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Why Making Friends in Midlife is So Hard

Updated: Apr 25

(And what you can do about it)

Why making friends in midlife is so hard

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The Importance of Making Friends in Midlife

From the moment we're born, we need nurturing relationships to grow and thrive. We are social creatures who need to feel seen, heard and loved. We need to belong. We need to both support and be supported by others. We are happiest, healthiest and at our best when we are in community.


Having a variety of close friends with whom we feel deeply connected has repeatedly been linked to important benefits to physical and mental health...and even to greater longevity! (See the fascinating "Blue Zones" research for more detail on the importance of community on lifespan.)


Loneliness, on the other hand, brings with it an array of psychological and physical problems including depression, anxiety, obesity, diabetes, heart disease and even fragmented sleep! According to the National Institute on Aging, the health risks of prolonged isolation are equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day!


Banner for making friends in midlife freebie

A Plague of Isolation

In recent years, a plague of social isolation and loneliness has spread across the United States as we have become increasingly fractured, distracted and disconnected.


This is a serious and largely unrecognized (largely due to the stigma surrounding loneliness) threat to public health. Research shows that a significant proportion of adults in the United States report feeling socially isolated or lonely, with frequencies increasing as we age.


A 2018 nationwide survey (of 20,000 Americans) conducted by the health insurer, Cigna, found that 46% of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone. Forty-three percent of Americans stated that they feel that their relationships are not meaningful and that they are isolated from others. The global pandemic surely worsened these numbers.


Why Making Friends in Midlife is So Hard

Aging

For most people, the number of new, good friends that they have declines with age. This is due, in part, to natural, biological changes in our brains that occur as we age, which lead to declines in energy and motivation to seek out a range of new people and experiences.


Aging Brain - One reason making friends in midlife is hard

If you think about it from an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that young people are driven to seek out new relationships (finding a mate) and to take more risks (killing the woolly mammoth), whereas older people, for their safety and to prepare to leave their loved ones, begin to withdraw more into themselves.


The present-day problem, obviously, is that we now live a lot longer than our cave dwelling ancestors and so this previously helpful, biological phenomenon is now a real threat to our health, happiness and ability to lead a fulfilling life.


Modern Life and Technology

As we strive to develop technologies that make our lives easier and more efficient, we’re slowly eliminating the need for true social contact. In the past, Americans congregated frequently in "third places" (i.e., not home, not work), such as churches and pubs, and we organically “ran into” and got to know new people, making midlife friendship connections that we likely wouldn't otherwise.


Today, we do many more activities alone (or distracted and with our Airpods in our ears) or not at all, with the "help" of various apps and delivery services. We’re slowly removing our need to engage with each other from our daily lives.


As we retreat into our homes and our devices, our social interactions are losing the depth and warmth of face-to-face connections, making it harder to even begin the first step that might lead to making friends in midlife.


When was the last time you asked your neighbor for a cup of sugar or a ride to a doctor appointment? We’d rather drive 3 miles to the store or pay for an Uber. We don’t want to be in debt to or deal with the inconvenience of reaching out to others. Yet, it’s, at least in part, these little impromptu interactions that helped keep us from being socially isolated in the past.


Impromptu interactions are important for making friends in midlife

To make things worse, as we remain glued to our devices, we are each retreating into our own preferred echo chambers, listening to ever louder voices drawing ideological lines and emphasizing our differences. The more we spend time alone listening to this minority voice its opinion, the greater our fear of “otherness” grows.


We begin to see and suspect dangerous differences around every corner and, in doing so, we further cut ourselves off from interactions that could serve us.


Another important factor to consider is that with improvements in technology, we've become a far more mobile society. Whereas this increased mobility has undoubtedly offered many advantages, such as the ability to travel and work anywhere in the world, it has ironically also contributed to weakening of our social connections and ability to make friends in midlife.


The unfamiliarity moving to a new location, coupled with the absence of established social networks, can make the process of forging new relationships seem daunting for even the most socially adept among us.


