Making Friends in Middle and Later Life

Making new friends becomes harder as you age. And yet many people in their fifties and sixties, though they may not admit it, have never needed one more. Of course, some believe that friendship is for the single and childless – that their partner and kids give them all the companionship they need. Such an idea is misguided. Friends provide something unique and indispensible.

Loneliness and Modern Life

The author Gail Honeyman was inspired to write her novel Eleanor Olephant is Completely Fine after reading about an ordinary 30-year-old lady with a good job and an apartment of her own who often went whole weekends without speaking to another human being. For Honeyman, loneliness is “the new cancer”: something so dark, dreadful and common that people prefer not to think about it; for the British journalist Bryony Gordon, it is a “silent epidemic.” But haven’t there always been lonely people? Or is there something unique about 21st century life?

If there really is a loneliness epidemic, perhaps the best way to understand it would be to compare an average modern man with his great grandfather. Let’s take as an example a lonely 50-year-old named Joe who lives in Boston. His great grandfather, Bill, lived in the same area in 1900. For a start, Bill lived in a world without TVs, DVDs, radios, internet devices and cell phones. If people wanted company or entertainment, they would turn to those around them. Even something trivial, like the journey to work, would have been different. Joe drives to the office on his own; Bill walked to work or took the tram, often meeting fellow workers on the way. Communities were also smaller and more homogenous. And, of course, life moved at a slower pace and contained fewer distractions, leaving people with more time for one another.

Making Friends as an Adult

When you are at school and college, or even starting a career, most people in your age group are single, childless and free of responsibility. They have yet to form a close circle of friends and are more open to new people. By thirty or forty they have usually settled into work, taken out a mortgage, formed a life partnership, and had children. Consequently, they tend to have less time to meet new friends and less inclination to deepen the friendship when they do. Plus, of course, most are just too tired!

Many people in middle and later life don’t actually realise how lonely they are until a major event shakes their world: divorce, a close friend moving away, the death of a parent, children leaving for college, and so on. And loneliness seems to a problem for middle-aged men in particular. A recent survey by the ‘Movember Foundation’, a U.K.-based charity, asked men how many friends they had with whom they would discuss a major worry. The majority ticked either “two or fewer” or “none at all.”

Intimacy

Turn to the advice page of the average magazine and the chances are you will read a letter filled with complaints about loneliness and isolation. The advice will probably be to sign up for an evening class, smile more, and be more approachable. But simply filling your life with new people isn’t the answer. If it was that simple, loneliness would not be the silent epidemic it has become. Indeed, fill your life with the wrong people – those with whom you have nothing in common, who do not share your sense of humor, who irritate, bore, or depress you – and you are likely to feel more, not less, lonely. The solution to loneliness is not to meet more people but to meet the right sort of people and then to establish a deep and enduring intimacy with them.

How to Form and Maintain Close Friendships

First, you must consider what you have to offer. In general, people in middle and later life are less impressed by looks and style. Those who once got by on their beauty and fashion sense alone often find that the cool pose ceases to impress once they reach their thirties. Mature adults are looking for substance – for humour, empathy, and intelligent conversation. So read a good quality newspaper every day, watch the most highly praised new films, and generally take an interest in everyone and everything. Keep your mind open and receptive and do not become one of those bores who thinks the world was better when they were young.

It is also important to work on your people skills. Conversation is a skill that needs to be practised and mastered. Focus on the positive, be polite, learn to laugh at yourself and, most important of all, listen to what the other person says. Nothing will attract people more than the sense that you are interested in what they have to say.

Next, you must get out there and meet these new friends. Be a yes-sayer, joining every club and class you can find. It won’t always be a success of course. Often, you will feel uncomfortable, bored and rejected. Accept this with a shrug and keep going.

Once you have met someone whose company you enjoy, you must try and move from the polite, superficial state to something deeper. This can be tricky, especially for men, who often feel embarrassed and self-conscious about asking another 50 or 60-year-old man if he’d like to meet for a beer. The key is to find something you could do together, away from the place in which you first met. Try and be casual when you suggest this. Many lonely people put off potential friends with their neediness. That does not mean you should pretend to be indifferent. Just be honest. For example, if you meet someone at soccer practice who mentions a love of film, say that you are also a film buff but “I tend not to bother since my divorce – it’s not the same going on your own.”

Once you have begun meeting somewhere new, be open and let the other person in. Don’t be afraid to talk about deep, personal issues. But keep three things in mind when you do: do not be needy, do not be whiney, and do not make the other person feel uncomfortable. Your loneliness will not be overcome by a casual friendship; the only cure for loneliness is trust and intimacy with someone who understands you.

Finally, you need to maintain these new friendships. So remember birthdays, ask how their son’s football match went, and so on. You will need to be careful however. On the one hand you do not want to let the friendship go cold or give your new friend the impression that you are distancing yourself; on the other hand, you do not want to become a pest.

Life is not like a Hollywood movie. You cannot sit back and wait for a happy ending. If you are lonely, you will remain so unless you make an effort. You have to get out there and meet new people. No one can do it for you. If you spent the whole weekend alone and spoke to no one, feeling sorry for yourself will change nothing.

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Mark Goddard, Ph.D.

Mark Goddard, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and a consultant specializing in the social-personality psychology. His publications include magazine chapters, articles and self-improvement books on CBT for anxiety, stress and depression. In his spare time, he enjoys reading about political and social history.

*The views expressed by Mr. Goddard in this column are his own, are not made in any official capacity, and do not represent the opinions of his employers.

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