Why Can’t We Be Friends?

A few years ago my old neighborhood — which included dozens of kids — had a reunion. All middle aged, we picked up where we had left off. Do new friendships get harder to form as we age?

One of my favorite Harry Chapin songs, called “Taxi,” includes this memorable line:  “And she said, ‘We must get together.’ But I knew it never’d be arranged.”

The scenario was a faded taxi driver discovering that his late-night fare was a long-lost love, who had gone on to become a famous actress while he drove a cab and got perpetually stoned.  But it might as well be the empty pleasantries that many of us exchange with people who pass in and out of our lives after age 30.

That was the theme of an intriguing column, “Friends of a Certain Age,” that appeared in the New York Times recently about the difficulties of making lasting friendships as we grow older.   Alex Williams, the author, wrote about his own travails finding new male friends in New York.  He cites studies and experts who confirm his theory that it’s harder to find deep friendship after age 30.

“As people approach midlife, the days of youthful exploration, when life felt like one big blind date, are fading,” he writes. “Schedules compress, priorities change and people often become pickier in what they want in their friends.

“No matter how many friends you make, a sense of fatalism can creep in: the period for making B.F.F.’s, the way you did in your teens or early 20s, is pretty much over. It’s time to resign yourself to situational friends: K.O.F.’s (kind of friends) — for now.”

That column hit home with me.  While I’ve been blessed with great friendships, some of them dating back more than 50 years, I’ve noticed we do have a more difficult time forming deep new friendships as we get older.  Why is it that our most profound bonds are formed over sandlot baseball games; whispered confidences at preteen pajama parties; all-night study sessions at college?  Then one day our established lives — spouses, children, jobs, household responsibilities – make us less open to it.

My widowed mom moved a few years ago to a small town outside Pennsylvania that on the surface seems to be everything a retiree would want:  safe, walkable, plenty of shops, a few minutes from my brother, who watches over her.  Yet she finds it hard to make friends.

“Everybody is already part of a clique,” she laments.  So she ditched the senior center where nobody wanted to sit with her and instead volunteered at a local school, where the young people appreciated her.  And she commutes by train to her old hometown to see the relatives left behind; and drives on treacherous roads to meet with the good friends from her long career as a high school secretary.

Many adult friendships seem to be more transient, or more “situational,” as Williams pointed out.  We become fast friends with fellow volunteers on the PTA or with people who share the early-morning shift at the gym or the 7:05 train home after work.  We bond at the playground with the fellow moms whose children are friends with our children.

Then, when we volunteer for a new committee or join a new gym, or a playground mom goes back to work, or when our children stop being friends, those bonds loosen.  We’ll run into those onetime BFFs in the supermarket after months or years and spend a few moments catching up with their lives and promise to get together, but we know it never will be arranged.

Even our deepest friendships have ebbs and flows, depending on the pulls from family, work and household duties.  I’ve learned to take it in stride when friends need to cancel plans because one of their adult children needs a ride to the airport, or when they can’t meet for dinner because they need to put up their Christmas decorations.  We’ve done that ourselves.

My Mom always has said, “Don’t expect too much from people and you won’t be disappointed.”  I think she is right.

As time goes on I gain the emotional strength I need from my husband and six children, my siblings, my mom and my husband’s great family.  And I have lucky to have some really wonderful friends and neighbors whom I can always count on.

Sometimes a friend will call and lament that it’s been so long since we’ve spoken and I always tell him or her the same thing:  I am a philodendron friend, not an African violet.  You don’t have to feed and water me every day.  Pay me some attention when you get a moment and my friendship will thrive.

Do you have any strong and lasting friendships that you made in midlife or beyond?

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9 thoughts on “Why Can’t We Be Friends?

  1. Pingback: The friendships we had forged. « Transient Reflections

  2. I moved away from a fantastic group of mothers. We had raised our kids together since infancy. It was hard to make friends in my new town. Everybody already had enough and didn’t need one more. It took awhile but I finally breached their inner circle :o)

    • Teresa, I remember how the moms in my old neighborhood would hang out on the pavement watching the kids on their tricycles. Our kids are grown now and we live on a lonely country road with no kids, much to my 13-year-old’s dismay. But we do have some great neighbors who’ve become great friends, although my son has to “import” playmates.

  3. My dearest friends are the group I made in middle school clique. I also read the article with interest and now understand more about why it is much harder to connect in the same way in later life.

  4. Wonderfully written Cathy and so very true. Some of my dearest and best friends are those I have know for over 40 years. Other people come and go— in and out of our lives but the “old” ones are the “gold” ones.
    Now living in a new community I have also found it difficult to “fit in” – although many neighbors are great I still miss my old house and neighborhood. Life has changed in so many ways and unfortunately not for the better. We have to pay more attention to our loved ones and less to our computers, i pads, and smart phones! 🙂

  5. Your mention of Harry Chapin reminded me of the lyrics to his song Cat’s in the Cradle, about a father too busy to spend time with his son and the son grows up to be just like the dad. I can’t help but think how many of us are just too busy to get together but “we’ll get together soon and we’ll have a good time then.”

  6. Friendship is often presented as something simple, but it can be really difficult sometimes! I think the hardest part is that we need to be willing to put an effort into a friendship. Many people (including myself!) lose sight of the fact that friendship is a two way street and we need to do our part, and that includes reaching out to our friends instead of waiting for them to reach out to us.

    Thanks for the article, Aunt Cathy. I always look forward to reading your blog!

  7. My best friends (and I have just a few) are people I met at a very young age. We lost touch for decades and reconnected in the past ten years. I find it difficult to form new friendships now, other than the amazing people I’ve met through blogging. Your post helped me to realize that maybe my situation isn’t so unusual, after all. I also like your mother’s advice — “Don’t expect too much from people and you won’t be disappointed.” I made the decision a few months ago to do just that, although it’s easier said than done.

    Thanks for writing this, Catherine.

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