Many established social circles are traditionally resistant to newcomers, and this fact is not helped by our increasingly transitory nature. We often wonder, "why bother get to know this new person? Is it worth the effort?"



Shifting Priorities and Increased Responsibilities

Another factor adding to the difficulty of making friends in midlife is that, during midlife, we often find ourselves juggling increasing responsibilities that can lead us to not prioritize midlife friendship as much as we did when we were younger.


We often find ourselves "sandwiched" between raising our own children and caring for our aging parents. This dual responsibility imposes a substantial time burden as we juggle these care giving duties. The constant need to attend to others' needs can lead us to neglect to take time out for ourselves.


Intergenerational responsibilities are another reason that making new friends in midlife

It is also often during midlife that the pace and responsibilities of our careers may accelerate as we take on higher level roles and increased responsibilities at work. During these years, we may be working harder than ever and the time our career demands of us may become even more intense than in the past.


Rusty Interpersonal Skills and Social Anxiety

To some extent, interpersonal skills are, like any other, "use it or lose it".


Because we now increasingly only interact with others when we WANT to, our tolerance for dealing with interpersonal situations in which we don’t feel 100% safe and completely in control is decreasing.


We expect everything to be perfect and we overreact to little annoyances (e.g., the person who cuts you off in traffic, the loud talker in the movie theater) that are commonly experienced through interactions with others.


We also may be increasingly impatient and simply don’t want to deal with imperfections or perceived deficits of others. We don’t want to be disappointed so we simply don't put ourselves "out there".


In short, we’re losing our ability to tolerate the daily, minor interpersonal stressors that are needed for us to continue to grow and thrive socially - and as with anything that is isolated from harm, we are becoming weaker.


Social anxiety, something that often increases with age, is also worsened with lack of exposure. This anxiety makes it much more difficult to initiate conversations with new people and make friends in midlife.


In our minds, we build "others" up into something that is difficult or scary (the pandemic did not help this). We worry that people won’t find us interesting, that someone else is not worthy of our time...or (far more often) we worry that others feel the same way about us.


We have a negative voice in our heads and invent what the other person is thinking about us. (We all seem to think that others like us less than we like them...but obviously, both can’t be true!)


10 Tips for Making Friends in Midlife


Example of women making friends in midlife

Prioritize and Be Proactive About Making Friends in Midlife

Understand that friendship is a basic human need that is essential to happiness and survival. It's right up there after water, food, shelter and the internet. We need to give it the respect it is due by prioritizing it as highly as we would other important activities on our calendars such as work, hobbies and exercise.


To prioritize making friends, create an overt, proactive midlife friendship strategy. Create friendship goals. (I know this sounds over-the-top, but I'm actually completely serious.)


Each of us is responsible for creating our own supportive network. No one else is going to do this for us. Don't assume friendship is just something that happens naturally and without effort (and that there's something wrong with you if it doesn't). Yes, it was easier when we were younger, but that is because, at that time, our lives (and our brains) were structured in a way that resulted in much more interpersonal interaction and openness to new relationships.


Without a proactive midlife friendship plan, too often, making friends and developing our existing friendships fall to the bottom of the priority list and are given only whatever time is left after everything else is "done".


If we do somehow manage to achieve that magical and elusive state of "done" and "find" the time to do something for ourselves, we are often just plain tired and so we slide into doing whatever passive, non-relationship-building activity requires the least amount of effort. (Our new BFFs are not going to find us sitting on our couches doom scrolling or binge-watching Netflix!)


Woman and goat eye to eye - from article on why making friends in midlife is hard

Get Out of Your Comfort Zone to Make Friends in Midlife

Challenging yourself to step out of your comfort zone can be a very rewarding experience and is key to making new friend in midlife. By seeking new opportunities and pushing yourself to try something unfamiliar (even slightly uncomfortable), you are opening yourself up to a world of possibilities and very interesting new midlife friendships.


