Why is it so hard to make new friends when you're older?
Hopes&Fears answers questions with the help of people who know what they’re talking about. Today we asked psychologists and relationship experts about growing lonely with age.
Once upon a time, you were young and the world was full of possibilities. You were surrounded by beautiful, brilliant friends you loved, and you spent your days and nights drifting amongst them, happy. As time passed, your coterie shrank. Some moved to other cities, a few fell into relationships or jobs that took all their time, and your own days became tangled and tiresome. And now here you are, taking solace in Netflix night after night, quite alone. But what exactly happened between university and middle age? Why is it so hard to make friends when you’re older? We asked psychologists, relationship coaches, friendship experts and authors for answers--and a few tips on how to make the tough challenge of making friends a little easier.
Relationship coach and author of Stop Being Lonely: Three Simple Steps to Developing Close Friendships and Deep Relationships
In America, we tend to experience both internal and external roadblocks to making friends as adults.
The external roadblocks include having less free time as adults than we did as children, teenagers, or as college students. When they enter their thirties and forties, people are often faced with higher-priority obligations such as raising kids and caring for aging parents. In other words, time is scarcer as an adult – and there’s often little time left over to find and build new friendships.
The other big external barrier is the change in living arrangements that people experience in mid-life. Unlike their days in college, adults in their thirties and forties tend to either live with a spouse (and/or children) or alone. It’s well known that communal living, such as dorms and apartments, fosters friendship and increased social activity in general. The lack of good communal living options for adults makes it so each new friendship must be made completely outside of the home.
In addition to the practical barriers of time and living arrangements, adults also experience internal barriers that prevent them from “putting themselves out there” on the friendship market. These internal roadblocks are more subtle and more defined by cultural norms than the external ones are, but they are no less influential.
For example, many of us believe that if we've been socially successful in our lives we should have all the friends we need by the time we're in our thirties and forties. If we find ourselves lonely or isolated at mid-life, we tend to believe it’s a personal failing. This (wrong-headed) belief can cause a subtle shame that prevents us from seeking out new friends later in life.
Hopefully, cultural norms around a lack of friends at mid-life will start to change as more and more studies show that mid-life is currently the loneliest time of life for Americans. It does not need to be this way—opportunities for closeness absolutely exist at any age. The internal and external roadblocks can be removed and friendships can flourish.
Geoffrey Greif, PhD
Professor at University of Maryland School of Social Work, author of Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendships.
According to Aristotle, you have to have known someone for a while to be a true friend. You may believe that friends you made when you were younger, during a developmentally intense period of one’s life, are the only people who know you truly well. The importance of friends tends to dip during young and middle adulthood as there is a greater focus on a partner/spouse, family, and work. Friends become more important later in life as work band relationships become concretized and as our children do not want us in their lives.
With age, and as friends die off or move away, we may believe we will never be able to make friends like those we made in grade school or we may be out of practice when it comes to making friends. Making friends takes emotional, and sometimes physical, effort. As we age, making those efforts become increasingly important but may be harder to pull off. It is important to believe that new friends can always be made. People with friendships live longer, happier, and healthier lives.
People with a large network of friends outlived those with fewest friends
Founder of GirlFriendCircles.com, author of Friendships Don’t Just Happen and Frientimacy.
Friendship may have felt like it just happened to us when we were kids at recess, campers in the same cabin, playmates on the same street, or suite mates in the same college dorm. But it didn’t. What did just happen was consistency. Seeing each other regularly without our ever scheduling it in. We played with the same kids over-and-over, every-day, all day long sometimes, without ever having to find the time to fit them in. We were required to go to school, we had to sleep in cabins with other campers, we couldn’t play games in the streets by ourselves, and it was cheaper in college to live with a roommate. Repetitive time together is what happened automatically back then, not friendships. There’s a difference.
So if friendships feel harder when we’re older it’s more often than not because we aren’t putting in consistent time with a prioritized few people. Yes, we might think we’re picker, yes, we might think that we’re more stressed, yes, we might think it’s because we need our worldview to match…but in reality we can like and bond under all those circumstances, just not if we don’t spend time together. In fact, numerous studies show that what we think we need to have in common with others in order to be friends with them just isn’t so; rather, what makes the biggest difference is repetition, or proximity. We bond with those whom we are more likely to see consistently. It’s why we are more likely to become friends with people at work that otherwise we’d probably never hang out with again if we just met them. We see them regularly and that makes all the difference.
