Tell Me About It

‘Nobody likes me, especially at work, and I have no idea how to make friends’

Tell me about it: After the initial acquaintance, people keep their distance from me

PROBLEM: Nobody likes me, especially at any company I ever work for. People will gravitate toward me, make acquaintances, and share a laugh or two, but from then on they keep their distance and buddy up with anyone else but me.

I’m fun-loving and was very popular in high school (in the US). In my life, I have dated more women than I can count (about 80+), and have had serious fun with almost all of them. I love my wife and love our life together, and we always seem to be at the “fun table” at weddings and such. But then people make friends with each other, or with my wife, but never with me, and I’m out in the cold again.

I have no idea how to make or keep friends and for my whole life I never have. It’s serious because if you’re always the odd man out at work you are the first to get laid off when times get tough, and that has happened to me. I desperately need my job for my wife and to have any hope of a future and retirement. Do you know others like me?

Have they been able to change themselves or their lives to stop being hated by everyone?

ADVICE: You suggest in your letter that people dislike you, but you show no evidence of that. Perhaps what happens is that you struggle after the initial contact, but this is something you can tackle. You have a wife, so you already know how to form relationships, but you do not appear to be hugely confident in even this lasting. Being fun is a very important part of connecting with people but the core of relationships, whether they are of the friendship or romantic sort, is being vulnerable. In order to develop a friendship, you have to demonstrate your interest, even if this runs the risk of being rejected. Real connection happens when we let someone in past our protective outer layer and in your situation this might take the form of having a conversation with someone about why you find it difficult to make friends.

Of course, you do not have these conversations with just anybody. Can you think of someone in your circle that you admire enough to warrant you taking the risk of being vulnerable with them? Are you interested enough in them that you are willing to devote time and effort to them and their concerns?

Relationships grow when we do things for each together, for instance when we give up our free time to support a friend even when it may not suit us. Asking a friend for support, or even asking them to meet for coffee or a drink, can create tension in us and this fear is often so big that it stops us engaging at all. In truth, if you don’t care enough whether you meet someone again or not, it is unlikely that the relationship will ever develop into something worthwhile. Most things worth having are demanding of us and it is when you are in this uncomfortable territory that you know you are stretching yourself.

Caring is the starting point for a relationship: if you care enough you will follow up on it and it will grow. Developing a sense of ‘care’ might need you to find some real common ground with another person – this could include shared activities, interests, ideas or passions. You have done this with your wife, so you might ask for her guidance if you are struggling with knowing who you might try to connect with. She might also help you by being there for you if sometimes you don’t succeed, and you need the courage to try at friendship again.

Most friendships are sustained through effort and ongoing communication and this can be aided by social media if you can’t always meet in person. It is not enough to just meet someone (as you already know through having dated more than 80 women), you then must keep up the contact and develop an interest in the other’s life.

Friendships require three things to survive: kindness, loyalty and fairness. If your friend is not kind to you – from remembering what is important to you to turning up when you are ill – the friendship is unlikely to last. Loyalty is hugely important: you have to feel that whenever possible, your friend will put you first even if there are difficulties. And finally, we need fairness in our relationships: if you try to put time aside for your friend, they must also demonstrate that they care enough about you to turn up for you too.

We are sensitive to these three aspects of relationship and will be tempted to withdraw if they are not present. Can you focus on providing these elements for someone who you have a natural affinity for and with whom you are willing to take the risk of rejection?

If you can answer yes, then you are on the road to a sustaining friendship.