Make a habit of seeking out and spending time engaging in new experiences that will introduce you to people outside your current social circle.


There are LOTS of ways to do this. Join a social club. Join a club that focuses on a hobby or interest that you already have, or, even better, join a club for something you've never done, but are curious about.


Other fantastic ways to make friends in midlife include... Taking a class at your local community college. Join a sports club, a book club or a gym. Volunteer at your local animal shelter or for whatever cause you care about.


Just take that next step by signing up for something...ANYTHING (it doesn't have to be the "perfect" thing) and then be sure to actually show up!


Banner for making friends lead magnet

Increase the Sheer Number of Your Social Interactions.

To make friends in midlife, you need to purposefully and intentionally visit public places where you'll have the opportunity to interact with a lot of people. Parks, coffee shops, grocery stores, pubs, local libraries, museums and airports are fantastic places to start. Actually immerse yourself in these experiences. Put your phone and your Airpods away.


Smile and strike up conversations with strangers as you go about your day. You’ll be amazed at how many interesting people there are waiting in lines and wandering around public places.


You may be even more surprised by how much your mood is lifted by engaging in small, positive encounters with strangers. These little interactions (may or) may not produce your new best friend, but they will make you feel good and that you’re part of a collective community.


to make friends in midlife - be a good friend

Be a Good Friend to Make a Good Friend

As the old saying goes, if you want a friend, be a friend. Few truer words have ever been spoken. If you don’t feel connected to those around you, ask yourself if you’re contributing to and supporting them.


As simple and cliche' as it sounds, one of the best ways to be a good friend is to truly listen. This is both critically important and incredibly rare. Make a goal to talk significantly less than your friends in every conversation.


We all want someone to listen to us. We all want to feel seen, heard and that we are not alone. If you give that gift to someone else, they will naturally appreciate and develop positive feelings about you in return.


Next up is follow up. Show up. Reach out. Keep checking in. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Be consistent and reliable. Do what you say you're going to do.


People (may be surprised, but they) will appreciate your efforts. Expect these efforts to be one-sided (follow-up seems to be becoming unusual behavior), at least for a while. Don’t tie any expectations to your friends' behaviors. Focus on what you can do.


Being a truly good friend takes time and effort, but the dividends are worth it. When we show up consistently for our friends, they will support us when we most need it. Our positive efforts and energy will always come back to us.

Let Go of (or even better, embrace) “Otherness”

Open your mind to and seek out midlife friendships with people you perceive as different from yourself. It’s often these people who will help you grow the most. Embrace differences and emphasize commonalities. As humans, we all have the same basic needs, desires and fears. What can you learn? Approach people with curiosity rather than judgment. Focus on the parts of you that can be friends and go from there.


“Whether one is rich or poor, educated or illiterate, religious or non-believing, man or woman, black, white, or brown, we are all the same. Physically, emotionally, and mentally, we are all equal. We all share basic needs for food, shelter, safety, and love. We all aspire to happiness and we all shun suffering." ~Dalai Lama


Diversity is one key to making friends in midlife

Set Healthy Friendship Boundaries

It may seem counter intuitive, but strong boundaries are critically important for making friends at any age. Our boundaries are reflections of ourselves. To set them, we have to know both who we are and what our midlife friendship needs and goals are. It's important that we check in with ourselves to reevaluate this frequently because our needs change over time.


Solid boundaries also help us focus our energy on the parts of people we like: The parts of people that energize us. (Notice I said "parts of people", not "people" we like?) It's not necessary to determine whether we like someone or not. If there are people in our lives in whom we cannot find aspects we like, we naturally and simply won't spend very much, or any, of our energy on these people.


To begin, ask yourself now, "what relationships do I have that deserve better boundaries?" and "What am I looking for from my midlife friendships?"


(Speaking of boundaries, if you're wondering if your current friendships are "toxic", check out this article.)



