Female Friends Hiking In Nature
It can be tricky to make friends anywhere, and trickier in rural places, and even trickier during a pandemic, so my heart goes out to you as you’re navigating all of this at once. (Photo: Flamingo Images/Stocksy)
Tough Love

How to Meet New People and Make Friends

Expanding your community is always tough. Throw in a pandemic and a move to a rural area, and it could feel impossible. But a shift in perspective might be all you need to (safely) fill that social void.

Female Friends Hiking In Nature

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Welcome to Tough Love. We’re answering your questions about dating, breakups, and everything in between. Our advice giver is Blair Braverman, dogsled racer and author of Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube. Have a question of your own? Write to us at toughlove@outsideim.com.

I’m a young twentysomething who moved to rural New England for a job months before the pandemic became a reality. I love being close to the mountains and having space for a garden at the place that I’m renting. It’s truly beautiful up here and I feel so much healthier and less stressed compared to how I feel in cities. The one big drawback is I haven’t made many friends in the area beyond my roommates. I identify as a social and adventurous person, down for almost anything (given we’re being safe and following social distancing guidelines). I’ve taken to dating apps to meet people because going out is not really an option in a pandemic, and there are not many places to go out. While I’ve been on a number of fun first friend dates this summer and fall, the plans for follow-up hangouts have consistently fallen through. I’m usually the one who takes on the role of planning, but when the other person doesn’t ever initiate, I start to wonder if they actually want the friendship. I’m debating whether to move back to a city or stick it out for another year here. I also wonder if this is really an issue of living rurally or if it's just part of being a single, young adult in a pandemic? Any tips for making friends in rural places?

It can be tricky to make friends anywhere, and trickier in rural places, and even trickier during a pandemic, so my heart goes out to you as you’re navigating all of this at once. This is a stressful and isolating time for so many of us, and I suspect that you’d be feeling at least some of this loneliness anywhere. Your current life is a poor indicator of what rural life is usually like, and you can take advantage of the fact that your isolation is (relatively) universal to connect with old friends, wherever they happen to live.

The hard thing about moving, of course, is that most people around you already have established social circles—but that can be an opportunity, too. Rather than building friendships through a series of hangouts (however fun and well-planned), try to figure out what’s already happening and how you can get involved. Look for clubs, committees, and volunteer groups; go to your nearest bar or grocery store and check out the flyers by the door. You already like gardening; what about helping with the farmer’s market? I bet your town has trail cleanup days, a ski club, and annual events or festivals. Part of the beauty of rural life is being part of a close community, and it is possible to be welcomed as an outsider. But for a while, at least, you should expect to show up to other people’s plans before they show up reliably for yours.

Another thing to keep in mind: if, in the past, you’ve mostly made friends through school and work, you may be used to finding friends who are demographically similar to you—people who share your age, educational background, level of income, and so on. If you can let go of that expectation, you may be pleasantly surprised. Maybe you’ll end up connecting with your neighbor, who’s in her sixties, tells great stories, and goes for a ten-mile hike every Saturday. Or you’ll start riding horses at the farm across town. In my experience, rural friendships tend to converge around what people like to do together, and that’s part of the beauty: if you’re all learning from each other, you can do some pretty amazing things.

And of course, you could try all this and discover that your new town still isn’t the right fit; or maybe you’re just longing for familiarity, and that’s OK too. But I’d encourage you not to judge your rural life based on how it feels during a global pandemic. The world is upside down right now, but that’s the thing: it’s upside down right now, and if we’re patient and careful, there really is an end in sight.

Unfortunately, my dog is no longer able to participate in adventures. We used to go everywhere together. She’s a really cheerful, curious, and chill dog so she’s an easy companion in breweries, patios, parks, and even my office. She also gets to come along because she has severe separation anxiety. (Think puppy panic attacks and eviction notices.) Then last year, she became paralyzed overnight and had to have emergency spine surgery for a degenerative condition called IVDD. She has made a miraculous recovery and is able to walk again, but we can’t go for long walks in the neighborhood, let alone hikes or more rigorous activities. Together, these two conditions mean that I’m basically unable to leave the house because I can’t leave the dog alone and I can’t take the dog with me. 

As you can imagine, this is a weird problem to explain to a date! Often, at some point I have to excuse myself, saying “I’m so sorry, it’s getting late and I have to pick up my dog from the dogsitter,” which doesn't exactly scream “easy, breezy, beautiful.” I am also reluctant to rely too heavily on friends for constant dogsitting duty, so I have pushed the “meeting new people” task to the backburner for a long time. 

As my own personal puppy lockdown and the pandemic continue, I am realizing that I can’t put love on hold forever. Do you have any suggestions for ways to accommodate this bizarre-o dog problem and still arrange fun, adventurous dates? I need to find a way to meet a cutie and have a good time outdoors this winter—masks, social distancing, disabled dog and all!

I’m so glad that your dog has mostly recovered! She’s lucky to have you (and you, her), even if she can’t do everything she could do before.

It sounds like you’ve been shaping your life around your dog’s anxiety for a long time, and I’d imagine she feels even more vulnerable now because of her physical limitations. For this situation, I’d strongly recommend working with a dog trainer, who can get to know your girl, accommodate her anxiety, and come up with techniques for both of you when you have to be separated. At this point, it’s not just about dating. What if you have to visit a sick family member, or take a work trip? What if you fall in love with someone who’s allergic to dogs, and you need one room in the house to be fur-free? There are times when you’ll have to be separated from your dog, and your friends may not be available, and it’ll make the process much gentler if you start preparing now. 

You might luck out with the first trainer you meet, but if not, don’t be discouraged. Dog trainers are like therapists—the trick is to find the right match, and you should expect (and budget for) several sessions. The process will take time and practice, and probably won’t completely eliminate your dog’s anxiety, but it should help bring it to a more manageable level. 

Once you get the training process underway, you can still come up with adventures for the two (or three) of you, like pulling your dog in a pulk when you go cross-country skiing, or taking a paddling trip with a dog bed in the canoe. You won’t be able to do everything together, but you’ll have plenty of fun—not because you have to bring your dog, but because you get to.

Lead Photo: Flamingo Images/Stocksy

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