A study at the University of Virginia showed the power of friendship: a group of students were taken to a steep hill and fitted with a heavy backpack. Participants who were accompanied by a friend believed the hill was less steep than participants who were alone.
Consistency is the one requirement for a healthy friendship that challenges adults the most because we won’t feel close to new friends until we have some consistency under our belts. That leaves us with two options: initiate and create the consistency ourselves or join something that has the consistency built in for us. The latter is often the motivation behind the advice of attending church, joining a club, working at a co-working space, or signing up for book club or mothers group. If we join something—like a church, a co-working space, a book club—where the regularity is already scheduled then we can show up and build familiarity before taking the friendship outside of that setting. But if we’re not joiners or haven’t had success in those settings that repeat themselves automatically, then the invitation is ours to practice initiating and reaching out to the people we meet to try to schedule time together. Repeatedly.
A friendship simply cannot get off the ground without regularity. We can love our time together and feel as though it’s meaningful, but if it doesn’t repeat, then a friendship cannot be formed. The key to making friends as adults is in making time for friendships.
three-quarters of Americans reported they had a friend in whom them could confide. In 2004, that dropped to half.
I think a big part of it is that many adults don’t give themselves many opportunities to make new friends. For many adults, the daily routine is: go to work, go home, repeat. If they do something out of the house, it’s usually something just with their family or partner, or with established friends. Contrast that to kids. While there are some kids that just go to school and come home, most kids are involved in at least a few extracurriculars—maybe they’re part of a sports team, or they’re in the choir, or they tried out for the school play. Each of these things gives them an opportunity to meet new people, and form new friendships. Even if they’re not involved in any extracurricular things, they still have more opportunities to make friends than the average adult, because every new class is a chance to meet a new group of people.
So the first thing I ask a social skills coaching client that wants to make more friends is “Well, what do you do with your free time?” If they don’t spend much time in contexts where it’s easy to meet new friends, I try to encourage them to start going to a meetup group or a volunteer group or something similar once or twice a week. In many cases, this has a huge impact on their ability to make new friends.
But I don’t think this is the whole story. After all, many people spend a lot of time trying to make friends, and still end up feeling alone.
And so I think the second piece of why it’s so much harder to make friends when you’re older is because as adults, we’ve learned to hold back our real selves from each other. When I was a kid, I would tell my friends my secrets. I would cry in front of my friends if I was feeling sad or upset. I wasn’t afraid to call someone my “best friend” and make it clear how much they meant to me.
But as I grew older, I learned to put up walls. I learned that if I was my real self, people would sometimes reject me. I learned that if I told someone a secret, they might tell someone else (even if they pinky-swore otherwise.) I learned that if I presented a happy-go-lucky, filtered version of myself, then I could avoid a lot of social rejection and a lot of awkwardness. And it’s really easy to take that version of myself to parties and social events and have a fun time, and then go home feeling really lonely because I never let anyone see the real me.
I mean, don’t get me wrong. You need the ability to put up walls when necessary. You don’t want to tell your deepest secrets to someone you just met. You don’t want to burst out crying when your boss gives you some harsh feedback. Part of being an adult is learning how to have those walls. But even the strongest castle walls had a gate that allies could come through—otherwise everyone in the castle would starve. And the walls around your real self were designed with gates that you could open when a safe person approached.
It’s just that many adults have forgotten how to work those gates. We either keep them closed all the time, and never really open up to those around us, or we open them right away, and risk getting hurt again and again by people who don’t deserve our trust. And I think this is why a lot of us adults struggle with making friends.
The number one thing that I tell people who are trying to make more friends is to be a real friend to someone else. Show them that you’re a safe person to open up to; show them that you are genuinely interested in who they are, and that you’re not going to reject or betray them. Let them open their gates slowly, inch by inch (don’t rush them), and open your gate in return. If you do that, no matter how old you are, I think you will find that it’s not so hard to make new friends after all.
Americans have an average of nine "close friends," not including family.
of Americans have six or more close friends
have between three and five close friends
have one or two close friends.
of Americans say they have no close friends.