A psychologist shares why it's difficult to connect as adults and 4 ways to maintain friendships

friendship friends happy group
Dr. Frederick Smith discussed adult friendships with Insider.Flashpop/Getty Images
  • The Survey Center on American Life interviewed more than 2,000 adults about friendships in May 2021.

  • Forty percent of participants said they didn't have a best friend. 

  • Dr. Frederick Smith told Insider why making adult friendships can be hard and how to maintain them. 

Friendships are an invaluable ingredient of life, but if you struggle with finding a best friend, you're not alone.

More than 2,000 US adults shared their experiences with friendships in the May 2021 American Perspectives Survey, where the results showed Americans are making fewer friends than in previous decades.

The Survey Center on American Life surveyed to discover how friendship evolved during the pandemic.


According to the survey, 40% of the participants said they don't have a best friend. Data showed the number of people who have a best friend dwindled from 75% in 1990 to 59% in 2021, and found that 12% of participants said they don't have close friends.

Regarding the pandemic, women reported having a more difficult time than men. More than one in four women – or 27% – said May 2020 to May 2021 were more difficult than usual, compared to just 17% of men.

Dr. Smitha psychologist working in the mental health field for 15 years, spoke to Insider about why adult friendships can be tricky to make and how to maintain them. Last month, he shared how to navigate a friendship breakup regarding Will Smith and Chris Rock's public fallout.

Smith pointed out 3 reasons adults may struggle to form friendships

During his conversation with Insider, Smith stressed how crucial it is to have platonic friendships.

"Friendships are extremely important because those supportive relationships help us get through challenging moments," Smith said. "When I do individual therapy for clients experiencing major depression, one of the interventions I talk about is improving relationships."

But adulthood is hard, and Smith acknowledges that there are a few reasons people find it hard to make genuine connections: obligations, past experiences, and mental health.

"As adults, we have many obligations," Smith said. "We may have responsibilities to our job, family, children, or education. We spend a lot of time doing these things, so we may not have enough time to devote to going out and developing friendships."

Secondly, Smith said a person's past experiences could shape how to approach relationships in adulthood.

"Anytime we might be faced with something in our adult life that may resemble something traumatic or negative from the past, we tend to shy away," Smith said, adding that these past experiences can also shape how we view ourselves and how we believe we deserve to be treated.

Rear view of a young African woman suffering from depression sitting on her bed and looking out through a window.
Smith said past experiences can affect how we make friendships as adults.Mavocado/Getty Images

"If you've had negative experiences that caused you to believe that people will take advantage of you, you might be hesitant to engage in friendships that may be good for you," he said.

Lastly, Smith addressed mental health.

"People that experience social anxiety feel an extreme sense of fear or nervousness whenever they may have to answer a question in public, speak publicly, or meet new people," Smith said. "If I go to a party and struggle with social anxiety, how do you think that will impact my ability to establish friendships?"

Smith said there are 4 strategies people can use to maintain adult friendships

Smiling woman using smart phone by friend in car. Males and females are traveling together during wine tour.
Smiling woman using smart phone by friend in car. Males and females are traveling together during wine tour.

Creating healthy boundaries can help maintain a friendship, according to Smith.Morsa Images/Getty Images

Fortunately, Smith said there are tangible ways to maintain a friendship amid the ups and downs of adulthood: healthy boundaries, self-care, clear communication, and actively working to keep the relationship alive.

Smith emphasized that setting healthy boundaries can improve friendships because "boundaries teach people how we want to be treated and boundaries teach us how to treat other people."

A group of friends sitting down together in the sun, relaxing after a trip down the canal.
Smith added that clear communication is needed to maintain friendships.Tom Werner/Getty Images

"There are certain aspects of our lives that we prefer not to be broadcast to the public," Smith said. "If I'm a real friend, I don't care how angry my friends might make me. I'm never going to take some sensitive personal information and throw it in their face because a real friend wouldn't do that."

Self-care is another part of maintaining friendships because it's important to ensure that personal stressors don't overshadow and negatively impact them, according to Smith.

"It may not be a certain interaction that you have with a person, but it could be a lot of other extraneous variables that might be at play and causing problems," Smith said, adding that problems can be anything from marital issues to developing a physical illness.

"People may not be able to effectively separate their issue from friendship," he said. "We may not be aware of what we're doing to the other person. We may not be aware that we're not being supportive or the other person feels like we're taking advantage of them."

Smith added that communication is "key" to a thriving friendship.

Bearded man enjoying Christmas party with female friends at home.
Smith said it's important that both friends put effort into the relationship.Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

"I don't care how long we've been friends. There is no way that I can read your mind," Smith said. "We have to be able to communicate to tell each other exactly what is going on and how we feel so that we can make changes."

And, finally, Smith noted it's important to actively participate in your friendships.

"Both people have to work to maintain it," Smith said. "Friendship should not be one-sided. If you only call me when you need something, or you only call me when you're going through some type of turmoil, and then I never hear from you, then that's a problem."

Read the original article on Insider