Looking for a BFF in midlife

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Four little girls sneak out into the woods and pledge undying loyalty with a blood oath. They dub their group the "Ya Ya Sisterhood" and for the next several decades face every facet of life together. If you haven’t read this novel, or watched the movie, let me warn you, the story of these friends leaves me green with envy.

From the moment I was first introduced to Vivi and her friends, I felt a very large hole in my life. I was an adult by the time I watched the film, a period of life when I had plenty of friends, but no BFF. In fact, I can't say I have ever had the type of friendship the Ya Ya's have.

I watched these women on screen and craved what seemed to be missing from my life. The friend who would drop everything and arrive on my doorstep the second I called. A friend I spoke with every day, who could tell over the phone when I was on the edge and show up to take my kid out for ice cream.

This person would know about my high school crushes, my biggest fears, and would send a card in the mail just to say "you're fabulous." I could talk to her for hours and we would NEVER run out of things to say. We would have slumber parties even though we are 40 and take road trips out of the blue.

It sounds so wonderful. That kind of friendship.

As I write this I realize that even though I want this friend, I don’t have it in me to BE that friend. The grass looks awful green over there, but it also sounds exhausting.

While I don’t REALLY want a Ya Ya Sisterhood, I do crave more close, intimate friendships in my life. Home doesn’t offer much in the way of social engagement. My son is a teen and can barely mumble two words to me most days. And because of my partner’s neurodegenerative disease, I’m more caregiver than friend at this stage in our relationship. Today, friendships are even more vital to my mental health than they have ever been.

But making new and maintaining old friendships is damn hard at 41. And I am not alone in feeling that way.

The challenge of friendship in midlife

“If I walk in the door, that’s it. I’m not going back out. I’m home for the evening, and I put on my pajamas immediately to make sure it happens.”  Those were my words during a recent lunch date with a friend. We were chatting about a New York Times article called “Friends of a Certain Age: Why Is It Hard to Make Friends Over 30?”

The two of us are similar in age. We both know the challenges of early midlife, including building and maintaining friendships.

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.
— Alex Williams

A recent study found that loneliness peaks around 80. At this age, social interactions decline with the death of spouses and friends, declining health, and lower income. But the researchers also found that midlife is a particularly lonely phase as well.

A 2013 study found that 75% of Americans are not satisfied with their friendships. And Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers are far less satisfied with their friendships than Millennials and Seniors. The gap is the largest among Gen-Xers; only 18% of Gen-Xers surveyed were satisfied with their friendships.

Time

To see most of my friends, I need to accept that it will be at least two weeks before I can find a spot on their calendar. It’s not just their fault. They will offer up a Monday, but I’ll be playing chauffeur for my son.

I’ll suggest a Sunday, but they have mass and brunch with family. The counter offer will be a Saturday, but I’m scheduled to volunteer at a show choir competition. And around and around we go.

Plus, when we have so little free time available, we can become more guarded in how we spend that time. We start to ask ourselves if I go out with Jane, what am I giving up? And is it worth it?

History

When you’re a kid, you make friends with someone in your class. You see each other all day, for years and years. Your friends know you, your little brother, your parents. They saw you when your front teeth were missing and were around for your first kiss.

They watched you grow into who you are. They know all the experiences that led up to now, what hurts you endured and what joys you experienced. There’s so little to explain. They’ve got the backstory.

Making new friends in midlife means a lot of catching up. If their your gym BFF, maybe that’s not so important. But if you start to look for those more intimate friendships, that backstory is necessary. And that can feel like just too much work.

Similarities

Having something in common with someone is an instant connection. And that connection is one of the easiest ways to create a friendship.

When we were kids, sometimes all we needed was the same homeroom teacher. It was that simple. As we got older, we might find friends who shared our love of a certain book, movie, or music.

Midlife strips us of the things that formed our network of relationships back in the old neighborhood of our 20s and 30s: children’s activities or the drive to find meaning in a career.
— Michelle Van Loon

In midlife, it seems most our friendships are built around the connections of work or family. We’re friends with people from work and/or friends with parents of our children’s friends. But when we change jobs or our kids grow up, those friendships can easily fade.

