The Art of Friendship
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The Art of Friendship

One great thing about getting older? The confidence to choose and make friends who can be our best cheerleaders.

Making Friends in Midlife

One evening a few years ago I found myself in a funk. Nothing was really wrong -- my family and I were healthy, my career was busy and successful -- I was just feeling vaguely down and in need of a friend who could raise my spirits, someone who would meet me for coffee and let me rant until the clouds lifted. Trouble was, there was no chum to call and confide in. Over the course of a few years all of my oldest, closest girlfriends had moved out of town, one by one, in search of better jobs, better weather, better men.

I dialed my best friend, who now lives across the country in California, and got her voice mail. That's when it started to dawn on me -- lonesomeness was at the root of my dreariness. My social life had dwindled to almost nothing, but somehow until that moment I'd been too busy to notice. Now it hit me hard. My old friends, buddies since college or even childhood, knew everything about me; when they left, they had taken my context with them.

Research has shown the long-range negative consequences of social isolation on one's health. But my concerns were more short-term. I needed to feel understood right then in the way that only a girlfriend can understand you. I knew it would be wrong to expect my husband to replace my friends: He couldn't, and even if he could, to whom would I then complain about my husband?

So I resolved to acquire new friends -- women like me who had kids and enjoyed rolling their eyes at the world a little bit just as I did. Since I'd be making friends with more intention than I'd ever given the process, I realized I could be selective, that I could in effect design my own social life. The downside, of course, was that I felt pretty intimidated.

After all, it's a whole lot harder to make friends in midlife than it is when you're younger -- a fact women I've spoken with point out again and again. As Leslie Danzig, 41, a Chicago theater director and mother, sees it, when you're in your teens and 20s, you're more or less friends with everyone unless there's a reason not to be. Your college roommate becomes your best pal at least partly due to proximity. Now there needs to be a reason to be friends. "There are many people I'm comfortable around, but I wouldn't go so far as to call them friends. Comfort isn't enough to sustain a real friendship," Danzig says.

At first, finding new companions felt awkward. At 40 I couldn't run up to people the way my 4-year-old daughters do in the playground and ask, "Will you be my friend?" "Every time you start a new relationship, you're vulnerable again," agrees Kathleen Hall, DMin, founder and CEO of the Stress Institute, in Atlanta. "You're asking, 'Would you like to come into my life?' It makes us self-conscious."

Fortunately, my discomfort soon passed. I realized that as a mature friend seeker my vulnerability risk was actually pretty low. If someone didn't take me up on my offer, so what: I wasn't in junior high, when I might have been rejected for having the wrong clothes or hair. At my age I have amassed enough self-esteem to realize that I have plenty to offer. One woman I met at a friend's shower didn't keep up our connection, even though we'd clicked instantly. But because there have been times when I've failed to follow through with women I've liked very much, I knew that her busyness was the likely explanation.

Friends That Make You a Better You

We're all so busy, in fact, that mutual interests -- say, in a project, class, or cause that we already make time for -- become the perfect catalysts for bringing us in contact with candidates for camaraderie. Michelle Mertes, 35, a teacher and mother of two in Wausau, Wisconsin, says a new friend she made at church came as a pleasant surprise. "In high school I chose friends based on their popularity and how being part of their circle might reflect on me. Now's it's our shared values and activities that count." Mertes says her pal, with whom she organized the church's youth programs, is nothing like her but their drive and organizational skills make them ideal friends.

Happily, as awkward as making new friends can be, self-esteem issues do not factor in -- or if they do, you can easily put them into perspective. Danzig tells of the mother of a child in her son's preschool, a tall, beautiful woman who is married to a big-deal rock musician. "I said to my husband, 'she's too cool for me,'" she jokes. "I get intimidated by people. But once I got to know her, she turned out to be pretty laid-back and friendly." In the end there was no chemistry between them, so they didn't become good pals. "I realized that we weren't each other's type, but it wasn't about hierarchy." What midlife friendship is about, it seems, is reflecting the person you've become (or are still becoming) back at yourself, thus reinforcing the progress you've made in your life.

Harlene Katzman, 41, a lawyer in New York City, notes that her oldest friends knew her back when she was less sure of herself. As much as she loves them, she believes they sometimes respond to issues in light of who she once was. On the other hand, "New friends know me as a more accomplished person," says Katzman. "They see me as confident. An old chum has the goods on you. With recently made friends, you can turn over a new leaf."

A new friend, chosen right, can also help you point your boat in the direction you want to go. Hanna Dershowitz, 39, an attorney and mother in Los Angeles, found that a new acquaintance from work was exactly what she needed in a friend. In addition to liking and respecting Julia, Dershowitz had a feeling that the fit and athletic younger woman would help her to get in shape. The two began working out together, and Dershowitz made sure to pursue the friendship actively. "She brings out my motivation and I really like that. She's strong and successful, and she helps me emphasize those things in myself." I feel the same way about one of my new friends, Ronni, a stay-at-home mom whose daughter was in my girls' preschool.

Finding What's Missing

I was drawn to her because she is lovely and warm. But what made me decide I wanted to be friends with her was what I knew I could learn from her. She makes the parts of motherhood I found overwhelming seem not only possible but easy, even fun. I like her resourcefulness, her patience, her calm in the face of toddler anarchy.

When I met Ronni I was working full-time, my marriage was as stressed as I was, and any time I spent with my kids felt like time away from something I needed to be doing to keep the whole machine running. We never discussed it, but my friendship with Ronni contributed to my decision to work part-time, so that I can enjoy my children in the way she does hers. She inspired me to take inventory of my own life and to attend to how it wasn't making me happy.

I keep up with my old friends as much as distance allows, but I'm finding my new friends equally nourishing. "She and I both say, 'I wasn't even looking for a friend when I met you,'" says Jenna McCarthy, 39, a mother of two in Santa Barbara of her friend of three years, Kirsten. "But until I met her, I hadn't realized how much was missing from my life. I'm happier now that she's my friend."

Be a Better Friend

While you're busy making new friends, remember that you still need to nurture your old ones. We asked Marla Paul, author of The Friendship Crisis: Finding, Making, and Keeping Friends When You're Not a Kid Anymore, for the best ways to maintain these important relationships.

1. Keep in touch. Your friends should be a priority; schedule regular lunch dates or coffee catch-up sessions, no matter how busy you are.

2. Know her business. Keep track of important events in a friend's life and show your support. Call or e-mail to let her know you're thinking of her.

3. Speak your mind. Tell a friend (politely) if something she did really upset you. If you can't be totally honest, then you need to reexamine the relationship.

4. Accept her flaws. No one is perfect, so work around her quirks -- she's chronically late, or she's a bit negative -- to cut down on frustration and fights.

5. Boost her ego. Heartfelt compliments make everyone feel great, so tell her how much you love her new sweater or what a great job she did on a work project.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, March 2009.