If everything is temporary anyway, how do I keep caring?
March 11, 2014 11:17 AM   Subscribe

I'm in my mid-thirties - professionally successful, non-sociopath, etc.. When I look behind me, though, my past is littered with the corpses of dead friendships. Two part question: 1. Is this normal? 2. If so, how do I maintain my optimism about current and future friendships? Details inside.

There are some extenuating reasons for the demise of some of my friendships. I got divorced from my professor husband a couple of years ago, and we live in a college town, so he kept all of the university folk (and yep, that hurt - I did think some of them liked me for me, and he and I are perfectly cordial so it's not like they _had_ to choose between us, but that's another rant). I behaved pretty badly during the run-up to that divorce, so at least one other friendship is a casualty of that time.

Since then, though, I've had one newly established but very close friendship blow up in my face, and none of the rest of my friendships have made it past the "acquaintance/activity partner" phase. As someone I know once put it, I have no "first phone call" - the first person I would call outside of my family to tell them about a death, a birth, or whatever.

So.... is this normal for my mid-thirties? Do we all - given time, maturity, and mobility - end up with an address book full of dead numbers? Do we all have trouble finding kindred spirits when we're too busy running the Girl Scout cookie booth to spend afternoons sharing our secrets?

If so, how do I keep my chin up and get back out there? I'm shy and introverted, so I don't need a large group of friends, but the kinds of close friendships I crave are difficult to cultivate. The introversion means that this is all very exhausting for me, too, so sometimes I feel like it's not worth bothering; I just want to put on my Eleanor Rigby face and call it a day.
posted by missrachael to Human Relations (21 answers total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
I have the same experience as you. I'm in my 30's and, aside from my wife and kids, I don't have any "real" close friends. Plenty of people would be willing to hang out, but I rarely get free time to go play, and that free time usually comes at short notice.

I've had a couple of decent friendships in the past decade, but they all imploded (as you allude to). Most of those implosions were due to immaturity and the fact that I have kids and they didn't, thus our schedules didn't mesh.

I'll put on my Father McKenzie face and we can have a virtual party.
posted by tacodave at 11:29 AM on March 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

I think the mobility of the current generation plays a part in this. Most people I know who have stayed in the same metropolitan region for most of their lives have tons of close friends, even into their 50s and 60s. Most who moved around (left high school town for college, left college town for first city, left first city for second city, moved to suburbs in a different city, etc.) do not have close friends outside their spouse, and maybe a few old friends they catch up with on the phone a few times a year. Proximity, shared experiences, shared current context - this is the stuff of friendship.

It extends even to the granular level - my friends who went to high school in the city we live in have the most deep friendships, those who arrived here for college even more, and so on.

It's a huge part of why I have an intention to stay in the same metropolitan area that I arrived in at age 22 for as much of my life as possible.
posted by amaire at 11:37 AM on March 11, 2014 [13 favorites]

It's totally normal to have dead friendships. All the more so when your friends are at the age where they have kids. Many of them just vanish for a decade. Another factor is the period from 30-40 is peak career making time - when people knuckle down and work hard, and when they move away to where the opportunities are.

Your situation is slightly less common because you've divorced, so a) you've lost x amount of friends and b) you are socially verboten from socialising with other womens' husbands unchaperoned. It's tough. You have my sympathy.

On the positive side: you have, I presume, much fewer ties. Which means you can do what the hell you want. This includes a whole bunch of activities where you will meet people who share your interests. Remember: friends often breed friends. One of the two couples Mrs MM and I see most we know through a friend I met when I accompanied a female colleague meeting him in a bar.
posted by MuffinMan at 11:38 AM on March 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: MuffinMan - I neglected to mention that I do have an 8 year old daughter... so not as much freedom (and no freedom to move away from my small town, since I share custody 50/50), but I do have a lot more freedom during my non-custodial weeks and I try to do stuff during those times.

