Why Being Vulnerable is the Key to Close Friendships
June 20, 2017
Making friends as an adult is a challenge all its own, and it's even more difficult as a parent. The first mom group I joined after my daughter was born felt a bit like a throwback to middle school. There was the alpha mom, the obvious cliques, and the rest of us trying to figure out where we fit.
According to research I also didn't do myself any favors when it came to making friends. Out of practice and afraid of being judged for my parenting choices, I held back and kept other moms at a distance, establishing just-the-facts connections with these women.
Eight years later, I have a solid tribe – women I click with who feel like they've been a part of my life forever. We know each other intimately. We are way past the formality of asking about the basics. These relationships thrive through our struggles with depression, parenting guilt, and brutal confessions.
Somehow, we journeyed from the lonely beginnings of parenthood to the cocoon of belonging. I've only recently stumbled on what we did right to get there. Though it may initially feel unnatural, the key to clicking seems to be vulnerability.
Factors that hurt making friends
Age itself works against us when it comes to making friends. The New York Times found that adults reported difficulty making friends when they were over 30, and the addition of spouses and children made it even harder.
Our lives change as we age, and we don't have all the time in the world for friendships. When spouses and children come into the picture, priorities shift. We simply can't spend a ton of time investing in someone without knowing if we truly want to have them as a long-term friend. Defining the relationship status early on becomes essential.
However, many of us don't approach relationships ready to do what it takes to connect. Surrounded by people we assume have perfect lives, we often feel like our struggles need to be kept secret. We mistakenly assume no one is having the issues we are, so we go into adult interactions guarded, spending more time on what Ori and Rom Brafman, authors of "Click: The Magic of Instant Connections," call phatic or factual talk.
The Brafmans define phatic or factual questions and statements as those that give basics, such as where someone was born or what they do for work. They say that to create an environment of vulnerability, conversation must move to the gut-level or peak stage.
Gut-level and peak statements express vulnerability. Expressing regret, longing, or fear falls into the more intimate levels of talk. Psychologist Arthur Aron agrees, saying "it's the emotional, personal form of information exchange that promotes feelings of understanding." These feelings of understanding can lead to deeper bonds and the sense that we click with someone, even if we haven't known them long.
What about etiquette?
Most of us were taught to be careful in conversations. Certain topics, like politics and religion, are considered taboo. There are still plenty of people who teach sticking to safe topics when engaging with others to avoid hurt feelings or awkward moments.
A study by Aron challenged this belief. He had participants engaged in online dating discuss controversial topics instead of sports or some other safe fall back. Participants were happier discussing the taboo topics and their feelings related to them. Aron believes this approach can lead to deeper connections.
It's like we tell our kids: you don't have to agree with everyone on everything to get along. That's true in adult relationships as well. Even people with less in common than they might expect can click if they are open to vulnerability and willing to reveal their feelings openly.
How we can revive the old
Vulnerability doesn't just work when we are trying to establish new bonds. In family relationships or old friendships that have grown stagnant we can inject vulnerability and watch them flourish. Instead of just talking about nothing, we can express true feelings and open ourselves up, allowing the other person to feel safe opening up as well.
In some ways, exercising vulnerability may be easier with people we already know, even if the relationship has stalled. Having history with a person often feels safer than starting over with someone new. However, if that history is fraught with insensitive responses when we opened up before, then being vulnerable in these relationships may be a bigger challenge than starting over with a stranger. We have to decide whether or not to take the chance.
Perfect for parents
Because parents claim that time is the one thing they never have enough of, vulnerability being key to clicking is good news. Instead of feeling obligated to work our way through the starter topics, we can move to the vulnerable phase and establish bonds quickly. If this doesn't work with someone, at least we haven't wasted time for months trying to establish a friendships that wasn't go to flourish.
Looking back, I see how a handful of my relationships became so close. We were all okay with being vulnerable and moved straight to the big feelings. I don't have time for peripheral relationships that barely scratch the surface of being known, but I'd put everything on hold for time with the friends who fall into my vulnerability circle. We don't agree on everything and often come from different experiences, but our ability to open up connected us in a way that nothing else can.