Given our schedules, we often have very little time outside work and family. We struggle to make time for ourselves, to take up hobbies. To add in time for people who share those interests feels laughable.

I think this is why the Book Club is so popular. Most the book clubs I’ve enjoyed consisted of 30 minutes talking about the book (if that) and 2 hours talking about everything else. The book brings us together, gives us a reason to meet and connect. Once there, we all soak up what we so desperately need -friendship.

Energy

All three of the above play are large factor in our struggles to create and maintain friendships. But as my earlier quote about pajamas suggests, our level of exhaustion has to be considered as another factor.

I don’t know about you, but there are some days when I get home from work and I barely have the energy to put a frozen pizza in the oven. In fifteen minutes, dinner is ready. Ten minutes later I have it ate and check in with the teenager. If he doesn’t need me, I’m off to bed. If I’m lucky, I might read a few chapters or watch an episode of The Good Place on Hulu.

But forget being able to string together a coherent sentence, let alone an entire conversation. My mind is done, done, done. I have nothing left to give.

Beyond these factors, you might have to consider the complexities of couple friendships and income disparities.

Is it too much to overcome?

What’s a person to do

With all these obstacles standing in our way, is it even possible to have close and fulfilling friendships in midlife? Yes, and it’s worth it.

Before you go looking for that new BFF, consider the following.

What do you want in a friend

Most Americans agree on five must-have qualities in close friends.

  • Loyalty
  • A decent person
  • Will be there in a crisis
  • Likes me
  • Is fun to be with

Gen-Xer’s are tad more likely to look for a sense of humor in their friends compared to other generations, and women tend to look for loyalty a bit more than men. And most women are looking for friends who don’t judge them or their actions. But all in all, we all seem to be looking for the same things in general.

Other important characteristics are honesty, caring, trustworthy, and a good listener.

Do you know what you are looking for in a friend? Take the next few minutes to jot down some characteristics that you look for in your friends. Consider some of the traits that your current friends share.

What does close mean to you

Do you have a friend you can call when you need to talk? Do you have a friend that can help you through a crisis? Do you have someone you can confide in?

These are often markers of close friendships. But each of us has our own idea of what an intimate friendships feels and looks like. What would that look like for you?

What kind of friend are you

Most people are confident that they are a good friend. Ironically, many people also report being let down by their friends.

When you consider what you are looking for in a friend and in a friendship, are you willing to give the same?

Lower your expectations

How often do you meet a perspective friend and start daydreaming a life with them as you BFF? And then the first time they bail on a lunch date, you feel like your dreams are crushed.

No one can be your BFF overnight. And most new friends will never make it into that intimate circle. But that’s doesn’t negate all the wonderful aspects they bring into your life. When you meet a perspective friend, drop your expectations a bit and enjoy what they have to offer in the here and now.

Can you give one percent more

The way you keep friendships going is that you’re constantly updating each other on what’s interesting.”
— Robin Dunbar, University of Oxford

The 2013 State of Friendship in America survey suggests that we give one percent more of our time to our close friends each week. That equals 1.5 hours. It could be a dinner date, a couple phone calls, a few quick touching-base emails.

Need more help

Take a look at LifeBoat: A Field Guide to Awesome Friendship. Created in response to the 2013 survey findings, this free book offers practical advice for anyone looking to build new or deepen existing friendships.


Sources

Bradley Hagerty, Barbara. Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife. Riverhead Books. Mar. 15, 2016.

LifeBoat. "The State of Friendship in America 2013: A Crisis of Confidence." Survey. LifeBoat. LifeBoat. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5560cec6e4b0cc18bc63ed3c/t/55625cabe4b0077f89b718ec/1432509611410/lifeboat-report.pdf. Accessed Nov. 7, 2017. 

Van Loon, Michelle. "Why Friends Disappear When You Reach Midlife: Why loneliness can plague women in their 50s." Christianity Today, Aug., 2012. http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2012/august/why-friends-disappear-when-you-reach-midlife.html. Accessed Nov. 1, 2017.

Williams, Alex. "Friends of a Certain Age: Why Is It Hard to Make Friends Over 30?" New York Times, Jul. 13, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/15/fashion/the-challenge-of-making-friends-as-an-adult.html. Accessed Nov. 2, 2017.