The Pattern of Friendship as We Age

A companion podcast to the article below.

Something is wrong with the way we think about friendship.

We’ve carved up the definition of friend into small, bite-sized categories. Like acquaintance, co-worker, neighbor, buddy, career-husband, career-wife.

This inadvertently precludes casual friendships from developing into something more permanent. It numbs us to the people who live next door. Who work in cubicles near us. Or run on the treadmill beside us at the gym.

Why we do this is puzzling. But we come by this trait organically.

Up until our late teens, we’re dropped into default situations hand-made for start-up friendships. School, camp, neighborhood, church, and synagogue. All perfect environments for relationship building.

For at least the next four decades, we’re attached at the hip to family and career. Time is a precious commodity. Out of necessity, additions to our friendship circle will likely come from those with nearly identical interests, and in close physical proximity. The workplace will therefore serve as one of the predominant meetup spots.

As we begin to approach retirement, we’ve settled into maintenance mode on friendships developed earlier in life.

There’s no real pressure to scout for new friends.

This trend continues into the early stages of retirement. We cloister-up with people we’ve known the longest. Newer relationships are more likely to remain superficial, as familial life events take center stage. We visit children who live in other cities. Move to another state or country to live in a retirement community. Experience illness. Or the death of a spouse.

We Do What Feels Good in the Now

Though it’s a quick but temporary fix in order to feel secure, we become more insular.

Old friendships are self-soothing and safe. Communion with someone who knows you well is expedient. It wafts along on mental shorthand. Has your best interests at heart. Easily picks up where you left off even if a significant amount of time has passed.

This is where friendship slips into the creature comfort stage.

But here’s the danger. Relying solely on cozy moments with old friends diminishes time spent on the expansion of our horizons. It narrows growth and the possibility of new experience. It deprives us of friends who might actually be more in-tune with who and where we are at a specific point in our lives.

This type of sluggish behavior flies in the face of a critical truth about aging adults: as we grow older, one of our biggest fears turns out to be loneliness.

In fact, the latest National Poll on Healthy Aging says that one in three elders is lonely. And that “chronic loneliness can impact older adults’ memory, physical well-being, mental health, and life expectancy.”

But loneliness is not a condition that happens overnight. It’s a corrosive process that takes place over a period of time.

Ironically, this is an avoidable syndrome.

Full Friendship Disclosure

I get it – it takes courage to initiate a friendship.

We might face rejection. Judgment. Disappointment. Dashed expectations. Or worse. We can be visited by vulnerabilities we thought were long ago put to rest.

So we back away. Unsure whether the heavy-lifting required to start a friendship will be worth the outcome.

So Try This

How many times have you heard people say things like, I have very little time for new friends? Or, my favorite, how many good friends can a person have, anyway?

Those sound more like excuses than reasons not to do it.

Break the pattern.

  • Recognize we have more in common with other people than what separates us.
  • Remember that good friendship can throw flattering light back onto us.
  • Think of friendship as free-form and open source, developing into whatever best suits the parties involved.
  • Share attributes we hold in abundance: generosity, encouragement, loyalty, respect, and honesty.

Here’s something that could take the sting out of the effort.

Metaphorically, look first to your left and then to the right. Look at your neighbor. Your gym buddy. Your golf partner. I’m betting your next good friend is someone you already know. Someone you may have needlessly placed into a marginalized category.

Don’t wait for a signal from them. And don’t typecast. You probably only think you know who they are. Unless your gut tells you it’s just not a match from a values perspective, take the first step. Start by jumping into the shallow end. You can always backtrack if it doesn’t work out.

And be open to what you might find. Some of the best adult friendships are with the people who will surprise you the most.

Muppets creator, Jim Henson, thought this about the promise of new friendship when he said: There isn’t a word that’s been developed for old friends who’ve just met. 

That’s great encouragement!

So, wherever you are in your friendship pursuits, it’s not too late for a rethink. There’s no cap on the number of friends you can have. Although the first steps in a new relationship can be relatively clumsy, push through it.

I guarantee you’ll be happy you did.

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