There has been plenty of talk of an economic recession, but the under-the-radar recession no one is talking about has to do with our relationships. In our post-COVID society, we might think isolation is in the rearview. And with practically unlimited access to people and information at our fingertips, we might also think that connection is easier than ever — but surveys show that there are a lot of lonely people out there.
We spoke with licensed therapist and friendship educator Blake Blankenbecler of Fig Holistic Psychotherapy in Charleston, SC, to learn about the current crisis of friendship, how to make new friends as an adult, how to show up as a good friend, and even tips for knowing when it’s time to walk away from a friendship that isn’t working.
What led you to the specific expertise of friendship?
I’ve had successful practices in Nashville, Los Angeles, Austin, and now Charleston, so I’ve gotten to work with people all over the country and become acquainted with the struggles of being human. Out of my work emerged a desire to study some of the most foundational relationships that hardly get any time in the spotlight: our friendships.
Because I’ve moved around a lot as an adult, that forced me to pay attention to friendships — how to make new ones, sustain existing ones, and examine friendships that were no longer working. All of this while also working as a therapist. And I can tell you, from coast to coast, folks are talking about their friendships … there is pain and hurt often tangled into these beautiful and complicated relationships.
I’m glad that research is finally catching up. The people in our inner circle actually have a profound influence on our mental health and well-being. Knowing this, it would be wise for all of us to pay more attention to cultivating deeper and richer friendships.
Can you explain the concept of a “friendship recession”?
The friendship recession is the reality that we are spending less time with friends than ever before. We’ve all seen the memes that joke about adult friendships — scheduling time together months in advance because you’re both so busy. While the intentions are good, the implications of not seeing each other regularly can be harmful.
Face-to-face interactions are what foster and sustain friendships. Without that, it’s easy to fall into this space of feeling bad that you haven’t reached out, so you continue to not reach out because it’s been too long — and suddenly, you haven’t talked to your friend in two years. So it makes sense that levels of loneliness and depression are also at an all-time high. We are social creatures that need to be in relationships to thrive.
A lot of us don’t have great friendship habits. That’s partly on us and partly on the structure of western society, which values overworking and overextending yourself to the point that you don’t have any energy left to be social. Cultivating friendships takes conscious effort, and we would all benefit from making it a priority.
With technology and social media, we’re more connected than ever. Yet, for some, making real and lasting connections has never been more elusive. What’s your take on that?
The sense of connection you are or are not getting through social media is largely based on how you’re using social media. The first question I often ask is, “Is your feed making you feel better or worse about yourself?” If your answer is the latter, it’s time to do some intentional unfollowing or muting of anyone that rears up those feelings of insecurity, jealousy, or comparison. Then, work on curating a feed that feels more hopeful and inspiring.
It’s really helpful if you use social media as another arm of connection with your friends. See a funny meme or Reel that reminds you of what you and your friend were just talking about on the phone the other week? Send it their way! Did your friend post something about a new project they are starting? Comment on their post and hype them up!
Making new friends as an adult can be difficult, especially if you don’t have school-aged kids in the house. What strategies do you recommend?
Making new friends as an adult is hard, and it’s not something that many of us were prepared for. Up until college, you’re surrounded by your peers and largely on the same track, which makes making and maintaining friendships a lot easier. It’s usually after college that paths start to diverge, with some folks getting married and having kids, others moving away or pursuing their careers, and some doing all the above. The ease of friendships dissipates. I talk to a lot of people in their late 20s and 30s who realize they don’t actually know how to make new friends, and they are having to be much more thoughtful and conscious about the process.
A few strategies I often suggest are: first, have a mindset that making great friends takes work and thoughtfulness. It means putting yourself out there, and that might feel awkward and uncomfortable — which means you’re probably doing it right and taking some risks. Showing up to groups or spaces that already interest you, like pottery classes, tennis lessons, volunteering, or joining a book club, sets you up for success because you know you already have something in common.