or comments about topics in which you’ve expressed an interest? If not, it may be time to invest in a friendship that is also emotionally satisfying for you.

4. Avoid drama.

All of us have had that friend . . . the dramatic one. The one who always seems to cause chaos in the group. The one who requires more attention than the others. The one who is quick to get angry/show jealousy/be competitive. The one who always makes you feel a bit stressed, rather than pleased, to see him or her.

If you find that you have a friend who makes you feel exhausted rather than animated, you may want to consider whether you have the time and emotional energy to exert on such a friendship. Your adult lifestyle, with its added demands of career and family, may not be conducive to maintaining a friendship that is fraught with turmoil. You may find yourself to be more content to spend time with friends who relieve your stress, rather than contribute to it.

5. Set boundaries.

Now that I have a spouse and children, the time I spend with my friends is even more treasured. It’s an escape; time to converse with a grown-up, time to eat without having to cut up a little person’s meat, time to speak frankly without the presence of an impressionable youth. But ultimately, the vast amount of my physical and emotional energy extends to my family. And as much as I love my friends, they are not members of my family. They shouldn’t expect me to drop everything to have a lengthy chat about mundane events, drive across town and show up unannounced for dinner, or weigh in on family matters.

It’s important to make time for your friends; after all, to have a friend you must be a friend. But consider setting boundaries; let a call go to voice mail if you’re busy with a family activity, make a point to extend invitations only to appropriate events, and restrain yourself from discussing topics which might encourage him/her to offer their unsolicited advice. Friendship is something that should enhance your life, not burden that of your family’s.

6. Recognize that your spouse doesn’t have to like your friends.

I have a friend who is funny, loving, boisterous, and harbors a complete lack of inhibitions. She’s the reason for which the phrase “too much information” was coined. I laugh harder with her than I do with nearly anyone else. But my husband finds her voice grating and her jokes tasteless. While this used to cause me no end of angst (how could the love of my life not appreciate such a loyal and vibrant personality?), I’ve come to accept the reality that it’s unlikely that my spouse is always going to appreciate the same qualities in a friend that I do.

Solution: we leave the dud, I mean, dad, at home and make time to get together at our favorite restaurant once a month. We get to share a bottle of wine and laugh without regard for others and he’s content to have the house to himself for the evening. Win-win.

7. Allow your friends to meet a need your spouse or family cannot.

Prior to the birth of my first child, I met another expectant parent while sitting in the waiting room at our doctor’s office. Our friendship quickly blossomed due to our common condition and we spent hours mulling over baby products, perusing baby name books, and comparing notes about pediatricians. She was a fantastic outlet for all of my baby-related obsessions. I suspect that without her, my husband would have been driven insane by my new-parent fretting. To this day, we both tend to gravitate toward one another whenever our children are about to conquer a new milestone.

Recognizing the importance of developing friendships that meet a particular emotional need is extremely valuable, particularly when your spouse or family members are unable to meet that need. For example, you may have a friend who motivates you to train for a marathon, accompanies you to your favorite horror films, or attends a self-improvement group. It’s important to value yourself enough to find a way to meet your needs, rather than overlooking them due to your partner’s inability to empathize or share a common interest.

I’d love to hear about your overall satisfaction with your adult relationships . . . what makes them work? How do they differ from friendships from your childhood?

Tara E. Nusz , D.Ed., is a school psychologist who works in a public school outside of Charlotte, NC. She also blogs at Do These Kids Make Me Look Crazy?. Although Tara has to be very serious-minded at work, her blog completely disregards this in favor of “finding the funny” in her roles as mother, wife, and friend.

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  1. Well done Tara! Another distinction that may help (it helped me) the FeelGooderFollowers is this: People come into our lives for a reason and serve a purpose. Sometimes they serve a long-term purpose and remain with us till the end, and some show up just to teach us a valuable lesson.

    If you find someone no longer adds value to your life, it’s ok to say “goodbye” and put some distance between you and them. If someone is a crazy-maker, causing drama, adding stress, and draining you of your vital energy, maybe it’s time to “put them on the outside”?

    The point is – you don’t have to be a martyr and suffer a bad relationship. It’s ok to say, “Thank you for the life-lesson, but it’s time for me to go away now”.

  2. Jen Mildenberger says:

    Great article Tara. It is so true that not all friends are alike and that as an adult that having different kinds of friends is very important to our well-being and keeping us rounded as individuals.  I also agree that there are some people that can be “toxic” and that those must be removed from a circle of friends as it can do more harm than good in the long run.

