The Art of Friendship
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.