From playground BFFs and uni gangs to NCT soulmates and empty-nester chums, our close circle ebbs and flows over a lifetime. Here’s how to make the most of these important friendship bonds at every age.
We have become so used to making connections with the click of a button that it might sound odd to suggest that anyone still longs to make friends in real life. Yet the disturbing truth is that the number of people we feel we can turn to falls rapidly after the age of 25.
We might think Facebook and WhatsApp are saving our relationships, but they only slow the rate of decay. And we need to work hard to maintain friendships we want to keep. ‘There’s something about seeing the whites of people’s eyes that really makes a difference,’ says Robin Dunbar, professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford University.
But it’s not all bad news. The success of Hey! Vina, a friendship app launched in the UK last year, shows that women of all ages are keen to make friends in the real world. And although we might find we have fewer friends when we are older, we often end up feeling closer to the ones we keep, with more shared history and fewer inhibitions than we had when we were younger. These friendships are often deeper and more fulfilling.
1 THE GANG YEARS
School and university provide a Petri dish for friendships. Yes, there are regular streams of new people and, yes, there are lots of clubs where you can meet others with similar interests, but to a teenager the situation can look very different. It can seem as if you’re stuck with these people – what if you don’t care about Taylor Swift or you aren’t obsessed with Deliciously Ella? You might have great memories of that end-of-term disco, but someone else remembers cliques, exclusion and bullying.
The solution As a parent, you can help. Dr Sam Carr, director of studies in education and psychology at Bath University, recommends ‘chatting to your child about how friendships are as much about empathy, compassion and acceptance as they are about popularity or liking the same thing as everyone else’.
Tell them about your own experiences and take them to an after-school club to help them make friendships where they won’t feel the same peer pressure they might from classmates. This will also give them confidence to deal with potential bullies. Try to be aware of what they might be going through without meddling – calling up another parent to complain about their child leaving yours out during playtime should be the last resort.
2 THE SOCIABLE YEARS
When you start work, you will probably be mixing with people of different ages and backgrounds, which can open up your friendship group. You can still enjoy a big Sunday lunch with your university pals, but you might also want to add to your circle.
The solution Use your current friends to meet other people by suggesting they bring new colleagues or flatmates along to parties. Use Facebook and WhatsApp to make new connections, but fix arrangements offline – don’t expect a few likes on a post to turn into friendship.
Dr Amy Banks, a psychiatrist and the author of Wired to Connect, suggests you check in with a friend a couple of times a week to make sure you are socialising and not getting too caught up in work. ‘If you neglect friendship at any stage of life, you will feel less competent when you meet new people,’ warns Banks.
If you have never felt comfortable in groups, this is the time to break away as it should be easier to have a drink with an individual friend than it might have been when you were at university. And don’t feel bad about it. ‘Not joining a group is fine,’ says Banks, ‘as long as you are seeing some people individually during the week.’
3 THE COUPLING-UP YEARS
‘It’s never fun to be the one single friend at a dinner party,’ says Olivia Poole, creator of Hey! Vina. ‘When I was single, I used to find that sometimes my friends wouldn’t invite me, perceiving the gathering as a “couple thing”, even though I wouldn’t have minded.’
People in relationships can neglect friendships, too. ‘Couples often get lazy and spend all their time with their significant other,’ says Poole, ‘but it’s important that they have friends outside that relationship.’ Couples who give each other space tend to stay together longer, according to studies, and friends can have interests that your partner might not share.
The solution Singles feeling left out could host a party and invite both singles and couples so that being in a relationship isn’t the defining aspect.
If you prefer meeting people one-on-one, you could experiment with the new trend for friendship dates. To maximise your ‘date’ success, ask warm but probing questions. Listen to the answers and share your experiences.
When Poole, 30, got married, she made a point of scheduling girls’ brunches, dinners, drinks and weekends. ‘I’ve been told that newlyweds rarely keep up those relationships, but I think it’s healthy for my marriage that I do.’ She also found it useful to make friends – and maintain friendships – with other married people. ‘It’s been helpful for me to talk about how we are dealing with combined finances, managing our in-laws or coping with silly husband/wife behaviours.’
4 THE BABY YEARS
You might never have thought you would bond with someone over sleepless nights, but ‘when you become a mother, it’s like joining a club,’ says psychologist Dr Linda Papadapoulos. ‘We gravitate towards people in similar circumstances, so new mothers find it easier to complain to each other about lack of sleep, whereas singletons are likely to open up to each other about dating difficulties. We feel more comfortable speaking to people who are going through the same things as us – we think they will understand, we won’t bore them and they’ll know what to do.’ But this means old friends can drift apart once babies are involved.
The solution Busy mums might do well to embrace the social side of motherhood, connecting with other parents through NCT classes, websites (Netmums and Mumsnet) and apps (Mush, which launched last April, allows mums to meet others in their area). But they shouldn’t have to drop their child-free friends entirely. ‘Part of a lasting friendship is acknowledging that there are going to be times when it’s loose or tight,’ says Papadapoulos. ‘Maybe the talks that you used to have every day now happen once every three weeks. It doesn’t mean they’re less significant.’
The friendship might tighten again in a few years if the child-free friend has their own children or later when the children start – or even leave – school. Meanwhile, both parties should stay in touch, even if the relationship is at a distance. A mum could invite an old friend over and allow the child to watch a DVD while they catch up. They might even offer godmother duties.
There must be mutual understanding. For the new mum, it’s no use expecting the child-free friend to always fit in with their schedule as if they don’t have a life, while the child-free friend must recognise that their friend’s priorities may well have changed – at least for now.