    I checked out your blog and I laughed out loud when reading some of your posts…..I really liked the one called “Sometimes When I Stare At Stuff Long Enough I Can Forget What It Is I’m Looking At” as I know that potty training can be a very long and difficult time in parenting!

    Keep up the great work!!

  3. This is a really, really great article–I’ve often considered the different dynamics of my many friendships–those few childhood friends who have turned into adult friends, my “college” and “post college” crowd, my couple friends with my husband, and my “mommy” friends. I have friends who are ex-co-workers and friendships that spawned from working relationships–for example, my former babysitter is now a good friend who I lunch with every couple months.

    I agree the first commentor that people come into your lives for a reason. Just recently, an old co-worker in the vet field helped me make some important decisions about my dog by going out of her way to help me (she’s a vet tech.) We haven’t been close for years, though we maintain a friendship through Christmas cards and the occassional facebook message. Without her, I would still be treating a non-existant problem and continue being ignorant to the real problem my dog is suffering from. Among all the other things she’s done for me in the past, this will probably stick out as the most meaningful.

    (Side note: after reading this I went to “Do These Kids Make Me Look Crazy”…funny stuff!!

  4. Very insightful article! I particularly like point #2. I think we can sometimes overstretch ourselves by trying to maintain strong friendships from the past instead of just accepting that it’s OK to let go. I find particularly that now that I’m a mom, my social circles are more and more shaped by who my kids are friends with (I want to get to know the parents of their friends, and hence friendships have formed from that). Also I tend to have more in common now with other moms, vs. some of my single or childless college friends, so some of those close college friendships have faded.

  5. Like!

    These are things some of us (like me) have to take many years to learn.

    I’ve also discovered that the more I focus on what I can do for my friends, rather than what they can do for me, the happier those friendships make me feel. #3 still applies – “takers” should be pruned – but taking expectations out of the equation makes my friendships so much better.

    Thanks for putting these great points in one place, Tara.

  6. This really made me stop and think about the friendships in my life and I think will help me become a better friend and not expect so much out of those friends who just aren’t up for the challenge.

    I also read some of your dothesekidsmakemelookcrazy.com blog and I think I’d like you as a “motherhood” friend. For now I’ll just pretend in the virtual world!

  7. Your insight is incredible. What a great article! It amazes me how well you put into words both in this article and in so many of your posts on “Do These Kids Make Me Look Crazy” the realties that are our lives and how we really do manage to ‘function’ through them – whether it be a difficult friendship or challenging child at the library!
    Superb! Thank you for this!!

  8. Great article! I too have found myself contemplating the unique differences of adult friendships versus childhood friendships – especially when I’m blessed to count some childhood friends among my current adult friendships. And I feel like some of these tips will help me maintain those relationships as well as build appropriate new ones.

    And your regular blog is in my permanent favorites list – some of those posts made me laught until I cried. Thanks for sharing your life with us strangers!

  9. I totally agree with number 4. Having seen personally what a friend that always brings drama to the table can do to a person I would avoid them like the plague. Drama can really bring a person down emotionally and it takes its toll on the entire family when that happens. I love your sense of humor on your blog. Awesome read, especially for mothers.

  10. Great post, and really quite a few thought-provoking suggestions. Reading some of these, I can see how many of my current friendships can be improved, and why some of the ones I’ve treasured for decades have lasted. And others haven’t!

    Thanks for sharing. Well said. (and now I’ll go back to your regular blog – which I love for entirely different types of information!).

  11. Great Post Tara…love the last point…a void thats present in ur life can be filled by a friend..fantastic read..
    went and checked our regular blog…funny stuff…u r such a good writer…love the sarcastic tone!!! keep it going and ur blog is definitely going into my reader 🙂

  12. I’m so glad that you found the article to be interesting and helpful. And I’m flattered that you checked out my blog! Thank you for your support!

  13. This is an amazing post. After I entered my twenties and moved across the world with my boyfriend, I realized this very same thing. Making friends as an adult is much more difficult. This is especially true when you move somewhere and everyone there has been raised together and have known each other since childhood. It can be hard to feel like you’re welcomed.

  14. This article has great advice that is very practical for today’s times!
    I think, as the author pointed out, that we need to treat our adult friendships with different expectations than our childhood ones.
    Also, I read somewhere that every 7 years we could benefit from new friends- sometimes we need friends for certain parts of our lives or pieces of us.
    Anyway, that’s my two cents!

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  16. Like! thank you for reminding me the facts.

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