Essay

The concentric circles of friendship

Here’s another message I’ve given to my children as they navigate their young-adult lives.

When I was young I held to the concept of having a best friend, that one person I wanted to do things with most because we fit together so well and enjoyed each other’s company so much.

As I’ve grown older, I still want friends like that. But I also want friends with whom I can be fully real and who can know about the challenges in my life in detail, and vice versa. It takes a lot to build that kind of trust, and it’s special and valuable when you have it.

Looking down on Monument Circle
Monument Circle in Indianapolis

As a result I’ve left behind the idea of “best friend” and instead think of each of my friends as being in one of several concentric circles:

Inner circle: These are people I will tell anything in full vulnerability, because they’ve proved themselves to be fully trustworthy with my heart and with the skeletons in my closet. I think everybody benefits from having at least one inner-circle friend, but few of us ever have more than a few of them at a time. At this moment I have three inner-circle friends, including my wife, and I feel truly blessed.

Second circle: These are good, close friends. We share interests in common, and have had some terrific experiences together. I’m willing to tell them all but the most private stuff. I have about five second-circle friends.

Third circle: These are all good people to hang out with, but I’m not likely to tell them the deep inner stuff. I struggle to call “friend” anyone whom I don’t trust knowing that I’m going through some tough stuff when that’s true. Friends in the third circle just don’t get to know what that tough stuff is.

Fourth circle: These are all acquaintances. I might do something with them if they come along with one of my friends in one of the other circles brings them along. I might have lunch or a beer with them if the opportunity presents itself. But I won’t share personal details.

Outside the fourth circle, you are neither friend nor acquaintance. You are just someone I know.

The more I trust you, the closer to the inner circle you come. Trust builds over time with a friend, and it involves both of us sometimes taking a risk and revealing something a little closer to the heart than we have before.

Sometimes, you take that risk and it doesn’t work out. You have to be prepared for that — and move people in and out of these circles accordingly. Sometimes, someone you’ve known for a long time might suddenly behave in a way that causes you to move them out one or more circles!

I encourage you to take those risks, however, as the reward can be deeply worth it. To have friends with whom you can be fully yourself, and thus fully vulnerable, is a rich blessing of life.

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Essay

What I want my children to know about building human connection and avoiding loneliness

My children are adults now, beginning to live their separate adult lives. I’ve been thinking a lot about my own start, and how lonely I was for a while. I had to work hard to make connections with other people. I wanted to give my children some advice from my experience about building and maintaining those connections. I have communicated these thoughts with them.

You know how hard I’ve pursued my career and how much time I’ve spent in my hobbies. They’re important to my life, but they’re not the most important things. Without friends and family, my life wouldn’t be all that great.

My experience tells me that the most important element in your personal happiness is being connected to other people. You will be wise to make a major life focus of creating and maintaining those connections. If you’re as introverted as me, you might not need a lot of connection, but you need some. Without enough human connection you will become lonely, and loneliness is painful and bad for your mental and even physical health. We’re all lonely sometimes, but it’s truly terrible for you to be lonely most or all of the time.

At home on a Sunday morning when I was 22

When I graduated from engineering school in Terre Haute, my first job was in town. Many of my school buddies hadn’t graduated yet, and my girlfriend was from Terre Haute, so I had plenty of people to spend time with.

After about a year, all but one of my school buddies had graduated and moved away and my girlfriend and I broke up. I had no family in town, and my one remaining friend, Michael, was consumed with a troubled marriage. I love being alone, but aloneness soon turned into loneliness. I was unprepared for how acutely painful that would be.

On the air when I was 26

I did some things that really helped. First, I picked up a part-time job as a radio disk jockey. Once in a while I went out for a beer with some of the other DJs, and one of the stations I worked for had popular in-person events that I attended.

Second, I joined the local electronic bulletin-board community. This was how nerds like me connected online before the Internet. After a while we realized we could meet in person sometimes, since we all lived in or near Terre Haute! We started having summer cookouts, which led to us going out for beers once a week. We called that the Tuesday Night Drinking Society, the only rule of which was that we never met on Tuesdays. It was a lot of fun.

