It’s easiest in pre-school and kindergarten, before we have much of a screening process or filter, before we understand snap judgments. As toddlers, we walk up to other people our size and start using our limited vocabulary to make connections. If they’re people we’ll see every day, they often become our earliest friends. If they’re strangers in the mall — like the 4-year-old who planted a big kiss on my 2-year-old’s cheek at Old Navy this weekend — they’re people we may never see again but who help us experience, in the briefest of encounters, what it is to feel an affinity for someone who isn’t immediate family.
Friendship is unencumbered when we’re young, before we have responsibilities, obligations, and complications that keep us from maintaining our connections. By senior year of high school, we’ve probably experienced our first few falling-outs. We may have lost a bestie we thought we’d always have. By the time we marry, the woman we ask to be our maid of honor may be a completely different person than the one we imagined filling the role. If we’re lucky, our earliest friends remain our best friends throughout our lives. But what if we’re unlucky in friendship? What if by our late twenties and thirties, we’ve relocated, started families, and lost those deep connections that once meant more to us than almost any other relationship we had?
In his New York Times article, “Friends of a Certain Age,” Alex Williams discusses the various impediments to forging close and long-lasting bonds with new people later in life:
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.
As people approach midlife, the days of youthful exploration, when life felt like one big blind date, are fading. 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 BFFs, the way you did in your teens or early 20s, is pretty much over. It’s time to resign yourself to situational friends: KOFs (kind of friends) — for now.
It’s interesting that Williams mentions Facebook, which has always been the social media space I use to keep current with old friends and with out-of-town family. I rarely meet new people through it (I have Twitter for that.), but it’s an interesting place to examine some of the dynamics Williams’ article explores. I wasn’t social in high school, but a large number of Facebook users from my graduating class and I have “friended” each other. After the requests are exchanged, we rarely interact, except for the occasional liking of a post. Conversely, those who were social and had a number of high school BFFs seem to have done a remarkable job maintaining those bonds, if their FB pictures and updates are any indication. They regularly meet up either in girls night out groups or with their new families. In this way, even if Facebook use doesn’t result in many new friendships, it does seem to keep old friends from drifting completely out of each others’ lives.
The rules I see in operation on Facebook are principles that can be applied to befriending people in real life: The more proactive and engaged you are about friendships, be they new or old, the more likely you are to make time for each other. What Williams sees as the greatest challenges to maintaining friendships or starting new ones are the demands of work and family. But if a spouse is supportive of your engaging with new acquaintances and encourages you to foster new bonds, and the potential friend is equally invested in the friendship, with a similarly supportive family unit, it shouldn’t be too big a challenge.
It seems that the investment is the big issue. The older we get, the less energy we devote to and expend on new people. As our lives begin to follow more established patterns, we don’t actively seek out new friendships as often. They can be a lot of work — and we already have a ton of work. When we begin to think about how much time and effort has gone into maintaining the good friendships we’ve had in the past, we wonder if it’s worth the trouble to be more than situational friends now.
What do you think? Is it any harder for you to make close friends as you get older? Have you been able to maintain your childhood, high school, and college friendships as adult life has increased its demands?