“There are no strangers here. Only friends you haven’t yet met.” ~William Butler Yeats
Friendships are a big factor in health and happiness. People with active friend circles apparently live longer and report higher levels of life satisfaction. Sure, that makes sense.
But as we get older the usual routes to making friends peter out. How hard is it to make friends when your kids no longer need you to help out with school field trips or to accompany them on play dates where you could bond with the other moms?
Really, really hard!
How does a person no longer in college make friends?
Last year this was a big thing on my radar. With my youngest in her first year of college I was officially an empty nester. Without my daughter’s presence available as an easy distraction, the absence of a solid girlfriend circle was obvious. I wanted to actively do something about it. This is what I came up with:
1. Ask yourself why you want new friends? Speaking for myself, I missed the kind of conversations and support only good girlfriends are capable of. The kind where you knew whatever you said would be met with 100% support. If I said, “Oh my god, I am so overwhelmed with everything right now,” a good friend would say, “You poor baby!” without question. She might even offer some chocolate. Good girlfriends always have your back. They don’t try to ‘fix it’ or give you unsolicited advice on how to do things better. Husbands or boyfriends, as much as we adore them, can be iffy in this department.
2. Make a commitment! Making, growing and nurturing relationships is not a passive activity. In our isolating society it takes devotion and positive, consistent energy.
3. Ask yourself, what is your friendship style? I’ve never had many really close friends. Since kindergarten I’ve been more of a one to one kind of person. Others appear to have whole crowds of close friends but that’s not me and it’s OK. You may be more comfortable in a small group of close friends or you may have the kind of personality that shines with one or two people who get you at work but you have enough support with family at home. It’s all good as long as you’re not trying to reach an ideal expectation that doesn’t fit who you are.
“The greatest good you can do for another is not just to share your riches, but to reveal to him his own.” ~Benjamin Disraeli, 1804-1881
4. Purge. To make new friends you may need to prepare the ground in which you want to plant new friendship seeds. Think of it like cleaning out your closet before going out to buy new clothes. You ask yourself what you want to keep, give away, recycle, repurpose or trash?There may be people who have always been friendly with you but not close. Do they have the potential to be really good friends? Like finding a great dress you forgot you had hidden in the back of the closet, take a closer look. There may be hidden treasure already in your life that just needs to let out to shine.
Then there are those people with whom you used to be close but aren’t anymore. Unlike middle school, though, the women who are no longer your close friends will not tell you to your face or whisper behind your back on the bus clearly letting you know your status has changed. Most of the time they just fade away. Do not, if you can possibly help it, take it personally. You grow and change, they grow and change, we just don’t always grow and change in sync.
You don’t have to break the news to Sandra about not being that close to her anymore as long as she’s doing no harm. However, if she is an energy sucker, maybe even abusive, you need to act decisively, maybe even ruthlessly. There is no room for anyone in your life who makes you feel diminished.
Side note: When I was doing this exercise I realized that there were old friends to whom I reached out to many times over the last year or two, women I admired and thought I was close to who weakly replied to my efforts to contact them, “Yes, yes! We must have lunch soon!” with no follow up. I still like these women but holding on to the delusion that we would ever rekindle the closeness we once had was not doing my self-esteem any good. It was a sad realization. I missed what we used to have. That called for a little grieving on my part.
5. Recognize that there are levels of friendship. I know this may sound like you’re assigning Google Plus categories to you friends. The plain truth is that we all have circles of friends, some in closer orbit than others and that’s OK. We are not nine years old anymore. Not everyone is a bff. And just because Gretchen over there thinks you’re her bestie, doesn’t mean you accept that title if it gives you a queazy feeling in your stomach.
“It is one of the blessings of old friends that you can afford to be stupid with them.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson
6. Recognize that where a particular person is in your friendship universe can and probably will change. Some will orbit closely for a while and then drift out or the other way around. Be honest with yourself and acknowledge that today, at this very moment, here are your friends and here is where they fit in your friendship universe right now. Do this in private, no one looking over your shoulder. If under the covers with a flashlight helps, then do it.