Develop the Right Mindset to Make Friends in Midlife

Locus of Control. Consider whether, when rejected by a new friend, you would attribute this to internal (“something is wrong with me”) or external (“circumstances, bad timing”, “ etc) reasons. Do you believe that the quantity and quality of your friendships is under your control and directly related to your efforts? Or, do you see this as more the result of “luck” or uncontrolled factors?


People who believe that they have the ability to control and create midlife friendships, are less likely to be lonely. Unfortunately, as we age, many of us develop more of an external locus of control in terms of relationships, which can lead us to not pursue relationships with new people out of fear that we will be rejected for reasons beyond our control.


Social Anxiety, as already mentioned, often increases with age and is worsened with lack of exposure. The more you withdraw or avoid social situations, the worse the anxiety will become.


Overcoming feelings of insecurity and anxiety when making friends in midlife can be challenging, but it is possible. To build your confidence, recognize that it's normal to feel nervous when put in unfamiliar situations such as a social gathering. Almost everyone is feeling the same way as you and many are having the same thoughts. (We are all comparing everyone else's external appearance with our internal experience.)


Knowing that you are not alone can help lessen the fear of judgment or feeling “out of place”. Try to relax, breathe and do your best not to worry about all the things that could go wrong or how uncomfortable you feel. Practice positive self-talk. Use the (silent) mantra, "I belong here”.


A final, practical tip is to find structured social experiences that are time limited and where there is some kind of planned activity (vs a large, informal social event) that allows interaction in smaller groups along with something to "do". Having something structured to focus on takes some of the pressure off the individual conversations.


Making friends with people with similar interests helps to make friends in midlife

Deepen Your Existing Midlife Friendships

Perhaps your focus doesn't need to be making new friends, but, rather, to explore relationships with people already in your life. Where can you go deeper? Create meaningful connections with co-workers and turn them into out-of-office friends by taking a genuine interest in their lives outside of work. You might be surprised at how much you have in common.


Get to know your neighbors. There are a number of potentially great midlife friends living very close to you! Next time you need that cup of sugar, reach out to one of them.


All humans love novelty. Create and invite people to a novel social experience, such as a dinner party for a group of friends or neighbors who don’t already know each other. Who knows, they might return the favor and help you grow your own social circle.



Get Professional Help When Needed

If heeding the advice above feels overwhelming, impossible or if you just prefer not to do it on your own, seek out professional help. A few sessions with a cognitive behavioral therapist or a social skills coach might be all you need to be well on your way to making friends in midlife. (Reach out to me at angela@the-trybe.com and I'll help you find the support you're looking for.)


Final Thoughts

Making friends in midlife is crucial for our mental, emotional, and physical well-being. It may seem challenging and even intimidating, but by embracing diversity, setting healthy boundaries, developing the right mindset, deepening our existing relationships, and seeking professional help when needed, we can successfully build ourselves a community of supportive, enriching midlife friendships.


It's never too late to make new friends and strengthen existing bonds. As with any aspect of life, the key is to remain open, patient and consistent in our efforts.


About the Author

Angela Caveney, Ph.D. is a Clinical Psychologist, Neuropsychologist and Founder of The Trybe Women's Social Club. Her absolute favorite thing to do is to help people find friendship. She can be reached directly at angela@the-trybe.com


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jeanetaras
jeanetaras
Sep 07, 2023

This was a great piece Angi, thank you for posting it! Having moved around a lot in my adult years has created a challenge for me establishing friendships. Sure, I still have people in my life from "back home", but having someone to grab a coffee with or take a walk and vent to? PRICELESS!! I think that's what Trybe is about :)

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Angela Caveney
Angela Caveney
Dec 11, 2023
Replying to

Awww thank you, Camille! As you can see, this is a brand new baby blog and I'm throwing a lot of blood sweat and tears into it...sometimes wondering why...and then people like you come along. Thank you so much for the nice comment! ~Angi


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