Some Thoughts on Friends and Friendship

Making friends is tough business. And it gets harder as you get older. Until one day you wake up and realize you’ve got no friends at all. As John Mulaney quipped: “My dad has no friends. And your dad has no friends. If you think your dad has friends, you’re wrong! Your mom has friends, and they have husbands.”

Well, he’s right in one respect: it sure isn’t as easy as it used to be to make friends, and every year it seems to get harder to keep the friends you’ve got. Who has the time to get together anymore? All of the conveniences and time-savers of our high-tech life have somehow only conspired make us busier than ever. An occasional text message or Facebook post is certainly no substitute for a real conversation. And although phones are ubiquitous, we use them for everything except the purpose for which they were originally designed: actually talking to the people who matter.

I really miss the days of phone calls. I have only one friend left with whom I actually talk on the phone — those long, indulgent conversations where we catch up on what’s really going on. Of course, life being what it is, those conversations only happen about once a year and they require a significant amount of pre-planning to schedule — around work, appointments, family, and all the other obligations that eat up the few precious moments of free time that any of us have any more.

So you’re busy, you’re working, and life gets in the way. And then people move away, and as much as you promise each other that you’ll keep in touch, it’s not the same. Social media makes it easier to keep up than it used to be, but it’s just not the same as getting together on a regular basis. And when someone moves away it’s next to impossible to meet someone new to fill the void.

Different stages of life present different opportunities for making friends. It starts out simply enough: little kids seem to be hard-wired to make friends. When you’re a kid you just go up to someone and say “wanna be my friend?” and bam! The later school years begin to present a few challenges — you can’t be friends with just anybody! And then it gets progressively more difficult. As a young adult you get a few opportunities to meet new people as you begin your new job and while existing friends bring new bodies into your social circle. But once you’ve all been in your jobs for a few years and you’ve met everyone there, it seriously slows down. New people don’t enter your life very frequently and by now you’ve already determined who you do and don’t like among your co-workers and neighbors. A and that’s the end of it for a while.

The opportunity to meet new people opens up again once you have children (turns out there is an upside to having kids after all!). Their school, activities, and friends give you a chance to meet other parents. But as soon as your kids start to drive, that door shuts.

What you’re looking for (and what you’ll tolerate) in a friend changes over the years too. As we get older, most of us realize that our time is too limited and frankly too precious to spend with people that we don’t actually enjoy. More and more we tend to let people drop away if they require too much work or fill our lives with too much negativity. What’s the point of going to all that effort if you don’t really love the time you spend with someone? Is it just to be able to have anybody in your life? That’s not healthy. It’s time to let that person go and find someone new.

And different people have different friendship needs and expectations too. My husband can go for years — decades even — without seeing or talking to someone and still consider them a close friend. And his friendships are activity-based rather than emotion-based. He needs friends for doing things with, not for talking to. If he plays poker with someone they’re friends. He might know next to nothing about them, but that’s okay, they’re friends anyway. I might consider those friendships to be superficial, but he would just say “why clutter up a perfectly good friendship with a bunch of messy emotions?”

To me, those messy emotions are exactly what make my friendships meaningful. If I don’t trust someone enough to share my thoughts and feelings with them, then I really don’t consider them my friend. I might call them “acquaintances” or “neighbors” or “co workers.” But my “friends” are people that I know well and care deeply about. Some people might find that type of friendship to be exhausting. I know it’s definitely not for everyone.

Because of that, I don’t have a huge number of friends. A handful is really the best that I can manage at any one time. For one thing, it’s not easy to find people that I connect with and trust enough to share that level of vulnerability, and it takes time and emotional work to sustain a relationship that is so intimate. But that means that if I lose a friend for one reason or another, it leaves a very big void in my life, and it’s no easy task to fill that space.

Other people have different needs. Some people need a big group of friends, and others need only one or two. But I think everyone should have at least one friend. Friends are like children and pets — they give you an opportunity to be a better person, because they force you to put someone else’s needs ahead of your own at least once in a while.

But the question remains: how to make friends as you get older? The advice is always the same: join a group or club; you’ll meet people that share your interests and you’ll have something in common with them. But is having something in common with people the same as being friends with them? I’m not sure that it is. Sometimes it’s possible to feel lonely in a crowded room.

There’s no one-size-fits-all formula for friendship. In truth, the word “friend” is a lot like the word “love.” It encompasses a huge range of human emotions and experiences. You can love everything from a new pair of shoes to your children, your dog, your parents, and your spouse. And so it is with friends.

And whether you have one or one hundred and whether it happened by chance or through a concerted effort, our friends enrich our lives.


So how about you? How do you make new friends? Where do you meet people? What do you need in a friendship? And what advice can you offer about making and keeping friends?

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