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Finding friends in a new place

Kids get all the breaks. Thanks to a school setting that throws them together eight hours a day and their natural openness, they develop friendships as easily as breathing.

But then again, they define "friend" as someone who sits next to them in the cafeteria. Adults seek something deeper before they begin to label the relationship.

No wonder moving can wreak havoc on the social life.

Families with young children often ride the youngsters' coattails, striking up conversations with fellow parents as they arrange play dates, soccer schedules and PTA meetings. But Valerie Moore and her husband, Alan Stein, didn't have children when they moved from Indianapolis to Washington D.C. in the mid-'90s. Furthermore, the condo where they tried to plant roots yielded a hodge-podge of people they had nothing in common with: a family wrapped up in a new baby on one side, a divorced mother with three girls down the row.

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"The most community-oriented thing we did was go to a local sports bar to watch a George Foreman fight. We stayed there a long time but didn't meet anyone. We could've been sitting next to people in our condo development and wouldn't have known it," says Moore.

They lived there less than a year before moving to New Jersey.

"Making friends is easy if you think it's easy and difficult if you think it's difficult," says Ann G. Kramer, Ed. S., a licensed mental health counselor who herself relocated around the country five times before settling in Tampa, Fla. "Many people approach moving as a reactive, negative: 'I'll deal with it because I have to.' I try to turn that into a challenge: 'How will this add to the adventure of my life?'"

Apparently there's something to this chin-up attitude -- Kramer's only friendship flop was in Baltimore where she arrived kicking and screaming.

To avoid the same fate, consider these six common friendship busters:

Look backward
Change throws a spotlight on all those current things we love but take for granted, so it doesn't surprise psychologist Dr. Pam Brill when new arrivals focus on what they lost. The general population, however, finds it tedious.

"What am I, the person in this city, going to get out of being friends with you when all you really want to do is go home?" asks Kramer.

So dump the "back in Seattle," start to every sentence. Instead, accept the new address as a reality and use it as a clean slate to create the life you want. If you always meant to be physically fit, join a gym. Always dreamed of kayaking? Join a club. Jump into an amateur theatre production.

"Involve yourself in things that do interest you but aren't all about you," Brill says.

Expect too much
Too many newcomers fail to scale down their expectations to reality. Merely showing up in public places doesn't guarantee friends. You need to be a leader now, complete with the tougher skin and tenacity needed for that job, psychologists say.

So host a backyard barbecue or a party -- it's a great way to introduce yourself, says Marla Paul, who wrote, "The Friendship Crisis: Finding, Making, and Keeping Friends When You're Not a Kid Anymore." But don't get upset when your guests don't reciprocate -- your invitation wasn't synonymous with obligation.

"You may have a tremendous need to make new friends, but everybody else barely has enough time for career, family and their current circle," she says.

To increase your odds for a hit, don't try to wedge your way into the popular group from the get-go. People who are already the life of the party, work full time, have children and have lived in the area all their lives are simply less available. "You'll have to take a number to fit into their life no matter how much they like you," Paul says.

Finally, wake up to the fact that not every friendship results in a deep bond. Ask Leslie Levine, author of "Wish It, Dream It, Do It," who moved to the Chicago suburbs six years ago. Today she knows lots of people, but still isn't part of a Friends-like clique. "My good friends are a very small group who don't know each other," she says.

"They don't like me"
You're off track the minute you take aloneness personally. In some cases, the recipient of your cookies, phone calls and e-mails may not know how to respond, says Levine. But more likely, experts concur, they merely lack time to open their routines to a new face. One of Paul's sources confessed that the first gal she approached in a new city bluntly informed the newcomer she didn't have time for new friends right now, thank you.

And, like falling in love, sometimes the relationship doesn't mesh for the other party even if you are delightfully charming. For example, some divorced people prefer to surround themselves with other single-agains. Paul interviewed a woman who sought to form friends only with beautifully dressed older women because she aspired to that status in life. Still other folks struggle with personal situations behind closed doors that they won't reveal.

"The undercurrent is that you just can't know what somebody else is seeking. Just because they don't respond to your overture doesn't necessarily mean it's about you," Paul says. "In fact, it's rarely about you."

One word: clingy
Nothing drives off people faster than the emotionally needy. Complain about your new situation, beg people for their time, adopt a subtle whine to your tone and kiss the current batch of friendship candidates goodbye.

As a gut check, Kramer recommends her clients keep a journal for a few weeks to reveal the undertones. Are you making notes of how sad you are? How frustrated, angry, disappointed, scared? Chances are great you give off those vibes outside those pages, too, so make a conscious decision to relegate those conversations to your journal friend, not the flesh-and-blood ones.

Give up too soon
When you say someone isn't responding, what does that mean? Did you have a great time at lunch and now you're waiting in vain for her to call you to set the next date? "That doesn't quite equal no response," in Paul's book. It's reasonable, she says, to call two or three times before you jump to that conclusion. Even then, bring up the topic gently, as in "I enjoy spending time with you, but I've noticed I'm the one who makes the calls. Am I looking for more time than you have available?"

Paula clocks the amount of time it takes to make new friends in terms of years. Kramer gives a more optimistic time frame but cautions people to not expect any real movement for at least eight months. "It takes that long to set up a couple of meetings and get beyond 'Hi, my name is Ann,'" she says.

Lean on former friends
The best buds you left behind can be a great support system if you rely on them to help you shape this new vision of your life and encourage you in ways to reach out. "It's important to keep in touch with your old friends to remind you that you are loveable and you'll have friends again," Paul says.

On the other hand, this crutch cripples when you pour all your free time into longing for what you miss rather than launching into the new world, warns Brill.

"Friendship is the byproduct of pursuing life with passion, meaning and values that are important to you. It's not the goal itself," she adds.

-- Posted: July 7, 2004

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