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How Do You Make New Friends at Midlife?
Losing friends in midllife often stings more sharply than when we were younger. We may not be able to replace the friend we loved, but it is possible to forge new close and meaningful friendships.
Just in time for International Friendship Day, I received a note from a Pauser…
Barbara explained that she was feeling lonely and adrift. She had lost some close friends recently; some to relocations or divorce; others to misunderstandings. And one other to illness; the loss that stings the most; the inevitable loss that comes with growing older.
Barbara went on to write that to make things harder, since she started working remotely, her opportunities to connect with co-workers and to socialize have dramatically dwindled.
“Suddenly, I’m feeling lonely, and faced with having to make new friends. But I don’t really know how, in my late-50s, to make new friends. The last time I had to do that was back in grade school! Just how can I expect to find deep, meaningful friendships at this point in my life? Everybody seems to be settled with their friends by now. For the first time in my life I feel so awkward; like a real outsider.”
Losing friends in midlife.
I can relate. In my 40s, I lost my two closest, dearest friends within a year of one another (they both died of breast cancer, which I also had). The loss was agonizing and beyond measure. For one, there was that thing called “survivor’s guilt.” The sensation wasn’t guilt, exactly; yet I couldn’t shake the feeling like I had been thrown a lifejacket while they had been pulled under by an impossibly fierce current. For another, who expects to lose friends to death at such a young age? The reality of that deepened the already natural grief of death. And finally, how would I ever find – and know could I find - such deep friendships again?
I’ve always placed an immense value on my friends. My good friends are right up there in importance and significance as my husband and children. Friends are like salt that brings out the flavor of foods; the sugar that makes everything sweeter.
In time, my mourning gave way to hope. I began to realize that my comfort and security in these deep friendships had caused me to neglect the other friends who were always right in front of me. I cultivated those friendships, and opened myself up to new ones. Slowly I regained my footing, scattering seeds that blossomed into fulfilling, fruitful friendships.
Making New Friends in Midlife.
It’s different. And yes, it can be more difficult. But making new friends in midlife is definitely possible.
All of this got me thinking of so many questions and thoughts about friendships. And who better to call to talk about this than someone I’m lucky to call my dear friend, Irene S. Levine.
We met about 10 years ago at a writer’s conference. Our stories differ as to who “made the first move,” (I insist it was her, but she swears I said hello first!) But since the day we met, we’ve enjoyed a close bond and strong, solid friendship.
But Irene is not just a friend - she is a friendship expert! Irene earned her PhD in psychology and is the author of the wildly popular Friendship Blog and the book, Best Friends Forever: Surviving A Breakup With Your Best Friend.
‘Listen’ in on our conversation about midlife friendships.
Sheryl. Why is the thought of making new friends in midlife feel so intimidating and daunting?
Irene. Life changes at midlife, and there are less opportunities to make and forge friendships. We’re no longer in school. We may not be working, and our parenting days are behind us. All those were rich in opportunities to meet other people; people with similar interests, people who we would see on a steady basis.
When we meet people under less consistent circumstances, it requires more initiative and self-confidence to keep the friendship going.
S. So true! I also think when we’re younger, we are less self-conscious about making friends; it seems to come rather naturally. But when we get older, somehow there’s this fear that surrounds it. Will the other person “like” me? Am I being too “pushy?” Will I seem “desperate” if I try to be friends with them? Actually, it all sounds rather childish, doesn’t it?
I. Toddlers in the playground are never afraid to ask: Will you be my friend?But no matter what our age now, it can be awkward to do things like initiate calls or emails. We all have a fear of rejection. And even though it may not have a thing to do with us, we tend to take it personally if the other person is unavailable or doesn’t want to invest in a friendship to the same extent that we do.
S. A lot of people tell me that as they get older, they become more discriminating about friendships. I tend to agree. I think we get more protective of our time, since it’s shorter and we value it more than when we were younger, when we thought it continues ad infinitum.
I. You’re not alone. When we reach midlife, we are also a lot wiser and experienced. We are less likely to make poor choices about new friends (although not all the time). Sometimes, we’re so desperate to make a new friend that we throw caution to the wind and latch on to a friendship that is doomed to fail.
S. Yes, that’s happened to me. There were some “new” friends that unfortunately became “old” friends because they were just not the right fit. (But at least I now have the wisdom now to realize it, as opposed to when I was younger and filled my life indiscriminately with lots of friends, some of whom turned out to be quite toxic.)
I’ve also been thinking about old friends. Luckily, I still have some from the old days. But the best friend who I had from third grade all the way through college - the one I thought I'd grow old with? We were inseparable. Today, we’re no longer friends (although we still wish each other happy birthday each year!), and that makes me kind of sad.
We grew apart and developed into different people with different priorities and different interests. I think that by midlife, we have developed into the person that we were rehearsing to be when we were younger. And that doesn't always enable us to keep the friends we had.
I. Our “legacy” friends are irreplaceable in many ways. They are people who were part of our history. They may have grown up in the same neighborhood, went to the same schools, knew our parents and experienced “firsts” with us - first time on a date, etc.
But friendships can’t be sustained on share memories alone. People grow in different directions, change over time, and aren’t the same person they were then. So it’s not surprising that many of these once close friendships fall by the wayside.
S. Even though we don’t share a long history, many friendships I made later in life are such deep friendships. Sometimes I find it weird that there are huge gaps to fill in; like when we find ourselves asking one another questions like, “What kind of job did you have when you first graduated college?” Or even saying things like, “I didn’t know you were married once before!” How do you suppose it’s possible to have such deep friendships without a shared history?
I. When I interviewed more than 1500 woman of all ages while conducting research for my book, so many of them used the same term when describing best friends. “We just clicked,” they said. This refers to an ease of communication and understanding that separates close friendships from more distant acquaintances. Close friends are non-judgmental, good listeners, and seem to understand us. They are people with whom we can be our authentic selves. These friendships are reciprocal and balanced.
S. Well said, my friend! Reciprocal and balanced. What a great description of a friendship that works.
What’s your advice to someone who is having trouble making friends in midlife? And conversely, what’s your Marie Kondo-like advice for shedding friends who "no longer bring us joy?"
I. In terms of making friends: Recognize you need to put yourself out there and take some risks. Engage in your own interests and hobbies (e.g. through participating in clubs, organizations, book groups, gyms, the outdoors, volunteering—-or even Meetup.com) and you’ll meet kindred spirits. The possibilities are endless. Don’t be afraid to be the one to make the first move, and as you said previously, don’t take it personally if the other person isn’t interested in making new friendships. Also, don’t rush into friendships. They need to evolve over time. It can start over a cup of coffee.
S. I’d add this: Don’t ignore intergenerational friendships. Some of the most rewarding and valuable friendships I’ve had over the years have been with women much older than myself. Unfortunately, many people don’t realize there’s so much to be learned and shared on both sides!
I. In terms of shedding friends: Recognize that most friendships, even very good ones, don’t last forever. People change so friendships are dynamic. Remember that friendships are voluntary relationships (unlike marriage or family) and that they need to be mutually satisfying. Every once in a while, do an inventory in your mind assessing whether any of your friendships are more draining than they are rewarding. It isn’t easy letting go of someone who once was a friend but in the end, you open yourself up to new friendships.
P.S. If my “dance card was full,” I would never have met you!!
S. Thank you, my friend! xoxo
One More Thing…
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