Why can’t we be friends?

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If you can count your friends on one hand, you may have more true friends than most people. Surprised? Many of us overestimate friendships, counting acquaintances or casual connections as within our inner circle. By embracing a more realistic understanding of intimacy, we would see that we can only be committed to five relationships. So says a recent study about friendship that also confirms what other studies have discovered: only about 50 percent of friendships are mutual. Yes, that means half the people we identify as friends don’t share our opinion: They don’t think of us as a friend.

Researchers say that the problem is egocentrism—we believe that if we like someone, they like us, too. After all, we’re told in childhood that if we’re nice to someone, they will like us. But being pleasant doesn’t guarantee people will think of us as a friend, and being agreeable doesn’t forge deep connections.

What if I’m friendless?

As a life coach for teens, I hear from parents who worry their daughter or son has no friends. But often parents don’t enjoy genuine friendships, either. So where does a teen learn how to like, care and share intimately with another person if that behavior is not modeled at home or taught in school? When do teens have time to invest in friendships when they’re in school full-time and spend the rest of the day and most weekends completing homework or engaged in activities intended to score a spot at the college of their choice?

Use it or lose it

Medical experts say if we only engage in shallow, nonreciprocal friendships, our brain loses its capacity for intimate, supportive and reciprocal relationships. We’re no longer wired to connect with others, so even when we have opportunities to do so, we can’t engage. To grow into our authentic selves, we need five people with whom we can connect deeply, two of whom we interact with daily. For most adults that soul circle begins with a partner and a best friend. In addition, we may have a work colleague plus two other pals with whom we share feelings. A few people may find they have time and a greater capacity for emotional intimacy than the average person. And some of us have friends we don’t see daily but with whom we are like kin, immersed in a breadth of understanding about each other born of our long, shared history. The test of authenticity is a consistent emotional connection that gives us the capacity to be understood and to understand. Authentic friendships are deep and sometimes messy because we drop our defenses and are seen and understood as we are. And we reciprocate.

Friendship check-up

So ask yourself: Who makes time for you? Not just when you are hanging by a thread, but to hang out? Who would miss you if you were gone? Who would you miss? Who humbles you? Who enriches your life but also calls you out on your sh*t and doesn’t let you weasel out of changing for the better? If you yearn for that depth of connection, cultivate true friendship in yourself. Be authentic, vulnerable, reliable, understanding and honest and attract what you most desire.