Friendships are wonderful, terrible, easy and complicated. Midlife friendships can introduce new challenges. While you’re raising kids, the adults you spend the most time with are the parents of your children’s friends. Or the parents you see at their schools, sporting events, musical concerts and so on. You might also have friends at your workplace, church or a hobby you pursue.
Midlife offers you a chance to take stock of your friendships. Who are your friends, really? Do you have enough? How do you make new ones now?
Here are some things to bear in mind while figuring out your midlife friendships.
Why do midlife friendships matter?
Numerous scientific studies have demonstrated links between the strength of one’s social relationships and having a longer, healthier life. In addition to contributing to quantity of life, or longevity, friends also enhance your quality of life. They give you someone to celebrate with when times are good, and someone to support you through life’s difficult passages. Moreover, when you care about your friends, you enter into a broader, more complex and satisfying experience of life than you could realize alone.
Science links social activity with longevity
In a 2010 meta-analysis of 148 prior studies, faculty and researchers at Brigham Young University found that social isolation puts an individual at comparable or even greater risk of mortality than smoking, obesity, physical inactivity and a host of other factors generally associated with poor health outcomes.
Put another way, an individual with stronger social relationships is 50% more likely than one who is socially isolated to live a longer life. This study found the survival benefit of having stronger social relationships was about the same as that of quitting smoking, and greater than survival rates associated with physical exercise, lean body mass, abstinence from alcohol, and drug treatment for high blood pressure.
Social isolation can hasten cognitive decline
If the prospect of living longer doesn’t entice you to strengthen your social relationships, maybe avoidance of cognitive decline will. In a 2012 study of 2173 adults with no evidence of dementia, those who said they were lonely were 2.5 times more likely to develop dementia within the next three years. Note that in this study, only adults with “perceived social isolation” (feelings of loneliness) were more likely to experience cognitive decline — not those with “objective social isolation,” meaning people who lived alone, were unmarried or lacked social supports.
The net takeaway is that, if you want to live a longer, healthier life, and avoid cognitive decline, it’s better to have friends. You can still live alone, but your level of social engagement should be high enough to avoid feeling lonely.
We all need friends
It sounds trite, but it’s true that even the most introverted among us needs a friend or two. You may have a close-knit family. But still there are things you want to share with a friend — not a sister, brother, spouse or adult child.
You may have a “paid friend,” a.k.a. a professional therapist or counselor. While there are good reasons to consult a therapist, it’s not a substitute for talking with a close friend. A professional can offer perspective, help you develop alternatives and talk through decisions. But a good therapist maintains a professional distance. She doesn’t offer her personal opinion— but rather helps you clarify things for yourself. A good friend, on the other hand, can disagree with you, challenge you or wholeheartedly support you — occasionally all at the same time. But at the end of the day, she’s 100% committed to you. She’s got your back.
Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR reporter and author of Life Reimagined, talked about the connection between midlife friendship and stress management in a 2016 story on Morning Edition. She described an experience of going into a brain scanner and then being given random electric shocks on the ankle. When alone, just anticipating a shock would “light up” her brain on the scanner. But when she was holding the hand of her best friend, Cherie, the brain was quiet. You can listen to the whole story here:
Avoid selfishness, care about someone else
Another reason to keep up at least a handful of friendships at midlife is that it takes you away from navel-gazing. It’s easy to become self-centered if you spend all your time alone, ruminating on your own problems and desires. But when you invest your energy in other people and their concerns, your own problems tend not to loom as large.
Friendship differs from the type of altruism you experience when volunteering in your community. Helping others is a wonderful thing to do, and it also helps you stop ruminating over your own problems. But friendship, unlike altruism, is more of a two-way exchange. When you have a close friend, a peer with whom you interact on multiple levels, you invest yourself in her, and she invests herself in you.
How to form friendships at midlife?
Remember what your mother always told you: “To make a friend, you need to BE a friend.” But how do you actually DO that?