Third, I joined a church where a number of singles my age attended. We had lots of fun together. I even invited my good friend after his marriage finally ended. This is also where I met your mom.

You’ve heard me speak fondly of my years in Terre Haute and these people are largely why.

After a few years I moved to Indianapolis and left all of my friends behind. Even though I drove back nearly every weekend to be with your mom, those were some mighty lonely days. I was miserable all alone in my apartment. My life improved greatly when your mom moved to Indianapolis and we got married. But as you know, our marriage didn’t work and then I lived alone again. I had not kept up with my Terre Haute friends, and while I had made a couple new ones here, we were all raising young children and thus very busy. Fortunately your uncle, my brother, had moved here by then, and we saw each other a lot. Having you over on the court-ordered schedule was also a real bright spot in my life.

It wasn’t until your uncle moved to Utah that I realized how much I had relied on him for companionship. Again I faced the pain of loneliness. He moved back after a couple years, but in the meantime I focused on building and rebuilding connection with people I knew. This is also part of the reason I started dating again. I didn’t date when you were young because I wanted you to have my undivided attention. But by this time you were in high school and starting to become independent.

I’m not as good as I want to be at keeping up the friendships I have. I give myself a pass because of the serious challenges Margaret and I have faced since we married; there isn’t enough time for everything I want to do. I don’t even spend as much time with you or your grandmother as I want. But I can’t keep letting this be, as I will always need the connections I’ve made.

I want to encourage you to form friendships, stay connected with your family, consider creating your own family, and cultivate deeper bonds with good people in your lives. Here are some things I’ve learned that I hope will help you.

Friends

Focus first on making and keeping friends, even before you seek romantic relationships.

Making friends involves taking risks. Keeping friends involves investing your time into them.

When you encounter someone in the world and spend enough time with them to realize you enjoy them, to try to make a friend of them requires you ask one simple question: “Hey, I’m really enjoying doing this with you. Would you like to hang out together sometime?”

Most people will say yes, but that’s because some of them don’t know how to say no. Here’s the secret way to find out: exchange contact information and then contact them later to set up an outing with them. If they don’t respond or their response is tepid, take it as a no and move on cheerfully.

If they do respond well, choose something simple like going out for a coffee or a drink. If you know of some activity you can do side by side that allows you to talk, such as going to a car show or a street fair, do that. Especially for men, the stakes feel lower when they do things side by side.

Me and Michael in 2007, friends since 1985

It’s much like asking someone on a date, except you want to build a friendship, not a romantic relationship. But you have to start somewhere, and this is a low-stakes way to do it. You will face some rejection, but the sting is light.

A hidden tactic is to look for people who appear to need a friend even more than you and make a point of doing something alongside them where you can ask them the simple question as well.

You will notice that I’m talking primarily about making friends in the “f2f IRL” world. Online friends are great and I have several. One is an inner-circle friend to whom I would tell anything, and we’ve carried on primarily an email friendship for 18 years. But you need “f2f IRL” friends much more.

This means you have to go out into the world. Put yourself in places where there will be people with similar interests to yours — join groups, volunteer, and find a church. It’s classic and corny, but you can make it work.

You can also make friends at work, but take it easy. Friendship can be messy, and a friendship with a co-worker that goes south can be challenging because you have to work alongside them every day. That happened to me once in my early 20s and it was very unpleasant. Since then, I keep work relationships light. But we all eventually change jobs, and when we do it’s great to reach out to former co-workers we enjoyed and ask them the simple question. I have made a couple good friends that way.

Partners

Your life partner should be your closest friend, confidant, and companion.

I know a few people who had it easy finding a life partner, but I think for most of us it takes time and effort. It sure did for me. You’ll have more than one significant other before you find the one you keep.

When you are seeing someone, you will want to spend a lot of time with them. You might even find yourself inadvertently ignoring your friends in favor of your significant other. It’s counterintuitive, but people you date come and go, while friendships are more likely to last. Make sure you spend some time with your friends so they’re still your friends should you break up with the person you’re seeing.