5 THE BALANCING YEARS
You thought you were busy before, but now you’re juggling work deadlines with after-school piano lessons. Even if you don’t have a child or a partner, other people’s commitments mean your life has become chaotic. Everyone is efficient enough to make plans but someone often cancels at the last minute. There’s no time for new friends – where do you meet them anyway? – and it’s hard to make friends at work because you are seen as relatively senior.
The solution ‘You need to carve out at least one evening a week for yourself,’ advises relationships psychologist Susan Quilliam. Maintain close friends by making arrangements in advance. Closer to the day, if you’re too busy to spare a whole evening to see a play, find 45 minutes for a drink instead. Never say ‘see you soon’ without fixing a date.
When we’re busy, it’s easy to get into a friendship rut, warns Quilliam. ‘Our current friends might not be giving us the joy or support that we want, and yet we don’t stop to think about it. Once a year, do an audit of your friends. You can’t make new ones until you free up time. The continual renewal of friends is vital.’
To make new friends, Quilliam recommends activities where there will be some constant people and some new people each week. Try a theatre group or a badminton club. Avoid chatty parties where people are only looking to make a quick connection and evening classes where the group is always the same. ‘Within four months, you will have replenished your friendship store,’ says Quilliam. ‘You’re looking for somebody to accompany you to the cinema once a month; you’re not looking for a life partner.’
6 THE EMPTY-NEST YEARS
Your children have gone to university or maybe you have recently divorced. You have time again, but it can feel like too much time. ‘The major problem women have in making new friends at this stage is falling prey to the myth that it’s too late because everyone already has the friends they want,’ says Irene Levine, founder of thefriendshipblog.com and a professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine. ‘Nothing is further from the truth. Friendships are dynamic – as people’s circumstances change, so do their friendships.’
At this stage in life, you might find sharing confidences – a key component to friendship – is especially hard. If you are married, it may feel as though you are betraying a partner by confiding in someone new. Or you might be wary as you have gathered more vulnerabilities over the years – mistakes, redundancy, illness.
The solution Turning to old friends is a good call, but Levine warns against unrealistic expectations. ‘Don’t assume you’ll be able to pick up where you left off. You might find that one of you has changed or you’ve both changed,’ she says.
Start with an email or phone call. If you agree to see each other, keep your initial get-together short and meet on neutral turf. Begin your chat by talking about people or places you had in common (if you feel nervous, bring old photos), then try to find things you share now. Ask questions about your friend’s life, but don’t pry. If you no longer connect in the same way, remember there are other people in a similar situation who you have yet to meet.
As for making new friends, Levine comments: ‘From my experience, the willingness to share confidences and form intimate friendships is more likely to be a matter of personality than age. Many women grow more confident with age and are open to new friendships.’ They might, however, need to relearn how to form them. ‘Smile, be friendly and be prepared to make the first move,’ says Levine, ‘but don’t get too chummy too soon. Friendships develop over time and you don’t want to frighten someone off.’
If you are shy, join a group such as Toastmasters, which teaches people how to give talks, to improve your people skills. Try the website Meetup to find people with similar interests; groups are organised by topic and location. Finally, don’t expect any one person to meet all your needs. You might go to the theatre with one friend, have great chats with another and work out with someone else.
7 THE RETIREMENT YEARS
Just as you slow down, your children are calling on your babysitting services and your elderly dad could do with someone to cook for him. You want to make time for friends, but this comes with complications. Some of them are moving to live nearer to their children; some might not be as mobile as they once were. And to add to your woes, you are living off a pension so extravagant trips and restaurant dinners out might be limited.
‘Making friends is never easy, but it might seem harder if you are trying to instantly replace old ones you knew so well,’ says Keren Smedley, managing director of Experience Matters, which offers life coaching for the over-50s.
The solution Sign up to an art or gym class so you can mix with people of all ages. ‘You can enjoy the company of someone younger without feeling the responsibility that comes with your own children,’ says Smedley. ‘A younger person brings energy and an invigorating perspective.’
You could also volunteer with the National Trust or English Heritage to garden at a 17th-century house or guide visitors round a castle. Mentoring schemes – such as Young Enterprise (to teach young people business skills) or the Prince’s Trust (to help them find work) – can also provide opportunities for friendships with other mentors while you’re training or with the organisers. Socialising needn’t be expensive – meet for a coffee rather than for dinner.
When making new friends, embrace your lack of shared history. ‘Nobody knows that you had an acrimonious divorce or have an elderly mother unless you want to talk about it,’ says Smedley. ‘Reinvent yourself; choose who you want to be and what you divulge.’
SHORT OF FRIENDS?
Here are six ways you can boost your friendship group at any age:
For digital natives
Hey! Vina is an app for women looking for friendships. It is especially popular with people in their 20s and 30s who have moved to a new city, but use is growing among people in their 50s and 60s; vina.io.
For group lovers
Meetup has more than 270,000 groups worldwide for people who are into everything from military fitness to philosophy; meetup.com.
School of Life holds London-based courses aimed at building emotional intelligence. It mostly attracts hip urbanites in their 30s and 40s; theschooloflife.com.
Park Run holds 5km runs on Saturday mornings around the UK that are open to all; parkrun.org.uk.
For the kind-hearted
Do It is a regularly updated list of volunteering opportunities nationwide; do-it.org.
For the (semi)retired
The University of the Third Age Study local history, zoology or take up photography for fun with more than 900 groups across the UK; u3a.org.uk.
Report by Laura Silverman
Illustrations by Luci Gutiérrez