Now that you’ve made room in your life to bring in new friendship energy, what’s the next step?
7. Nurture the acquaintances you have now! Explore the potential of ‘Christmas Card’ level girlfriend to become ‘Close Girlfriend’. Contact them. Invite them to impromptu, informal, short-term commitment kind of stuff. A walk around the neighborhood. A glass of wine before dinner instead of a full meal. A glass of wine after dinner! A movie that the husbands have no interest in. If you do it right, the other person will feel flattered and welcome the invitation. She may be longing for a closer friendship herself!
8. To meet new people, try this. Invite a few friends in your acquaintance now over for a little get together. Ask them each to bring a friend of theirs that you probably haven’t met. Chances are, at a minimum, you’ll have a good time for an evening. You may even meet someone new who has good friend potential that you can then follow up on. In a less structures way this is often how we got to know people when we were in school. Many people have met the friend of a close friend who, over time, became a closer friend than the first friend!
9. And this: Resurrect an interest that you’ve allowed to run fallow while you were rearing the kids. What part of yourself have you ignored, something that used to bring you pleasure and wants to be let out to play? When I was asked to be President of my local psychological association I took it on because the time was right. As a result I’ve met some awesome people who are really good friends now. Did you used to do community theatre? Train dogs for competition? Speak French or Spanish? Join an organization, club or Meet Up group that focuses on these activities. Re-commit yourself. Volunteer. You will find like minded people there who are probably very nice, funny and interesting. Resist the urge to make snap judgements. Give them a chance.
10. Give yourself space to observe and enjoy the process. Does she reciprocate your invitation to meet for coffee? Are your conversations fun? Take it step by step. Keep it light! Developing friendships is about me showing you a little bit of Me, then you showing a little bit of You, in return. Slowly we reveal ourselves, always a tiny step at a time. This may sound a lot like coaxing a wild animal out of its den to eat out of your hand but the time you invest in building a good friendship foundation will be worth it.
“Sometimes being a friend means mastering the art of timing. There is a time for silence. A time to let go and allow people to hurl themselves into their own destiny. And a time to prepare to pick up the pieces when it’s all over.” ~Octavia Butler
11. Pace yourself. Maybe we take it a little too fast in our excitement. Talking way too much about ourselves too soon, makes everyone uncomfortable. It causes the opposite reaction to what we’re looking for. Don’t panic! Just take a deep breath, shut up and listen. Benjamin Disraeli, a British Prime Minister in the Victorian Age known for his charismatic charm, was asked what was the secret of his popularity. He basically said, he listened. He asked people questions of themselves and listened some more. People, Disraeli said, will find you endlessly fascinating if you just let them talk about themselves.
12. Be the good friend you want in your life. Would you like to hang out with yourself? Do you like your own company? If yes, that great! If not then what’s going on? When we don’t like ourselves, it’s hard to invite good people into our lives. We may even attract the wrong people! If this is something you struggle with, consider talking with a therapist to work it through. Just a little counseling could go a long way to boosting your self-esteem, enabling you to sustain good, healthy relationships.
“The only way to have a friends is to be one.” ~Emerson
Without a doubt, making new friends and nurturing them is a challenge! It means a commitment from you to be active, take risks and stretch yourself. There will be some misses as well as hits. When we reach out and are met with rejection it’s hard not to take it personally. I’m asking to do just that. Don’t take it personally! Be kind to yourself and give yourself props for getting out there!
Remember: Not every dress we try on fits us, or suits our style. If it doesn’t we put it back on the rack and keep looking. We don’t give up! We try on more promising things until we find a keeper! It may take longer the older we get but the effort we put in is worth it!
Do you have trouble making friends the older you get? Please leave a comment to share any ideas you have to find new friends! Maybe you have a story to tell about making friends after forty. We’d love to hear from you!