Why It’s Harder to Make Friends As an Adult (and What the Proximity Principle Has to Say About It)

When 200 adults talk about friendship, magic happens.

We’ll get into what I mean by that, but first you’ll need a little background. 

Roughly two years ago, I recruited 200 people to participate in in-depth, two-hour interviews.

Also, important to note: These are what’s called qualitative interviews.

“Qualitative,” in this case, means that when I go into the interviews, I don’t have a pre-selected hypothesis I am trying to prove. In fact, I purposefully try not to bring in my own pre-conceived ideas. Rather, I ask open-ended questions. Then I sit back and try to learn what other people think is important about friendship and social life.

And, holy smokes, is there a lot to learn.

To help you see how insights are uncovered, let’s use a real example I referenced last week.

Typically, a single person starts the discovery process by making a relatively casual, insignificant comment about their own experiences. Something like, “I don’t know why, but when I got to adulthood, my social life just got way more difficult.”

Since the interview is being audio-recorded, this person’s comment is noted. But that doesn’t mean I, as a researcher, recognize its importance right away.

Possible insight: Friendships made in adulthood don’t come as easily?

But then comes person 2 and person 4 and person 5, 6, and 7.

  • “I think, once I moved away from home, friendships got more challenging.”
  • “When I began working, my friendships took a back seat.”
  • “With everything else on my plate, it’s hard to put a lot of time into socializing.”

Through the course of the later interviews, many, many people make similar remarks…without knowing what Person 1 said.

That’s when the researcher realizes they’ve struck gold. 


Research is a very nerdy thing.

While these interviews sometimes uncover brand new learnings about, say, friendship in adulthood, they also prompt me to dig into the work of researchers gone before me. I want to know what other people have discovered about each theme, how their work relates to mine, and what gaps in the research are still left to explore.

In this case, a social psychologist from the 1960’s sheds some light on the social challenges adults face.

His name was Theodore Newcomb and he made this simple, but important observation:

People who live close to each other, and who interact regularly, are more likely to develop a friendship.

People who live close to each other, and who interact regularly, are more likely to develop a friendship.

Newcomb’s observations make sense, right? People, inevitably, start to prefer “the familiar” over time. People you see repeatedly start to seem understandable, safe, and yes–even likeable–as you interact with them over time.

And, it’s easy to see why we are most likely to begin relationships with those we come in contact with most often. Who are you most likely to go to a local antique sale with? A cousin who lives in another state, a former college roommate three cities over, or the person who works in the cubicle next to you every single day?

People you see repeatedly start to seem understandable, safe, and yes--even likeable--as you interact with them over time. Click To Tweet

Newcomb’s work was validated by many other researchers, including psychologist Leon Festinger. 

Festinger worked with two research partners, Back and Schachter, to study how people living in a housing complex interacted with each other. By observing and interviewing residents, they were able to track how people interacted within the complex. For example, the researchers recorded when residents bumped into each other in common spaces like the mailroom or even in the stairwell. And they found that people who frequently crossed paths in these relatively mundane places often developed friendship.

Proximity was determined to be a key factor in the formation of friendships and friend groups.

In fact, the more times people bumped into each other on a daily basis, the more their chances of becoming friends went up.

In fact, the more times people bumped into each other on a daily basis, the more their chances of becoming friends went up. At  the study’s conclusion, researchers noted the residents had made 10 times as many friendships inside their building complex than they did in the outside world.

So how do these findings circle back to the topic of adult friendships being more difficult than childhood ones?

Well, let’s think about our adult schedules compared to our childhood routines.

As a child, you probably didn’t need to take much initiative to find potential playmates. After all, your parents (or the school bus) dropped you off at school every single day. And while you were there, you spent 7 hours a day surrounded by a group of same-aged peers that, by design, provided daily opportunities for social interaction. You played kickball in gym class, freeze tag on recess, blew bubbles in your milk at lunch, sang in choir, created things in art…all right alongside the same group of people, day after day after day.

This constant contact gave you proximity--one of the ingredients most needed to form friendship. And you didn’t have to be very intentional about it at all!

But, as an adult, our schedules often play out very differently, right? While some of us interact with others at work, we don’t always see the same people day after day and we don’t always see them for the long periods of time that were possible in childhood.

If you’re a cashier at a grocery store, for instance, you might see people all day long, but not talk to any of them for more than 60 seconds at a time. Of course, over time, you may see certain regular customers enough that they become familiar, but their interactions with you are still very limited. You might see the regular customer across the way as they go through another clerk’s check out line and nod a friendly hello. Eventually, this sort of interaction can of course result in friendship, but the constant influx of new people and limited interaction time don’t make friendship as likely.

As adults, we of course, also have more demands being made on us. So, even if you’d like to hang out with people as frequently and as long as you used to, that’s not always practical. In high school, for instance, you may have interacted with the same group of 10 teammates at basketball practice or games for three to four hours every single day. Now, between work and spending time with your significant other or shuttling your kids to piano lessons, however, you may only hang out with social acquaintances once a month or once every other weekend. Life gives you far less opportunities for proximity–i.e. to be in the same place together, repeatedly. And you have to work harder to make it happen. So naturally, friendships might be less likely to develop or may develop more slowly if they do.

What about you? How do you see the proximity principle in your own experiences, as a child or as an adult? Do these researchers’ findings make sense to you? Would love to hear how these ideas connected with you in the comments below or via social media.

Also, if you find insights like these as fascinating as I do, keep in mind I’ll be exploring hundreds of similar social takeaways in the coming months. Along the way, I’ve learned some rich, worthwhile things about friendship that I wish I’d known earlier in life. And my guess is some of them will be interesting and perhaps useful to you too.

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  • comment-avatar
    Stephen March 14, 2018 (8:07 am)

    For years I’ve seen adult individuals and couples searching for the same quality of friendships of their youth or college years with very little success. I’ve tried to explain why their schedules, responsibilities make the friendship of our early years much more difficult. A couple of questions to consider: (1) can I be content with a different type of friendship (not necessarily better or worse, just different)?, and (2) am I willing to put in much more effort to achieve this “adult” friendship? Thanks for bringing insight and research to light in a day when so many people are agonizingly lonely, due to either reality OR their their expectations.

    • comment-avatar
      Sara March 15, 2018 (10:02 pm)

      I am in college and still I struggle with finding friendships that are not superficial, so maybe I would add a two more questions to consider: (3) Where am I spending time?, apart from work or university. What I’m trying to say is that part of that effort you mentioned is taking the time to go to church and participate in the activities or groups they have. Other thing is that building relationships takes time, so (4) How much time am I spending in online relationships (Social media) and not face-to-face ones? I think social media is a great tool to connect with others but the problem is when that takes all our time. And finally, (5) What am I doing right know in order to have more relationships? First I time is important to pray and to rest in the fact that God can take control of our friendships and can bring people to our life who bring us closer to him, but at the same time we need to be the friends we’d like to have. Be faithful and grateful for the friendships you have right know and even the ones that are yet to be build.

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    Chantal Escoto April 22, 2018 (5:02 am)

    Sara hit the truth when she said to be the friend you would like to have. If more people lived by the Golden Rule we would have much better relationships. It’s disheartening when fellow church members say, “I will pray for you,” without offering real support when experiencing difficult or challenging circumstances. It’s a two-way street and we must look for ways to “love thy neighbor” while building meaningful relationships. Not just with words, but with genuine deeds.
    Social media may be fun at first, but can be so superficial and isolating that it loses its meaning unless you find ways to really connect locally.

  • comment-avatar
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