When I was growing up, my mom used to say that my younger sister made friends more easily than I—that while she always had a wide circle of buddies, I was more comfortable with a few, very close friends.
I don’t think our positions on the continuum were (and are) quite as far apart as she portrayed.
(And incidentally, I think this is a common trap parents fall into as part of a need to define, differentiate and label their kids. And, take it from me, kids hear these offhand comments—and remember them for the rest of their lives. Did you know, for instance, that my sister, Alex, is also much more naturally talented athletically, but that I work harder?)
But there was some truth in my mother’s comments about my friendships: though I have a wide circle of friends today, it still takes me a long time to open up and get really close to people.
That said, the handful of close friendships I do have are just as vital to my happiness as my husband and my children—some days more. (And here I’m talking primarily about female friendships, although I do have a couple of longtime male friends with whom I’m quite close— without the sex part getting in the way, thank you very much, Harry Burns.)
And in fact, there’s a boatload of research that shows this is quite normal. One particularly exhaustive 2010 study revealed that friendships (or lack thereof) impact our risk of death as much as smoking, drinking, obesity and physical activity.
And a study from earlier this year found that friendships are particularly important to women in middle age; those who get together with six or more friends regularly are significantly happier than their peers, researchers found.
But as we get older, our lives become more complicated—we move away from friends, change jobs, get married, have kids—making it harder both to sustain existing friendships and to forge new ones.
Alex Williams wrote about this phenomenon in The New York Times recently:
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 B.F.F.’s, the way you did in your teens or early 20s, is pretty much over. It’s time to resign yourself to situational friends: K.O.F.’s (kind of friends)—for now.
As Williams says, the older you get, the harder it is to meet the three conditions that sociologists have long agreed are essential to forming close relationships: “proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other.”
Once you couple up, it’s even harder to make new friends: instead of just you and she sizing each other up, you have to worry about your partner liking her, too—and her partner, and vice versa.
Throw some kids into the equation and if you’re lucky enough to find windows in which to squeeze meaningful conversation with someone new, you have to also think about whether everyone’s kids will get along.
For me, anyway, those lazy days of sitting around trading life stories and perspectives with a new friend—trying to get to the point where you subconsciously recognize “you’re like me, I feel comfortable with you, we should be friends”—have been reduced to speed-friend-dating.
I totally get what Rebecca Wells meant when she wrote this in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood:
“She longed for porch friendship, for the sticky, hot sensation of familiar female legs thrown over hers in companionship. She pined for the girliness of it all, the unplanned, improvisational laziness. She wanted to soak the words ‘time management’ out of her lexicon. She wanted to hand over, to yield, to let herself float down the unchartered beautiful fertile musky swamp of life, where creativity and eroticism and deep intelligence dwell.”
But these days—save for the occasional girls’ weekend—it’s not going to happen.
I moved to Acton five years ago; since then I’ve met many women I can easily imagine becoming good friends. Making it happen is another thing entirely. (As a close pal in a similar situation said of another mother in her adopted town, “I think if we met in college, we would’ve been good friends. But it’s so much harder to tell now.”)
According to the sociologists, we have proximity in our favor. So I figure all I need to do to satisfy the other two conditions—and turn some of my KOFs into porch friends—is start randomly showing up at their houses with a fifth of tequila and gentle “tell me all your secrets” commands.
Don’t want to be my BFF? Turn off your lights and close your curtains.