Another source of frustration, though: hanging out with the parents of my daughter's friends is... awful. Just awful. I'm kind of artsy and much more liberal than is the norm here, so I find myself doing a lot of nodding, smiling, and seething.
posted by missrachael at 11:45 AM on March 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

First off, hang in there, I'm really sorry this all happened to you and that you're needing something in your life that you're having a difficulty time finding.

It sounds to me that there are a lot of circumstances surrounding you that have made things the way they are for you today. What struck me the most was you saying "the kinds of close friendships I crave are difficult to cultivate". As a person who truly values deep and close friendships I understand the need. And I honestly don't think its too much to ask for in life to have some good people who truly care about you.

My suggestion is simple, don't stop trying. Try places like meetup.com, join a book club, take an art class (even though you're already an artists), join a mommy's club. Ask a colleague or someone you meet from one of these group for coffee or a casual lunch; and see if a friendship develops. Also try social media, comment on peoples posts, see if friendships develop.

I am 40, and the older we get the harder it is to make friends, but I honestly think its worth the effort. Good luck to you.
posted by lullu73 at 11:50 AM on March 11, 2014 [6 favorites]

I've struggled with this. I realized that I had to get out there, like others say, so I joined a knitting group. The other part was being willing to extend myself when I am getting to know someone I want to cultivate a friendship with. I'm not as good at the latter, but I do try to remember that it's not always everyone else's job to make stuff happen.

The other thought I had is how many people I know, including me (and you), whose life went through major upheaval in their mid to late 30s. Part of the struggle for me was working on myself and understanding who I am, which is something I had neglected for years in service to a career and a long term relationship. It can be hard to make friends and "be yourself" when you don't know yourself very well.
posted by cabingirl at 12:00 PM on March 11, 2014

Another source of frustration, though: hanging out with the parents of my daughter's friends is... awful. Just awful. I'm kind of artsy and much more liberal than is the norm here, so I find myself doing a lot of nodding, smiling, and seething.

Well, that's one problem right there. Not the nodding and smiling but the seething. If you spoke up a little bit more and shared your scary liberal opinions, you might find someone in the group who has also been nodding, smiling and seething. But, if you won't share you character or your thoughts at all then you won't find that person. And it sounds like the worst that could happen is that you wouldn't be invited into that circle much and that sounds like not a big loss to you.

I have lots and lots of wonderful friends. However, pretty much nobody on my first call list. I'm realizing two things: you have to actively cultivate that first-call list. I have one friend who I can call because she has said repeatedly that I can. I know I'm not her bestest and most awesome friend because I've seen her interact with those people and it's not like our friendship. However, I absolutely took her up on her stated generosity when I got very sick while my husband was out of town and our toddler was small. She answered her phone and she came and helped. I vow to be that person for her as well and if I see a chance, go out of my way to be generous right back to her.

I have another friend who I would like to be much closer to and what I'm realizing is that with our busy lives and competing interests (children, work, housekeeping, downtime) if you just wait for things to organically happen, they organically won't. So, this friend, we could totally be besties but I'm needing to make a conscious effort to carve the time for us to get closer. And I think that's the big difference from our friends from childhood. We had whole long days with not much better to do but cultivate friends and relationships. We just don't have that space as adults.

Lastly, I have another friend who is super outgoing and funny and she picks up people everywhere she goes because she is genetically programmed to chat with people. You know the people I'm talking about? They usually go into people-focused professions like Public Relations and seem to have an endless well of energy for drawing people out. When I was temporarily in a new location with a small child, I knew that if I couldn't channel this kind of energy, I'd spend the whole 3 months on my own, just me and my kid, slowly going insane. So, I went to kid open play events and I pretended I *was* this other woman. I talked to people. When I saw them at another event, I walked right up with a big smile and "remember me -- we met at indoor playgroup, how are you?" Once I found a connection, I cultivated it. "Hey, I've heard the Children's Museum is really cool, would you ever want to meet up and get the kids together?"

