Less than a month after moving to France, I’m climbing up postcard-level multi-pitch routes in The Alps with my new bestie, Pierre. It’s not until he’s 20 feet up the rock that I remember just how unique (i.e. bonkers) the friendships are between climbers. I’ve spoken to this man for maybe five hours total before roping up and I know absolutely nothing about him, his character, or even his safety level. Yet here we are, putting our very lives in each other’s break hands. 

Normal friendships require years, even decades to build this level of trust. But somehow the high stakes of climbing (a therapist might call this trauma bonding) mixed with a shared passion for the sport and love of the outdoors fast-tracks these kinds of friendships. 

A week later he took me climbing with a dozen of his friends, ending in a 6-hour, 7-course meal at some old-timey French farmhouse covered in vines. Not many ex-pats can just drop into a group of friends this fast. But I felt relieved to have found my people.

Until Pierre disappeared…

I got some clarity recently when I talked to my buddy Howie, a climber based in Utah I met through TikTok. He had come to a painful conclusion — extreme sports aren’t always the best glue for holding friendships together. 

“In my experience, climbing wasn’t a good foundation for friendship,” Howie said when I called him up. It’s not just due to now having a wife and kids, it’s the mindset of climbers he can’t relate to anymore. He believes it’s hard to base long-term, sustainable friendships on common hobbies alone. Especially when said hobbies (I’m looking at you, climbing) are huge time commitments that consume whole weekends or longer. 

When I showed up in Lyon, France in July 2018, I didn’t know a soul or the language, I’d broken up with my boyfriend just days before, and had buried my dad four months before that. Not the ideal scenario, I know! And yet I assumed I’d make friends easy peasy baguette squeezy because starting over is kinda my thing. I’ve lived in four countries, seven states, and a Toyota pickup.

While my dad called me his Wild Child who’s “a little too independent” and some people might call me a commit-a-phobe, I like to think I’m a well-traveled outgoing gal who’s not afraid to try new things or put myself out there.

What I’d forgotten is that as an adult, especially one who’s single and childfree, making friends is stupid hard. Doing that in a foreign country — where I sound comme un imbécile when I speak — made that a million times harder.

After two years of tirelessly making efforts to build my community, the pandemic hit, and I was left with only a few friends. As I entered my 40’s, I was exhausted. Tired of starting over. I wanted roots.

For years I searched for my core group of reliable friends, but where on earth do you meet these people? I turned to a relationship expert for insight into what creates deep, meaningful, lifelong friendships — and found I was going about it all wrong.

Where before, I used common interests to build community, I learned that developing friendships with people who share my values is a much better long-term bet.

For anyone in their 30’s and 40’s, finding new friends can be quite the conundrum. I want close, meaningful relationships with people who are emotionally intelligent, work on themselves, show up for their friends, and share similar interests with me, and yet I’ve had trouble finding that among climbers. 

I’ve written about why I don’t generally date climbers anymore, but since entering my 40s, I’ve noticed I don’t befriend them too much now either. The ones my age were mostly men and unavailable due to either kids or their unreliable Peter Pan nature. For hardcore climbers, all it takes is one injury for them to vanish into depression or a bottle. 

I tried the climber approach to friendship one last time when I landed in France and immediately met Pierre, who went full-on-bestie during the month of August. As soon as his usual climbing partners got back to town from summer vacation, Pierre disappeared.

Unfortunately, I’d put too many eggs into that basket and was, predictably, left empty-handed. So after a month, I had to start over yet again. Nothing will motivate you like loneliness! 

I went to Couchsurfing meetups, which led to a group of game night friends. I joined a drum club (I had never played an instrument a day in my life). I used apps like Bumble BFF and Facebook ex-pat groups to meet people. 

Since I’ve always known that close female friends are the foundation of my life, I coordinated girls’ night outs and meetups like a freak’n cruise ship events planner. I even joined a feminist group on Facebook that met once a month to discuss women’s rights.

I may have been a bit pushy. And female friendship coach and educator, Danielle Bayard Jackson, helped me realize that the pushy (i.e. desperate) approach wasn’t the best.

For starters, it scares people off.

“When we move to a new city, we are more hungry for connection and we try to manufacture closeness,” Jackson says. When we are so laser-focused on making new friends, she says, “we sometimes try to turn unhealthy connections into something fruitful.” 

Jackson made me realize that my focus (okay, obsession) on making friends led me to miss huge red flags. In my rush (impatience) to get me some BFF’s, I’d gotten lazy in my vetting system, brushing off characteristics I never ignored back home, like gossip and unnecessary drama.

In trying so hard to find my friend-family, I’d done exactly the opposite of what Jackson suggested.

Another lesson my wise friendship coach taught me: there’s a healthy, natural progression of intimacy but it needs to be mutual. 

Jackson said, “Position yourself to have healthy interactions with others instead of making friends. And then the ones who do intrigue you, have the courage to initiate.” In my mission to find my people, I’ve often focused far too much on the end goal instead of the process.

In addition to all the amazing advice Jackson’s given me, Howie recently gifted me with a new north star to navigate friendships with—focus entirely on shared values.

He’s recently learned that the best way for him to do that is through volunteering.  

He said it’s great for finding friends because you not only share similar values and priorities, but the environment itself is better for intimacy. Time together is what leads to deeper conversations, but when an activity dominates that time, it makes it hard to have long discussions.

When I go to game nights, it’s all about fun. We bond over being on the same team (a common enemy!) and eating delicious snacks I can’t pronounce (because it’s France.) But downtime? There’s none of that. The same thing with climbing. Other than maybe the hike in and out or the car ride there, we’re not spending quality time together because a rope length is between us. 

Howie suggested a soup kitchen, for example, because all that standing around gives you ample time to get to know other volunteers. Plus the shared value of wanting to serve your community is already there. It’s a win-win. Whereas connecting over shared interests — especially outdoor sports — does not guarantee peoples’ motivations match your own.

I’m married now. I’m an aunt and a mentor to many. I have a lot of people relying on me to not get hurt or die. The stakes are much higher now, compared to when I was single and living in my Toyota pickup. 

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I’m still finding my friend-family but Howie and Danielle’s advice is helping. 

I am not being as pushy, but I’m still making the effort. I’m accepting that I can have different kinds of friends with varying levels of closeness. Some are game night friends, others are girls’ nights out, some are fellow immigrants trying to figure out this culture, and others are call-in-a-crisis-types.  Not all friends are meant to meet all your needs. 

For my birthday this month, I spent the whole weekend at a vine-covered old-timey farmhouse in the countryside with my husband, our dog, and a handful of our closest friends. But this time it felt different. They surprised me with a hike full of baby goats, fairytale-looking villages, and a French-style Thanksgiving meal they spent all day cooking. I cried from feeling so loved.

I had a group of people I could call a family (and not a dysfunctional one!) for the first time since leaving America. After four years of trying so hard to make friends and making a lot of mistakes, I finally feel like I belong. 

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