It’s not that easy anymore
When people are jumbled together in college and have limitless hours to live, eat, study and play with the same people, there are opportunities to form deep friendships. When you’re parenting school-age children, it’s easy to connect with other parents at their schools and other activities. Usually, you can find others with whom you have things in common (kids the same age, for example).
Once your offspring graduate from high school, however, you lose the instant community provided by their schools, sports, music and other activities. It’s kind of odd: for a number of years you see the same people all the time, and then you don’t.
I still keep in touch with several of my children’s friends’ parents, but I have to admit that it often doesn’t occur to me to invite them to lunch, or dinner out, or even to coffee. They’re not calling me, either. Seems a little sad that we’ve let the friendships go, but maybe that’s just what happens. The question is, what do you do now?
3 principles for making midlife friendships
Most how-to articles on making friends at any stage of life suggest practical approaches like joining community organizations, pursuing sports or hobbies with like-minded individuals, and getting away from computer and phone screens to interact IRL (“in real life”). There’s no magic bullet here — you have to work at it. Rather than listing practical suggestions that you can read elsewhere, I’d like to talk about three overall principles that matter when it comes to friendships, especially at midlife.
1. Be intentional
Midlife presents friendship choices. Although it may be harder to connect with others than it was when your kids were at home, you get to choose with whom you want to connect. Just because you no longer see those moms on the soccer field doesn’t mean you can’t still get together with them. But you have to be intentional about it — you can’t rely on running into someone in the parking lot or grabbing a cup of coffee with them after dropping off kids in the morning.
Midlife friendships don’t just happen. You have to work at them. Choose one or two people you’ve met at your kids’ school, your job, yoga class or something else you do. Invite them to coffee, to lunch, to take a walk. They might be looking for friends, too.
2. Step outside your comfort zone
One of the trickiest parts of friendship is its potential for rejection. Sometimes you work hard to “be a friend” and ultimately don’t “make a friend.” You open up to another person but wind up getting bruised emotionally. A lot of factors need to click into place for two people to become close friends.
Sometimes both of you settle for being acquaintances — people who enjoy each others’ company but rarely expose their vulnerabilities to each other. However, to deepen the bond of friendship, someone has to dip her toe into the freezing water. Eventually, both of you have to be real with each other.
Oftentimes you want to hang out with someone who’s at your same age and stage. But really great friendships can form when you step outside that comfort zone and get to know an older person, or alternatively, someone significantly younger than you. Two of my best friends are ladies more than 25 years my elder. They give me perspective on things I’m going through, encourage me and generally are a lot of fun to spend time with.
Likewise, I’m trying to form some friendships with people 20-30 years younger than me. The main place I meet younger folks these days is at my church. It takes an effort to strike up a conversation with someone in their 20s or 30s after a church service when I could easily chat with someone my own age — probably a person I already know. But still, I want to try, because I’ve seen firsthand how rich intergenerational friendships can be.
3. Be patient and persist
Building a friendship takes time. Most of us will never again have the luxury of spending so much time with friends as we did when we were in college, but midlife friendship is still possible. I don’t recommend trying to condense the “getting to know you” phase by inviting an acquaintance to coffee and then overwhelming her with the news that she’s in line to be your new best friend. Take it slow, and see how you get along with each other.
Sometimes a crisis brings people together. And every now and then it’s “love at first sight,” where you instantly click with another person. But more often, you take two steps forward and one step back.
Don’t give up. We all need friends. Maybe Mom was right. Be a friend, make a friend.
Resources for further reading:
“How Friendships Change in Adulthood,” Julie Beck, The Atlantic, 10/22/15, https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/10/how-friendships-change-over-time-in-adulthood/411466/
Life Reimagined: The Science, Art and Opportunity of Midlife, Barbara Bradley Hagerty, Riverhead Books: 2016.
Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend, Irene S. Levine, The Overlook Press: 2009.
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