It ruins dating prospects, it kills marriages and families, and destroys mental health – most people stop making friends as they get older.
But they really shouldn’t.
Defining the problem
I have been in a lot of conversations with people who are trying to find their life partner, expressing their desire to marry their best friend. However I am always quite fascinated by the answer to the question, “Would you date any of your friends?”. Many people say no.
This is a blocking paradox – you want to marry your best friend, but you don’t want to date any of your friends. It was the subject of my post Do You Really Want To Marry Your Best Friend?
And fair enough, there are people who have tried. You’ve already been out with or expressed interest in the ones you think you would date, and it hasn’t worked out. Or for whatever reason, you can’t bring yourself to promote anyone from the hundreds of people you currently spend time with or have met out of the Friend Zone.
So then you may run into challenges with meeting people. Apps and sites like Tinder and eHarmony get a lot of traffic and help people make a first time connection. But one of the challenges of wanting to be friends first is instead of taking friendship and adding romance, you’re trying to take romance and add friendship. And these approaches make it very easy to find people to date. So you’ve got a solution to the meeting people problem, but not to the making friends problem.
But as the years go on, people stop making friends as they get older. And the existing pool of people they knew is now either already spoken for, still in the Friend Zone with small prospects of moving out (apparently), or moved away.
So for those who want to date someone they’re friends with, you cannot avoid this conondrum – you need to make more friends, and keep making them.
A problem beyond the initial date
This isn’t just an issue for those who are looking for a date. For those who are spoken for, who have been in longterm relationships for just a few years or even decades, the issue of friendship becomes really important. Sexologist Esther Perel observes in Mating in Captivity that married people can have excessive expectations of their spouse, wanting them to be their sexual partner as well as their best friend, co-parent, business partner, financial advisor or support, and everything in between.
A more dangerous reality I’ve seen to this end is that we can expect all this from our spouse and also be expecting them to be our sole friend, our sole emotional support, and our sole outlet.
Like an umbrella that crumbles under the weight of a heavy object being placed on top of it, spouses get crushed by the unrealistic expectation of having to be all things at all times to their partner. What is really needed is a support network of multiple people.
Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book Life Together cautioned, “The one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation and despair”. It sounds so extreme, and yet how tragic the fall of the one who refuses to open themselves to meaningful community, and blames the one to three people they thought would be able to carry all their burdens and needs and woes.
More than this – who can tell such a person of their opportunities and needs to improve and grow in different areas? We become like people who drive without any mirrors, to the peril of the few people we drive through life as our passengers.
This doesn’t change as we get older. Karolina Gunnser, author of Expanded Leadership, points out that people should never be promoted beyond accountability or community. No matter how many accolaides or life lessons or achievements we make no matter how many years we rack up on the clock, we always need people to keep us in line and invest in us.
Just look at how many people make huge mistakes later in life. You would have thought or wished that these people had a board keeping them accountable for their actions or investing into them, but often they don’t.
And perhaps a boardroom is the wrong place for these sort of conversations. Maybe people should still be making regular time to be open and to allow others to be open as well.
So if friendship is so valuable, what happens?
As seasons change, we need to as well
I think we can all see the merit of continued and focused friendship across all seasons of life. The challenge with the seasons of life of course being that people are also seasonal. Whether by intentionality or attrition, people move away, join different circles, follow their calling away from their original friendship bases, or just have falling outs they don’t recover from.
If you don’t believe it, consider how you yourself are a person who has left behind many friends in your life. How many people did you just remove in your last friendship cull on Facebook or Instagram? How many people who you used to see every week have you seen this year? How many people do you yourself initiate connection with in an intentional way?
And if people stop making friends as they get older, little by little they eventually have no one left.
One study in the RSOS journal observed the age people stop making friends is 25. Another American study showed 43% of people over 60 feel alone, with 25% feeling completely socially isolated. If we stop making new friends so early in life, it’s no wonder so many people end up feeling isolated later on.
This is why we always need to be meeting new people. We always need to be growing. For some reason we get it in our head and our hearts that we don’t need anyone, or we only need a few people that we’ve got. This is probably why when that one or few people aren’t able to meet all our emotional or social needs, we explode. Australian statistics across 2021 show 42-49% (depending on gender) of violent crimes were perpetuated by a person the victim was either related to or friends with.
But perhaps we just struggle to make friends. When we were young it seemed to just happen, but with more commitments and years on the clock, we need to be more proactive about it. Here are some ways to make more friends as you get older.