And I'm sure this can work out in the adult world, too, though play-dates are a convenient excuse. You need to look for that spark and then be a little more forward than you normally would. You can connect with people on Facebook and post for folks who want to check out the new Veronica Mars movie together. Or attend the science talk at the university. Or go to the craft beer festival. Etc.
posted by amanda at 12:17 PM on March 11, 2014 [15 favorites]

You have to put in the effort. Throw dinner parties, invite people on dog walks, organize a women's 5k training group, run a poker night, listen to people complain about their boss for the 400 millionth time, go skiing or to the beach or on short trips together, go on a perfect Mexican food place quest etc. Everyone is busy at our age so you have to be persistent and you have to spend time with people you like, not just people who are available (that's a trap it's easy to fall into).

Dinner parties are the best though, people bring their friends and you meet tons of cool new friends that way.
posted by fshgrl at 12:21 PM on March 11, 2014 [5 favorites]

This is one of my stock answers around here, but: Volunteer! (Somewhere other than, or in addition to, your kid's school if you already do that. Find a cause that really speaks to your heart.) It will make you feel good about yourself and your role in the world, and it's also a wonderful social outlet.

A good place to start exploring is through the Hands On Network, which has local affiliates throughout the country.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 12:33 PM on March 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

It could almost be me asking this question. I'm not divorced, though, and no kids. Introvert, though, I am.

I made a huge effort for a few months last year to make new friends.
All the usual paths failed...
--Take a class! Meet people interested in what you like!
--Join a book club! Meet people who like to read what you read!
--Join a mailing list! Meet people who have the same hobbies!
--Join a friend-making web site! (in my case, 4 of them) Meet other people who want to make friends!
--Volunteer! Meet other people who like to help people!

If it feels impossible to you to make friends with any of the above methods, just know you are not alone in that. Ugh. Reach out, reach out, reach out. After awhile, when no one reaches back, you start to wonder if it is worth it. I did, and I decided it was not really worth the effort. I'd rather read a book. I did try reading some of those books on making friends, but wow, was that a bunch of useless crap.

It is normal. According to the useless books on friendship that I read, once you get out of school, and especially if you work in an environment where you do not run into a lot of people (I work from home, for example), you just don't meet as many people. The ones you do meet, then, are less likely to be someone you click with just because the pool is smaller.

If you feel it is worth it to continue to reach out, then you will eventually find some people you connect with. But feel free to take a break now and then. The effort you have to expend as an introvert to make new close valuable friendships is extraordinary and will just wear you out unless you pace yourself a bit.
posted by AllieTessKipp at 1:02 PM on March 11, 2014 [9 favorites]

Response by poster: AllieTessKipp - thank you. Some more info:

-I run a weekly knitting group.
-I volunteer at a local farm a couple of times a month.
-I attend the Unitarian church intermittently.
-I used to be part of a belly dance troupe that has folded.
-I work for the library, and I run some library events that put me in contact with a lot of people.
-I go to to a lot of the town's art and social events. I do talk to people there.
-Boyfriend and I have invited people over for a couple of movie nights.

I know lots of people. If I wanted to throw a party and invite 50 people, I could. If I wanted to call someone for moral support in the middle of the night, I couldn't - not anyone local, anyway.

I get that I have to choose a person or two to focus on and really try to build a friendship, but there's some mental block holding me back from doing that. Whenever I think about it, I think, "It'll just implode / blow up in my face / end in tears anyway, so why bother."

Not that there's anyone really in the running at the moment, anyway. A professional connection and I have a mutual petticoat-wearing admiration society going, but she lives three hours away. That's about the best I can do these days.
posted by missrachael at 2:52 PM on March 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: And one more thing I'm afraid of: I'll just get drawn into some mentally unstable person's circle of weirdness again. That's what happened with the friendship that imploded most recently: they were anarchist chaos magickians who OMG LOVED ME SO MUCH and invited me to join their Discordian cabal the second time we hung out and I was all "yay people love me!" And then things took the predictable trajectory.

