img by Alexey Kondakov
Hypothetically, say there was a thirty-something who moved to a Big City with no friends or connections. And say a few years after moving they still had few, if any, close friendships and really struggled to make connections with people. Then, let’s say that person went through a major job loss followed by a breakup during a global pandemic, and now more than ever really wants to commit themselves to fostering friendships. How would you suggest said person start to put themselves out there & be vulnerable enough to meet people in a meaningful way? The Big City seems, at least peripherally, like a very cliquey and superficial place to live, and this young thirty-something craves intimacy from friends. —Jesse
Your situation speaks to so many versions of myself but it especially speaks to the almost 28-year-old me who moved to the big city in a new country and the almost 35-year-old me right now trying to figure out what friendships will look like IRL in the midst of a pandemic. I was married to my Canadian husband when I moved to Toronto but besides him and his people (family, friends, you know), I didn’t know anyone here. After two months, I got a job and made friends through that daily contact but I also wanted to make friends apart from work. My closest friends were far from Toronto and as much as I cherished and wanted to keep them in my life, I yearned for people in the same city I could have that same kind of ease with. Like you, I was overwhelmed by the mortifying ordeal of not just being known but making myself known.
In hindsight, I can see that I was desperate and all too eager to be close to others and I was too willing to overlook red flags with some people and just mismatches in personality and interests with other people. The image that sticks in my mind, that I never talk about because a part of me feels like such a loser about it, is me on my 28th birthday, having only lived here six months, waiting to have brunch with some new friends only to have all but two of them bail the morning of. I know, huge yikes, the biggest really. Even just typing it feels like such a bummer. I mention this only to say that we have to be careful that the feeling we have, of desiring to be known and in relationship in this way, should be balanced against our own warning signals.
I think that feeling shaped a lot of my decisions for the next several years of my life here in Toronto more than my warning signals. I held onto friendships for much longer than I should have and I sacrificed my own comfort and boundaries in order to maintain relationships with people. And it took me a while to figure that out too. Like until pretty recently. I’m not grateful for COVID itself in any way but I am grateful for the time that I suddenly had to both process a backlog of trauma and have some space from relationships due to lockdown. It’s easier to have some perspective about things when you’re forced to take literal space apart.
You may have noticed there’s a shift that happens in your life when space suddenly presents itself; it’s almost as if there’s room to not just imagine change but to dip a toe into it as well. For me, the boundaries of my life changed in the past 18 months along with other people’s and it made me see more clearly what was and wasn’t working. It sounds like this process was happening for you as well and that may be part of what has led you to want to commit yourself to fostering friendships. I think this actually happened for a lot of us—just look at how many people have been through breakups, both romantically and platonically, during the pandemic. I couldn’t necessarily see the issues in the relationships I’ve reassessed until I was forced away from the everyday routines I’d almost been sleepwalking through before. This space combined with shifting priorities in the face of a global pandemic really told me what I was and wasn’t willing to compromise on.
I’m not the same person who walked into this pandemic; nobody else is either. And having had the space to reassess some of my relationships and in some cases to step back from ones that weren’t healthy or positive also has an indirect benefit. That extra space let me have room to both deepen existing friendships here in Toronto and especially with the friends who live in so many different places. We all suddenly had space from the outside world and we had the chance to reconnect with those we had grown apart from or who we were far from. In your case, you had space from a romantic relationship ending and a big job loss on top of the distance caused by the pandemic—that’s a lot of room to assess and reassess and figure out what’s important to you. That room, especially when some of it wasn’t necessarily achieved voluntarily, can feel scary and daunting, but it’s also an opportunity.
That being said, you want to know about finding friends, fostering those intimate friendships, and honestly? That’s a tough one. You’re not wrong: Toronto can be cliquey and superficial. We’ve all come across exactly those people in the city as well as online. And it also always seems like everyone’s known each other their entire lives? Not to mention that sense every single person in Canada seems to have that there are only twelve people here in total. It’s daunting and scary to put yourself out there, especially when it’s hard to get a sense whether someone wants something from you and is thinking of this connection as networking or if they genuinely want to pursue a friendship.
Technically you can make friends anywhere but in my opinion the key to true intimacy is not seeing things in exactly the same way but being able to communicate with each other, to talk things through in a reparative and curious way as opposed to a defensive way. We are all walking back into the world on shaky baby deer legs right now and we are anxious as hell about it. Our boundaries have shifted and we are seeing what it’s like out there; we are all deeply yearning for what’s next and that especially means being with each other again.
For me, the pandemic not only let me connect and reconnect with far away friends but it made me realize that those relationships weren’t any less meaningful and important just because I can’t go grab a last minute coffee with those people. The chronically ill have known this for a long time and the rest of the world got a taste of how to connect when we need to also isolate. The world is bigger and smaller than we realized. In order to do the kind of work to foster the local friendship that have the kind of intimacy and connection you’re craving, it helps to also put the work in to continue to maintain the intimacy and connection that we can still draw from relationships that aren’t, both to help support us while we’re forming local relationships and just as part of our lives.
There’s no trick or answer for how to make friends locally—that’s the worst part. It’s just a case of doing the things that don’t always feel like progress in the moment that we know deep down are good for us but that we kind of resent when they work, like sleeping enough or eating even one vegetable. Fill your own cup for a while. Do the things you enjoy. Take a class. Be in nature, be at a museum or a mall. When it’s safe to, volunteer your time to a cause you care about. Have coffee with a longtime mutual and get to know them in the meat realm. Play a sport, join a book club, whatever. If you put your energy into what you care about, you’ll find like-minded people. They may not all end up being a close friend but maybe they’re going to lead you to someone who will be. Be open to what’s next but don’t stress over it; making room is enough, wanting to know others closely is enough. It’ll happen.
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