Tip #1: Consider friends you already know
People stop making friends as they get older, and if you really really feel stuck trying to meet someone new, consider the people you already know.
For those looking for a date, perhaps your best suitor lies in an existing friend. But for those looking for closer friends, I think the same applies. Maybe we’ve written people off too early or not given them enough of a real chance. Plus if you already know them and have spent time with them, you probably already have the common base to build from.
A classic line from author Jane Austen on the topic:
“It is not time or opportunity that is to determine intimacy;—it is disposition alone. Seven years would be insufficient to make some people acquainted with each other, and seven days are more than enough for others”.
One of my favourite bands (one of my top 5) wrote a song called Welcome To The Masquerade, about how widespread our attitude can be on joining “the sea of masks”. But if we fake our conversations and do not get real with people, we cannot be surprised when our friendships are as fake as the way we treat them.
Consider who you already know. The people you’re looking for may already be staring you in the face. You just have to be the real friend to them in the way you want them to be to you.
Tip #2: Start early
I know you might be looking to meet more people, but sadly the number of willing potential friends dwindles over time. The earlier you can start, the better.
Think of your investment portfolio and the law of compounding returns. Money makes money. The more you have initially invested, the more return you can get later on.
Even if you feel like you’re getting up older and you’re not happy with the way friendships are going, today is the best day to start. If you want to pay off a house quicker or get out of debt, you don’t start in a year, you start right now. Similarly, if you want to make a good return on friendship, get on it now.
King Solomon gave some really harsh advice that I thought was a bit extreme when I was younger – “Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”.
But as I get older, I totally get it. More and more things happen in life that take people out or corrupt their perspective on life, and in fact the harder the opportunities will become to meet people who want to befriend you in return. The earlier we can get the bases in before life happens, the stronger we will be.
Tip #3: Find commonality
For some reason, we are obsessed with feeling like “the only one“. The only one who’s been through this hard ordeal, the only one who’s interested in this combination of things, the only one who could never be understood.
Unfortunately this attitude robs us of the opportunity see how similar we really are.
We so often given into insecurity that prevents us from being open about things we truly like. There are so many other people who are into the same shows, music, movies, games, hobbies, sports, boats, cars, investment opportunities, books, and whatever other interest we have.
I find people who haven’t got a friendship probably just haven’t asked enough questions yet. John Maxwell says about questions that “the ability to ask the right question is more than half the battle of finding the answer”.
Keep asking them questions. I know I personally have found great success in connecting with others by using this approach of asking until I find our common ground.
Tip #4: If you can’t find it, build it
I think people stop making friends as they get older because they are expecting the same autopilot life conventions to lead them to friendships that did in the past. The only problem is you were actually super intentional in the past, maybe without realising it.
You only made your friends in school cause you woke up every morning at the same time, went to the same place, did the same (or similar) things, and in your downtime made focused effort to build relationships.
You only made friends in university or TAFE or college by doing the same thing.
Or Sunday school. Or youth group. Or advanced after school chess. Or in the workplace.
The problem is that we reach some magical age where we stop doing these things. Firstly we stop going places. We stop going out. We stop going to community events. We stop building commonality. We get busy and stop scheduling catchups with people. We stop going to people’s birthdays and parties and celebrations and events because reasons.
And when we do go there, we hear someone doesn’t share some of the same interests and we give up.
Well my friend, you have another option – you can both build a common interest together! You can either become interested in something they’re already interested in, or both explore something completely new together.
In the same way two people dating need to cross their boundaries to get into the world of the other person, or two married people need to continually find or make common ground, or a family or an organisation needs to decide on what activities it will be doing together, friends are exactly the same. In fact I would argue that it is this aspect of friendship that in turn makes romantic, familial and business relationships work.
Many people stop making friends as they get older, but I would argue this is the single most destructive decision we can make in life. The most stupid decisions people make immediately follow withdrawal or distancing from community. And it isn’t just the person that suffers but everyone connected to them.
Moreover, it may look like it’s a dating problem, or a marriage problem, or a family problem, but really it is probably a friendship problem. It’s amazing how quickly you are able to work through the other challenges in life when you have a winning team.
One of my big main reasons for being alive is to help people do relationships well. This of course includes the romantic reasons but also friendships. When we have great friends and indeed great friends for life, we have the strength, wisdom and support we need to really live well.