by Alex Williams
It was like one of those magical blind-date scenes out of a Hollywood rom-com, without the “rom.” I met Brian, a New York screenwriter, a few years ago through work, which led to dinner with our wives and friend chemistry that was instant and obvious.
We liked the same songs off Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde,” the same lines from “Chinatown.” By the time the green curry shrimp had arrived, we were finishing each other’s sentences. Our wives were forced to cut in: “Hey, guys, want to come up for air?”
As Brian and his wife wandered off toward the No. 2 train afterward, it crossed my mind that he was the kind of guy who might have ended up a groomsman at my wedding if we had met in college.
That was four years ago. We’ve seen each other four times since. We are “friends,” but not quite friends. We keep trying to get over the hump, but life gets in the way.
Our story is not unusual. 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.
But often, people realize how much they have neglected to restock their pool of friends only when they encounter a big life event, like a move, say, or a divorce.
That thought struck Lisa Degliantoni, an educational fund-raising executive in Chicago, a few months ago when she was planning her 39th birthday party. After a move from New York to Evanston, Ill., she realized that she had 857 Facebook friends and 509 Twitter followers, but still did not know if she could fill her party’s invitation list. “I did an inventory of the phases of my life where I’ve managed to make the most friends, and it was definitely high school and my first job,” she said.
After a divorce in his 40s, Robert Glover, a psychotherapist in Bellevue, Wash., realized that his roster of friends had quietly atrophied for years as he focused on career and family. “All of a sudden, with your wife out of the picture, you realize you’re lonely,” said Dr. Glover, now 56. “I’d go to salsa lessons. Instead of trying to pick up the women, I’d introduce myself to the men: ‘Hey, let’s go get a drink.’ ”
In studies of peer groups, Laura L. Carstensen, a psychology professor who is the director of the Stanford Center on Longevity in California, observed that people tended to interact with fewer people as they moved toward midlife, but that they grew closer to the friends they already had.
Basically, she suggests, this is because people have an internal alarm clock that goes off at big life events, like turning 30. It reminds them that time horizons are shrinking, so it is a point to pull back on exploration and concentrate on the here and now. “You tend to focus on what is most emotionally important to you,” she said, “so you’re not interested in going to that cocktail party, you’re interested in spending time with your kids.”
As external conditions change, it becomes tougher to meet the three conditions that sociologists since the 1950s have considered crucial to making close friends: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other, said Rebecca G. Adams, a professor of sociology and gerontology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. This is why so many people meet their lifelong friends in college, she added…
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