You are likely to become friends with some of your partner’s friends. Making friends this way is wonderful, but if you and your partner ever break up, you are almost certain to lose those friends. If you have friends already before you enter a romantic relationship, they will likely still be your friends when it’s over. If you don’t have your own friends, after a breakup you lose your whole social circle.

This is why I say to focus first on building a satisfying network of friends, and then on finding a partner.

It is a valid life choice not to date and/or not to choose a life partner. Not having a partner gives you time to pursue so many interesting and fulfilling things. Just understand that you are trading away that deep connection and ready companionship.

The family you grew up in

The family you grew up in is far from perfect, as you well know. But I think you’ll agree that we love and accept you. We have our quirks and shortcomings, but it is basically healthy for you to be around us.

Not everyone is fortunate enough to have a healthy family that loves and accepts them. Such people may find it necessary to limit or eliminate time with their families. It’s a real loss.

The family I grew up in – I was 5

Anyone who experiences love and acceptance from an overall healthy family is wise to keep investing in those relationships, because family can be an ongoing source of love and support. It also feels good to hang out with your family because of the long-term bonds and the innate feeling of belonging.

You are like your mother and me in many ways. We understand you, and we love you. I want nothing more than to see you do well in your lives, and I feel sure your mom feels the same way. I also really enjoy hanging out with you!

The family I grew up in has been a huge source of support for me. When your mom and I split up, I leaned hard on your grandparents and your uncle. Those were incredibly hard times which would have been much harder without my family. They listened to me as I ranted and cried, and they offered advice (some good, some not, but so it goes with advice). Also, your uncle let me live with him for a while, and your grandparents loaned me money so I could get by.

Even in less challenging times, such as when you’re just having a bad day, your family can commiserate with you, and even lift you up and encourage you.

It’s wise, I think, to live near enough to your family that you can see them when you need or want to. I lived a four-hour drive away from my parents when I was in my 20s, and it proved to be too far for me to see them often enough. On the other hand, I was glad to not live down the street from them so I could more easily establish my independence. It would have been nice to live maybe an hour away.

It’s not like I deliberately chose to live so far away from my parents. I wanted to pursue a career in software development and I couldn’t find work in the field in my hometown. Even now, I am sure I made the right choice. Where you live is your choice, as well. Just understand that the farther away from family that you live, the more you trade away these good things.

Your children

Your children can be a source of deep connection and, when they’re adults, support.

You shouldn’t have children because you’ll receive these things from them. Rather, have children because of the innate drive to do it, because you have the means to provide for them, and because you have love to give them. Simple love and acceptance is the number one thing to give your kids for them so they can be whole and healthy as adults. I wish I had figured that out far earlier in your lives!

Us, when you were about 1 and 3, making a memory

Raising children will challenge you and make you grow in profound ways. Also, it’s truly lovely to make good memories with your children. Family bonds just feel wonderful! There is no substitute.

But if you raise your children well and they feel your love and acceptance, they are very likely to want relationships with you when they are adults. It’s great! These fully formed people who are a lot like you and share so many common memories with you will come around and see you.

This is especially important as you age. I’ve watched my parents and my wife’s parents go through this: your friends and age-peer family start to die, and your circle of connections shrinks. It’s important to keep making friends at every stage of life. But if you have children, they become a much more vital source of human connection. They can also really help you navigate the changes that come when you’re older, both in talking them through with you and physically helping you with things you need. Margaret was of huge support to her parents when they could no longer manage living independently. She found them assisted living and did a huge amount of work to put their house on the market. Your uncle has given your grandmother a great deal of emotional and physical support since your grandfather died. Your older years will be a great deal harder without children who love you and come around to see you.

It is a valid life choice not to have children. You will have greater freedom and money to pursue other things that interest you. Just understand that you are trading away the personal growth that parenthood brings, the potential for good and deep relationships with your adult children, and the support your children can give you in old age.

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It’s surprising how hard your 20s are as you adjust to full-on adult life. You are busy enough working and doing the routine stuff of life that it might be hard to consider adding on seeking and cultivating friendships. But don’t put it off. The more you invest in it now, the happier your life will be in the years and decades to come.

Articles in The Masculinist newsletter and blog have influenced my views here and were a driver behind me writing this essay.

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