I find that I am unusually susceptible to things like that, because in the short term they feel like a short cut to intimacy.
posted by missrachael at 3:01 PM on March 11, 2014 [6 favorites]

You're doing all the right things. Don't get down on yourself. Having lived in university towns for a long time, I think by nature the people in them tend to be more slow-to-befriend than other places. I've been in my current town for five years and I *finally* feel like I've found my niche. In many cases I think people are hesitant to befriend people who they feel will move on in a year or two for a better job offer (perhaps especially perceived in your case, if you don't have your ex-husband's ties to the university any more?). I also think university towns are more transient than other places, so developing close friendships can feel like an exercise in futility.

In terms of practical ideas:

1. Be willing to be vulnerable with people, starting in small doses. Be wary of short cuts to intimacy (oversharing), because you're right that developing close friendships relies on small acts of support built over time. It's a long story but I found that when I stopped pretending to be a superhero and let people see the real me, then I found some amazing friendships. And I mean you can start super small--admitting to having a headache when you normally would just grin and fake it, fessing up to being anxious about an aspect of a trip you'd otherwise be 100% stoked about, etc.

2. Be willing to be that person for someone else--do you think anyone would feel like they could call *you* for moral support in the middle of the night? Can you look for ways to support friends without them asking? Like, if you know someone's going through a hard time professionally or personally, get in touch and say, hey, let's go get a pedicure and flip through trashy magazines and take our minds off things? Then next time, you get a glass of wine together, have some good conversation, and the friendship builds from there.

3. Would you consider going to talk to a professional? Last year I started therapy and seriously, it was life-changing. I kind of detect some similar sentiments in your post as to how I felt w/r/t acceptance and intimacy from others, and therapy really helped me face my insecurities. Like, be the friend to yourself that you want others to be? I dunno. Something to think about, if you can afford it.
posted by stellaluna at 3:44 PM on March 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

When I was living in this one (densely urban, liberal) metro area, I met a few really great people through classes. Good chemistry, similar view s of the world. With each, both of us were at coincident emotional turning points - licking our post-breakup wounds, or exploring self expression and possibility.. unfortunately, I moved (back to my home town) before those friendships were able to transition to 'first call'. I do believe they would have, though. The activities that created conditions for meeting weren't time fillers, I think that might be relevant; at the time, we each attached a lot of importance to them and took things seriously.

Once I got back, I was initially at a social loss. But I again found other single women friends (this time, through mutual coupled friends - the difference matters imo), and have found real support and that deeper connection with a couple of them.

I also repaired a formerly blown up friendship (bff from high school!) - and this has been hugely rewarding. Our lifestyles differ, but we make it work (with some work). Are *all* your dead numbers worth staying dead? If you say you behaved badly or hurt people, it's within your power to apologize, if you miss people. No guarantee it would work, but maybe worth a try?
posted by cotton dress sock at 3:51 PM on March 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Don't rule out conservatives! I am hippy-dippy liberal, and some of my friends met through kids and shared events are so far to the opposite. But politics for a lot of people are almost inherited or barely thought about, and despite our apparent differences, we have a similar sense of humour and several shared passions. There are people with the same outlook as me who I just don't have that spark of friendship to have long conversations over beer or call when something happens. Friends don't have to share your politics or preferences.
posted by viggorlijah at 5:09 PM on March 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

Yes, this is normal, especially if you don't fit in "family of four" mode any more.

Beyond that, there's nothing I can tell you to do that you aren't trying. If you're not hitting it off with ANYONE and you've probably gone through the whole town....well, damned if I know what to tell you. Other than "sometimes you get lucky and sometimes you don't." Right now you're not getting lucky with anyone, so take a break. Maybe someone will come along eventually, but right now it sounds like you have darned well fished in your pool and come up with empty hook.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:36 PM on March 11, 2014

I had real trouble making close friends at all until my early twenties. Since then, I've had entire friend-groups fall away during social upheaval, but my close friends are different.

