I am grateful to have cherished friends from childhood I talk with often but seldom see. I’ve also maintained college friendships formed nearly 20 years ago. Yet I hadn’t made a new close friend in years. My office is virtual and my children are young, so my world can feel rather small. Between family time, work, and the ins and outs of running our household, I haven’t had much time or opportunity to foster an intimate friendship. But I miss having a confidante in close proximity.
Friendships tend to happen naturally when people are young, with school and extracurricular activities bringing kids together.
“When you’re an adult, commitments such as work and family time don’t allow for the same natural pattern that became second nature in school,” says clinical psychologist Janna Koretz, who counsels patients in the Boston area through her practice, Azimuth Psychological.
In fact, the older we get, the fewer friends most people have. According to a study, “Social Network Changes and Life Events Across the Life Span,” published in 2013 in the Psychological Bulletin, while social circles increase through early adulthood, friendship networks peak and start to decrease by the end of a person’s 20s.
“Growing up together gives you a connection with people — you share an important point of reference. In college, you bond with friends over being away from home for the first time,” says Jennie Frost, who grew up in Massachusetts, attended college in Boston, and moved to Connecticut after she got married.
As an adult with two young children, Frost says it’s more difficult to find people with whom she can let her guard down.
That’s not uncommon, says Nicole Zangara, a licensed social worker and the author of “Surviving Female Friendships: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” Building friendships requires awkward small talk, uncomfortable moments, uncertain feelings, and lots of energy depletion with near-strangers.
“There’s this notion that women should have friendships like the characters on ‘Sex and the City.’ It’s not that easy and simple. You have to work on developing a friendship,” Zangara says. “Maintaining friendships is equally challenging. You have your work sphere, your family sphere, and friendships — keeping all of those in order is really hard.”
The result is that friendships, perhaps especially women’s friendships, often take the back burner. And with good reason, says Liz Rabideau, of West Barnstable, who has children ages 17 and 19.
“My kids need dinner or a bath [when they were younger],” she says, referring to the multiple responsibilities parents juggle. “Those things can’t wait. Talking to a friend on the phone can.”
Yet women really need the emotional support of friendship, Zangara says. Those relationships protect women from depression and anxiety because they help them feel energized and happier. If a woman shares a problem with a friend, she may feel less hurt.
Men, meanwhile, tend to prioritize intimate friendships less than women. “A lot of men have a big focus on their family and spend most of their free time with their kids,” says Jonathan Brush, a Brookline psychologist. “Their friendships with other men are typically activity oriented, they’ll play tennis or golf together or have discussions about sports, not about how they are feeling.”
So how do women, who often crave a more emotional connection, go about forming friendships? After all, unlike when you’re a child, it can feel awkward to ask someone, “Hey, do you want to hang out?”
“Think about what you like to do. Put yourself in a place where you’ll be surrounded by people who share your interests,” says Koretz. “Find a biking group that meets on Saturdays and go even if you’re tired.”
She compares making friends to pushing yourself to go to the gym. “People make excuses not to go to the gym, but once they get into the habit they like being there,” she says. “Once you get into the habit of making friends it becomes easier.”
If you love to read, join a book group. Sign up for an art class and don’t be intimidated if you don’t know anyone else involved.
“Making friends requires taking a few risks,” says Jonathan Brush, a Brookline psychologist. “A tremendous opportunity we didn’t have years ago is Meetup.com.”
The site helps groups of people with shared interests plan events from movie nights to ski trips to crafting sessions. If you are moving to a new suburb spread the word through social media ahead of time.
“Ask Facebook friends to introduce you to people in the area,” Zangara says. “It’s a way to make a connection that might lead to another connection with someone you really like.”
Koretz also encourages people to be mindful of their environments, to pick up their heads and look around at the world.
“Always being on our iPhones when we are out and about cuts into real interpersonal time,” she says. “We tend to always be in a rush. If we slow down, stop checking our e-mail in Starbucks and look around there might be an opportunity to meet someone and strike up a conversation. There are chances to connect with people in line at CVS or on an airplane that we don’t often take.”
When Taylor Joyce relocated from Cotuit to Providence three years ago, she gradually met friends through her children’s elementary school.
“The best time to reach out to people is when your kids are small. You’re in the same place in life. But that doesn’t mean you should always do things with the kids,” says Joyce, who asks potential friends out on coffee dates as a way to get to know them. “You get together for a mutual interest and end up talking about all kinds of things.”
Sometimes a friendship clicks, and sometimes it doesn’t. The key is not to get discouraged about it.
“There are people my husband and I spent a lot of time with during our first year here that we ended up drifting apart from after realizing we had different perspectives on certain things,” says Joyce. “Some people aren’t a fit and that’s become easier for me to accept. If a friendship doesn’t blossom it doesn’t mean I’m never going to find someone.”
Brush agrees that for people with children, engaging with other parents is one of the easiest ways to meet potential friends. “It doesn’t require a big investment. Getting together can be casual. Invite another family to pizza after the kids’ soccer game.”
While Rabideau developed bonds with women she interacted with based on the activities their children shared, now that the kids have grown up, most of the friendships have faded. But she feels they served a purpose at the time. After all, close relationships aren’t guaranteed to last. A 2009 study by sociologist Gerald Mollenhorst of Utrecht University in the Netherlands found that we lose half our close friends every seven years and replace them with new relationships.
Having lower expectations can ease the process of making new friends, says Koretz.
“We are all looking for a best friend — but that’s not really realistic as an adult. One friend doesn’t have to offer everything. I have a lot of friends I wouldn’t call if I was having a bad day, but I’d invite them to play paintball. You can have one friend you love to talk about fashion with, someone else you go running with, another whom you call to help you get through a crisis. It can be fulfilling to have friendships on different levels.”
Jaci Conry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.