Discover more from Friendship Rules
Why We Have Fewer Friends As We Age
The number of friends you have is not important. Instead, keep count of the quality ones you can count on.
Recently, while rearranging my bookshelves, I dusted off my high school yearbook. Flipping through the yellowing pages, I read all the messages, the ink now faded, that friends had scrawled in the margins the day before graduation when we gathered in the hallways and excitedly passed our books around to as many people as we could manage.
I’ll admit that my eyes did get a bit misty and my mood a bit somber, remembering all the friends I swore I’d never forget - friends that are, many decades later, largely forgotten or lost.
Our faces! So firm and unlined. Our expressions! Some were comfortably smiling but more commonly staring warily into the camera’s lens with a hint of angst, trying not to look like we were into this whole yearbook nostalgia thing. After all, it was the 70s, and it wasn’t cool to be happy.
But what was cool back then was collecting friends, and promising we’d “always stay in touch” and that our friendships “will continue throughout the years.”
Having a large group of friends meant we were important, wanted, loved. Having many friends was an assurance that we were adored (because usually we didn’t adore ourselves).
Most of us didn’t stay in touch. Alas, by the time we get to midlife, friendships - not just from high school but more recent ones, too - seem to dwindle.
Friendships dissolve through death, divorce, moving, sabotage or competition. We grow apart in miles and also in values and beliefs. (This has been abundantly clear during the tumultuous past few years when politics tore friendships and families apart.)
Priorities change; growing careers and families demand attention while spare time diminishes. We begin to realize that some friends are toxic, too much work, or no longer worth any work at all.
Sometimes, we willingly weed our garden, looking forward to less mess and greater meaning. Other times, friendships wither for seemingly no reason, and we find it difficult to pinpoint the moment or event that extinguished the friendship’s flame.
When we reach our 50s, we suddenly realize that our list of friends has narrowed to only a few…or is virtually nonexistent. And many times, that’s okay because we’ve come to realize it’s the quality – not the quantity - that counts.
Yet, other times, we feel the desire to fill a gaping hole that remains. Yet it’s not always obvious just how to do that. Gone is the steady pool of people from which to pick: school fund-raisers, parenting groups, and the workplace, where shared interests foster strong friendships.
A feeling of loneliness creeps in, and many people long for that special, comfortable, easy friendship, a friend with whom they can be spontaneous.
It’s never too late to make new – and wonderful – friends. Some of my best and favorite friends are those I’ve made in the last few years.
These are some of the ways that have worked for Irene and me (late-life besties):
Pursue your interests. Find something that stirs your passion. Join a gym, take an art course, sign up for dancing lessons, or volunteer. With contact with the same people week after week, friendships will follow.
Start looking for acquaintances. Real relationships take time to nurture and grow. Don’t expect too much too soon – give friendships a chance to blossom by being open and honest.
Turn virtual friendships into real ones. Facebook friends can and do become face-to-face ones. If you discover they live nearby, or you’re traveling to one another’s hometowns, make plans to meet in person.
Reframe your thinking. Some of my best friendships have been with unlikely people. Expand your pool and seek out people who are a bit different in terms of age or lifestyle. Intergenerational friendships yield valuable payoffs on both sides.
Push yourself out of your comfort zone. Initiate a conversation. Smile at a stranger. Reach out to a new neighbor. You never know where it will lead.
Some women insist their husband or child is their best friend. Mine aren’t. That’s not because I don’t love them and feel close to them; I do.
But a friend? That’s a whole different animal.
When it comes to counting friends, quality is more important than quantity.