I'd say that group hanging out time kinda doesn't 'count' towards making a close friend, unfortunately, but are just the way to identify potential close friends. One on one time at least fortnightly (usually weekly) is how my very few close friendships were built. I'd do a lot for my close friends, but they do a lot for me, also.

A shared activity *helps*, but it only gives a reminder to keep in contact.

A situation where one of us could really go above and beyond in terms of helping, and the other reciprocating as possible, tends to foster intimacy sooner. Reciprocation is kind of the key though.
If you can't do a favour for them, ask them to do a favour for you. I know that sounds odd, but it shows trust, in them. And then do something to 'pay them back', as soon as possible. If you do do them a favour, give them an easy way to 'pay you back' very quickly. No one likes to feel in debt. Having a relationship where both people are looking to help the other in all sorts of odd ways, but no one feels hard done by, is great.
I'm phrasing it weirdly, it's the opposite of a mercantile approach, but showing you can trust, and are trustworthy in turn. There's some stuff in Robert Cialdani's 'The Influence of Persuasion', that explains this better.

One of my close friends drifted away when they got a new (slightly jealous) partner and moved to a new city, but then when they moved back, they stayed in my guest room for 3 months while they got sorted, and nearly a year later, I stayed with them nearly as long while I was house hunting. My closest friends are kind of defined by the fact that if we did move, and lose contact (we're not good a long distance), there's an assumption we'll just pick it back up again when we are available, regardless of time passed.

I'm not sure what 'behaved badly' means though. I don't think I've done that. If you need to apologise, I guess do it.

Thing is, there's only so much time. Is it a trade off you want to make? I kind of skip larger group events, because I'm too busy catching up with my individual friends. Ironically, Friday and Saturday are some of my quietest nights.
I think if I invited people more widely I could get a couple dozen people for a party, ok, probably quite a few dozen if I didn't care who was coming, but I actually only had a dozen people at my birthday. On the otherhand, I have between 2-5 people I could call for most conceivable personal or emotional emergencies (I'd rather call the night owls at night rather than the early birds). I'm also emergency call-ee, hospital person, and sudden babysitter in turn. I'm honoured.
posted by Elysum at 9:10 PM on March 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'd say that group hanging out time kinda doesn't 'count' towards making a close friend, unfortunately, but are just the way to identify potential close friends

I agree with this. I also think that since you've already got a whole lot of people you know, most of the hard work is done already. You now just need to hang out with people one-on-one or in small groups. It can be as casual and low key as meeting for a coffee or a drink. See who you click with, and let things develop from there.

Also don't set out to find a close friend. Keep it low stakes. Just set out to find someone who likes similar movies to you and doesn't mind going for a drink after. (Or whatever your preferred activity is). Find enough of these, and one of them might become a close friend. And you know what? Someone you've had a couple of drinks with will probably take an emergency call from you in the middle of the night. You might feel like you're imposing (and you might be), but if you do have a genuine need, most people who aren't horrible will help out. And if they're such a horrible person, you wouldn't have hung out with them in the first place, right?
posted by pianissimo at 2:30 AM on March 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

"When I look behind me, though, my past is littered with the corpses of dead friendships. Two part question: 1. Is this normal? "

My normal is no friendships. It's not for lack of opportunity: I had an upper-middle-class upbringing that included boarding schools, an elite college education and law school, all places where society says you're supposed to make friends and connections for life. Didn't happen.

I've been in highly social occupations in law and in management, and have no friends to show for it.

My husband and I have entertained and been in various social circles, and we've joined various groups based on shared interests. Nada.

Who knows what brings people together, but my husband's track record with friends is like mine. He's a highly successful professional who loves his clients and they think he walks on water. He's been involved in many professional groups and performed service work. Acquaintances by the score, but a handful of friends at best.

So, I'm waiting for the report announcing the discovery of the asocial personality. It's like being asexual, except the missing missing factor is affinity, not sexual attraction.

I have decided that the past 58 years of my life are a pretty good predictor of the future. So I am working on being OK with not having friends. And I need to work on controlling my resentment when, for example, someone tells me she's getting together with group of college friends who've been seeing each other since the '60s.

