Dear Wendy: “I’m Commitment-Phobic In Friendships”

I’m sure you get lots of letters about people who are afraid of commitment in relationships, but I have a different problem: I think I’m afraid of commitment in friendships. I’m a college student and don’t typically have any problem meeting new people; I have a full course load, I’m involved with a couple campus groups, I even live in a sorority house. I never have trouble finding someone to share dinner with, a drink, watch a movie, or whatever, but I don’t feel close enough to any of these people to ask them for advice on personal issues or share problems with them. In fact, I doubt I’ll even talk to any of my “friends” after graduation, despite the fact that college is supposed to be where you make lifelong friends. I wasn’t always like this; I had very close friends in high school (we’ve grown apart now but still keep in touch), and even now I have a boyfriend whom I don’t have any commitment issues with. I’m not sure where or how this situation developed, but I feel increasingly isolated and lonely without any best friends in my life. What can I do to learn to open up and be closer to people? — Disconnected

You’ve probably heard that old saying “You have to be a friend to have a friend,” right? Well, as much as being a friend means spending time together — sharing dinner or a drink, catching a movie, that kind of stuff — an even bigger part of friendship is letting down your guard, sharing your thoughts and feelings, and commiserating together over issues and challenges in your life. Instead of thinking you can’t share your problems with people in your life because you don’t feel close to them, you need to consider that in order to feel close to them, you have to share your problems (and joys, for that matter). As much as friendships are built on shared experiences, the foundation really comes from shared intimacies — a give and take of confessional feelings, of letting your guard down and allowing yourself to be vulnerable.

Think about how you became close to your boyfriend. You probably had dates and spent time together, but what happened on those dates that made you emotionally close? You talked about yourselves, right? You discussed your pasts, where you grew up, what your families are like, what your hopes and dreams are for the future. Well, it’s those exact kinds of conversations that will create close bonds with potential friends, too. If you always wait until you already feel close with people before you have those kinds of conversations, you’re never going to become close with them. So, open up! And ask your friends pointed questions about themselves. If they don’t feel comfortable getting personal, move on to broader topics. But if they take the bite and start sharing, be a good listener. And return the favor — share as much with others as others share with you. It’s the best — and easiest — way to form a true friendship.

You mention in your letter that you’re “afraid of commitment.” I’m not sure if you mean that literally or if that’s just something you said to help define your issue. If you’re indeed afraid of the kind of commitment a friendship entails — and close friendships do require maintenance — it might help to remember all the benefits that come with having close friends. Friends offer emotional support, advice and guidance; they can help ground you, keep you connected to your past, motivate you to pursue your goals, and keep you accountable. Plus, they’re fun! Relationships are what life is truly about. Without them, what’s the best you can hope for? A big house? A great job? Lots of money? Those things can be great, but if you feel increasingly isolated in life, you’ll be hard-pressed to find joy in any of those things. So yeah, friendships are work, but it’s work that pays off. For more tips on making and sustaining friendships, check out this post.