Do you remember going to school and making friends? It was shorn of the demands we put on ourselves as adults; “Do you want to be my friend?” is not something we say very easily when we outgrow the playground. My ten-year-old son makes friends easily, and while many of them won’t survive his growth into adulthood, his endearing personality (I hope) will.
But as adults, it can often be difficult to sustain existing friendships or make new ones. A study, reported in the Guardian newspaper and originally from a journal called Personal Relationships, found that put energy into close, meaningful relationships was associated with a range of positive outcomes, including good health, happiness, and that ever-discussed word “wellbeing”.
It’s hard work navigating the complexities of friendships, certainly in terms of finding people who are on your wavelength and you being on theirs. Sustaining friendships from childhood into adulthood is hard; many don’t survive, although a lot of us are fortunate to keep at least a couple going into our twenties and beyond.
But to make new friendships as adults involves more work than merely asking, “Will you be my friend?” There’s a dance we undertake as adults when we try to establish a base-line that moves our acquaintance into a new band where our guard goes down that little bit more. A study from the University of Kansas (something else I discovered in the same Guardian article) found that two people need to spend 90 hours together to become friends, and at least 200 hours to become close friends. That sounds about right; you need to judge if someone is “good enough” to warrant being in your inner circle, and vice versa.
I’ve never been as gregarious as my son, but was privileged to develop a small band of friends over the years. I collected friends like a jeweller might collect precious gems; few were of sufficient value, but the ones that were, I kept hold of and tried to value deeply. I actually developed more friendships in adulthood – good quality friendships – than I ever managed to at school; there was a small group of us who spent time together at high school, and I truely valued each of them. Not many survived the high school years, but that’s not to say we didn’t value our relationships while they lasted.
But life changes, and in my late thirties, there were two significant changes to my life – one temporary and one permanent; a global pandemic in the “temporary” camp (let’s hope) and a son in the permanent camp. I was delighted to become a dad – a single dad, to boot! – and not so delighted when the pandemic locked us all down a year after he came into my life for the first time.
Those changes really changed my approach to the world; my son became my first priority and then, during lockdown, our mental and physical health became my absolute focus – I even resigned from the job I held at the time because it wasn’t working for me … for us. But my friendships really suffered during this time; really suffered. I went from having some good friends I spoke to and / or saw regularly to very, very few. One friendship completely ended without so much as a goodbye, and I only found out the reason why two years later when I saw them in the street and asked them directly. Even after it was explained to me (and the reason was really confusing), I never fully understood the explanation and said so. The friendship, it would seem, is entirely beyond repair, and there is nothing I can do about it – I must accept their decision, even though it’s hard, and I am genuinely saddened by it.
I find myself in a strange position, and it’s one that we don’t talk about as adults very often. I don’t have many close friends, particularly ones I talk to regularly, and I’m probably not the only one. To say, “I’m feeling a bit lonely today”, or “Would you like to be my friend?” makes people uncomfortable sometimes; it’s a cultural thing we never discuss, but it’s there nonetheless.
I’m a fairly introverted person, and I’ve always been pretty comfortable in my own company. That said, when the numbers of friends I had reduced and I spent more time in my own company (especially when my son was at school), I became conscious that too much time with my thoughts rattling around my head was not particularly fun all the time. Work distracted me, especially when I spent three months in an office from Monday to Friday – but that made me appreciate, after 18 months of working from home, that I was no longer very good at small talk or general chit-chat. I didn’t enjoy it, and that – of course – hinders the building of relationships sometimes.
I don’t go out very often, because my son is 10 and he’s my focus, but in the past, I usually visited friends in their home. I don’t particularly know why – in some cases, because they themselves were parents – but it became something of a habit. I’m not used to hosting, but that doesn’t mean I can’t; it’s an adjustment that I don’t mind making, and just need other people to be flexible with me as I have once been flexible with others.
But seeking out new friendships as an adult is a strange sensation. I’m 40 years old as I write this, and I want to find some new friends. The pandemic and becoming a dad have changed my life dramatically; being a dad in a fantastically good way, where I have been able to see the world through the eyes of a beautiful child. It’s changed my life around entirely, and there’s nothing wrong with that; it’s allowed me to see what’s truely important in my life, and that includes quality friendships that run alongside my family life.
To find friendships can be difficult, of course, but not impossible – especially if we agree that this notion of “being reserved” is daft. There’s no shame in feeling lonely from time to time, and there’s no shame in realising that we can form new friendships at any age, if we know where to look. I don’t at the moment, but I’m nothing in not creative; there are so many opportunities. I just need to find the right one for me.
It might seem odd to write about friendships and looking for new ones, but it shouldn’t be. I worked for a coalition of charities which focused on reducing social isolation amongst older people. It was really important work, because isolation can increase hugely when you’re older – but it doesn’t just begin when you’re older; people can feel lonely at any age, and we just don’t talk about it very much. We should talk about it, of course, but there’s a certain stigma attached to loneliness – we often assume that people should be able to make friends easily without any hassle all the time. But it’s not always that easy; you might be a single parent and so can’t get out very often, or might have moved because of a job and live in a city where you don’t know anyone, for example. Losing friends can happen, and it’s not always anyone’s fault – it just happens, and we’re not equipped as a society to deal with that. It’s a bit embarrassing to admit, that you feel lonely, but it’s important – feeling lonely has been said to reduce a person’s wellbeing, whereas feeling wanted improves your mental health.
Relationships of all sorts are important; romantic, friends, family … we should make more of all of them. When we lose friends, there is a grieving process involved, and to find new friends (or enhance existing friendships) can be hard when you do a merry dance to figure out if the feeling is mutual. I need to work on that now and in the future, but I am no longer embarrassed to admit when I feel lonely or sad at the loss of a friendship – or, indeed, happy at the resurgance of a friendship, which happened recently when a friend (who had been unwell) and I reconnected after some time where we didn’t see each other. I’m delighted at that, and now that I’m in my forties, I’m comfortable making friends that allow for deeper connections than the shallow friendships I often had in my younger years. I realise how important friendship is in my life; if there are people who feel that our friendship has come to an end, then I can begin to accept that more easily now I know what I’m missing – friends who value me and whom I value in response. Now all I need to do is start looking.