The Real Trouble with Making Friends in Middle Age

Over the weekend The New York Times discussed a matter of contemporary lifestyle that pretty much anyone can relate to: Friendship. Specifically, how hard is it to make friends as an adult?

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Over the weekend The New York Times addressed a matter of contemporary lifestyle that pretty much anyone can relate to: Friendship. Specifically, how hard is it to make friends as an adult? Is it, as writer Alex Williams would have us believe, nearly impossible to make lasting, deep buddy relationships past the age of 30, once the halcyon days of college are complete and adults turn their focus onto their careers, marriages, home lives, families, and children?

Hanna Rosin writes on Slate's XXFactor blog that actually, she hasn't had trouble making friendships in her grownup life at all. She explains, "I’ve definitely witnessed the patterns Williams is describing, but it strikes me as much more a man’s way of going through middle life than a woman’s"—and actually, her "experience of lifetime friendships is exactly the opposite." As for what Williams experienced, we get a common tale of would-be friendship based on instant chemistry (liking similar songs and movie lines, finishing each other's sentences) that was held up by both men being, essentially, too busy with other things. He writes of that initial meeting,

That was four years ago. We’ve seen each other four times since. We are “friends,” but not quite friends. We keep trying to get over the hump, but life gets in the way.

Our story is not unusual. In your 30s and 40s, plenty of new people enter your life, through work, children’s play dates and, of course, Facebook. But actual close friends — the kind you make in college, the kind you call in a crisis — those are in shorter supply.

Williams cites research that identifies three conditions key to making close friends: "proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other." For adults in this day and age, goes the argument, those things are in as short a supply as are friendships. It's undeniable that this may be true for some, but Williams seems to ignore another key factor here: As people couple and marry and have children, thereby defining and narrowing their personal networks out of necessity (there's just not time for everything), there are singles who do perfectly well maintaining their own support networks of friendships, because those friendships have become their own "families" so to speak.

Having difficulty making friends isn't an age thing, it's a matter of life situation. Friendships are, at their simplest, unions in which each person gets something of value from the other; if you don't need what a friend is giving you because you get it elsewhere—or you simply don't need it at all because your life situation has changed—they might end up getting cut from your life. Further, if you can't find anyone you like or relate to, maybe you don't actually need to like anyone that badly. Singles who don't have "built-in" friends and social networks like spouses and kids probably prioritize external friendships a bit more than do the marrieds, because they need them more. Yet Williams doesn't really address any of this.

I contacted Eric Klinenberg, author of Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, the NYU sociology professor behind much of the latest research on adults living alone. He explained, "Given that about half of all adults are unmarried and one-third of them live alone, it was a striking omission [in the Times piece]. Singles and singletons (my term for people who live alone) tend to active social lives as they age. They are more likely than married people to spend time with friends and neighbors, more likely to volunteer in civic organizations, and more likely to go out at night and spend time in bars, restaurants, cafes, and other public places where strangers meet."

One key to friendship at any age is to find people who like to do similar things and who have similar values and circumstances, which is why adults with children often pair up with adults who also have kids, and why thirty- and fortysomethings who are career-minded but childless and unmarried might find close friendships with people who are in their twenties and similarly single, kid-free, and ambitious. Maybe you maintain friendships with people in other life stages, too—it's not that it's impossible, but it can be more difficult. "One of the themes of my book," says Klinenberg, "is that today life stages are less tightly linked to age. We move in and out of different experiences, so there are a lot of singles in their 40s who have already raised children as well as married people in their 50s with young kids at home." Stage of life compatibility may actually be a new, fourth condition key to friendships. In fact, several of the divorced people Klinenberg has interviewed didn't want to remarry because they dreaded an ensuing narrowing of their social world, he said: "One, a single mother of two grown children whom she raised on her own, even turned down a proposal because she was so attached to the lifestyle she had built."

As Laura L. Carstensen, a psychology professor quoted by Williams, explained, a big life event like turning 30 causes people to take stock and "concentrate on the here and now." She said, “You tend to focus on what is most emotionally important to you, so you’re not interested in going to that cocktail party, you’re interested in spending time with your kids.” Perhaps yes, but adults have a wide array of what's important to them that goes beyond kids, particularly if they don't have them, or if those children are grown. Which is why, in a piece in The Wall Street Journal today, Diane Cole writes of the surge in people "at mid-life and beyond" who are not only eager to make friends and develop relationships, they're actively pursuing these social interactions via online dating.

As Klineberg said, "When it comes to shaping friendship patterns, life-stage may well be more important than age. Friendships never come easy, but single people tend to put themselves out there and take risks. I interviewed a lot of single people who travel with other singles and develop important relationships that way. Others made close friends hanging out after yoga classes or pick-up basketball games, while the married people rushed home to be with their families. Those who live alone have fewer constraints on their time and fewer responsibilities to others, which means they can be open to new experiences and they can throw themselves into intense interpersonal situations."

Age is just a number. Stage of life is something else, something far more important in terms of friendships and your lifestyle in general. After all, if you're not making friends in your adult life because you simply don't need them, maybe that's not really trouble at all. 

Image via Shutterstock by Irina1977.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.