How to Build Real Connections When Meeting People?

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Reader’s Question

I’m 21 years old and have difficulty connecting with others for meaningful relationships. Being introverted and sensitive and someone who highly values meaningful relationships, my disappointment in relationships has been painful. As an introvert I don’t mind being alone, but I also know the importance of people in your life. This issue is also painful because my family doesn’t understand. I dread going home because I don’t want to face questions from my mother: “Why don’t you go out? You hardly leave the house,” etc. I feel really lonely and sad — I want to go out and have fun. People have suggested joining a club or something, and asking someone I know to introduce me to people. The problem I have, though, is with connection. I do meet people and have activities but nobody seems to really connect with me. What’s wrong?

Psychologist’s Reply

Your letter highlights several important points that are often misunderstood. For example, introverts need a good deal of alone time, but that doesn’t mean introverts are uninterested in relationships or not easily hurt in relationships. Also, people frequently make assumptions about what the social life of a young adult should “look like.” So, it sounds as though your family members worry when they see that you’re content staying home or do not seem to have many friends. As long as a person is satisfied with his or her life, however, who are we to question whether the person should be doing something differently? That said, it does sound like the quality of your relationships is what is lacking, and as you point out, that is an issue that extends well beyond simply meeting new people or engaging in social activities.

The term “connection” is open to different interpretations. However, I assume you mean establishing caring, intimate relationships, which may be friendships or romantic relationships. Certainly, such meaningful relationships are many fewer in number than casual, social relationships, or acquaintances. Often the more meaningful relationships are based on shared values and interests, so it may be fruitful to think through the kinds of people with whom you’ve felt closest in the past. Did they seem to share particular qualities? The answer to that question may help point you toward places and activities where you might be more likely to meet such people (the issue of quality over quantity). Also, answering that question may help you become more aware of what qualities are most important to you in potential friends, and thereby help you realize earlier whether a new friend has the potential to become a very good friend.

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Even when we meet someone who might be a great match as a friend or romantic partner, building a relationship requires investment and pro-relationship behaviors on the part of both people. Of course you don’t have control over the other person, but you can greatly increase the likelihood of achieving a great relationship by focusing on your end of the equation. The first consideration is what qualities you possess that a potential friend would value. A healthy connection is based on give and take, mutual respect and trust, and genuine warmth and caring. People who embody these qualities are attractive to others, and make it easier for others to be the same way in return.

The process of building a good relationship entails increasing intimacy, which itself requires trust. Fortunately, you can facilitate both by being the one to initiate self-disclosure. Of course there needs to be balance; self-disclosure should be appropriate to the circumstances and the level of the relationship (not too much or too soon). Such appropriate-but-intimate sharing facilitates trust and similar self-disclosure by the other person. It’s as though, by sharing your vulnerability, the other person feels more comfortable and trusting in doing the same, and bonds are gently nurtured. Similarly, we all want to be liked and appreciated, so be sure to share such feelings with another person when you experience them. Don’t assume a new friend knows what you think or feel.

It’s easy to dismiss the idea that conscious effort may be required to find and nurture the kinds of quality relationships we want. After all, such relationships enjoyed in the past may have felt relatively effortless; they just seemed to happen. Sometimes that’s true, and that’s great when we’re fortunate enough to stumble into such relationships. However, when we’re at a loss for intimacy, it’s time to be more conscious of the process needed to build it. There’s no shame in that, and in fact, perhaps some of our past relationships felt effortless to us because the other person invested more conscious effort in paving the way for the relationship to blossom. It feels great to enjoy the fruit from a tree we happened across, but if we relied on such good fortune, we’d starve. Most of the time we need to plant and water before harvesting the fruit.

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