I've been with my husband for 32 years, and we have a loving family and grandkids. That's an abundance of love. It's enough.

I'm looking for a therapist who can help me understand how I'm different, why I seem to have a teflon coating that prevents friendships from taking root. But I don't think there's anything I can begin doing (or stop doing) that is going to create friends.

The images of friendships we see on TV, the movies, in literature, etc. are probably as accurate as other depictions of individual experience, which is to say they're distorted. So I've learned not to confuse the buddies in the beer commercial or story lines about boyhood friends with real life.
posted by ADave at 8:00 AM on March 12, 2014 [5 favorites]

I get that I have to choose a person or two to focus on and really try to build a friendship, but there's some mental block holding me back from doing that. Whenever I think about it, I think, "It'll just implode / blow up in my face / end in tears anyway, so why bother."

I sort of know what you mean about your past being littered with dead friendships. I moved around a lot in my late teens and twenties, and I've always been a very friendly, so I've made and then lost a lot of friends due to "natural causes," but I've also had several friendships die due to "Drama."

A few things about the latter: One, I think it's more common for friendships to really dramatically implode/explode/whatever in your teens and twenties. People in general are just a lot more prone to drama at that age. I've found that as I've gotten older, that happens a lot less.

Two, I think making those closer friendships are a lot like looking for a serious relationship in that you have to balance putting yourself out there with looking for red flags. It's not all-or-nothing. So, you ask a cool acquaintance out for a drink or whatever, and you open up a bit, and see how it goes. Maybe you become closer friends and it's great, or maybe you start to notice little things, like she only ever wants to talk about herself, or she talks shit about literally everyone else, or she makes little "frenemy" digs. These are all potential red flags. On the other hand, maybe there's smaller shit, like she's always late, that sort of annoys you but you put up with it because she's fun and you know it's not personal.

Third, I agree that there's something to making good friends from the people you see on a regular basis. And I agree that it's worth speaking up a bit with your daughter's friends' moms. I mean, you don't need to start knock-down, drag-out fights about gay marriage, but why hide your light under a bushel? Your opinions are as valid as anyone else's. And who knows, maybe you'll start conversations that will help you get to know these other moms better. Maybe you can even be friends despite your differences. I mean, maybe they won't be your BFF soulmate friends, but maybe they'll be good coffee-and-commiserating-about-motherhood friends.

Fourth, at the same time, I think one thing about our modern busy lives is realizing that there are different kinds of close friends and that the people you see on a regular basis might be different from the people you consider your truly close friends. For instance, I have a friend who lives 1,200 miles away. We talk maybe 2 or 3 times a year and see each other every few years, but I still consider her one of my closest friends because we just "get" each other. We can go years without seeing each other and then just pick up like it was nothing. On the other hand, I have a friend here in my current city (where I recently moved) that I see almost every week because we both have dogs and live in the same neighborhood. We walk our dogs together and have pleasant conversations, but we're not close. That's fine. Maybe we'll get closer, maybe we won't, but it's nice to have a friend in the neighborhood to shoot the shit with while we walk our dogs.

Fifth, please realize that this lack of close friends, or history of lost friendships is not a reflection of your worth as a person. I sort of feel like that's the unwritten question in your post, and I understand where it's coming from, but sometimes life circumstances just make it hard. That said, if you do have a pattern of lost friendships that goes beyond the divorce issue, you might want to look at your own role in these friendships exploding. Was there a conflict that could have been avoided and/or dealt with earlier? Were your expectations out of line with reality (or were your friends')? If there's a common thread of your friends just totally screwing you over, then going back to my second point, were there earlier red flags that you missed or ignored? Again, not saying this reflects on you as a person, but if you can identify patterns, it may help you avoid this in the future.
posted by lunasol at 9:22 AM on March 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

I want to thank you for posting this! It is very pertinent for me and you have gathered some great responses. I don't have loads to add.. but one thing I might say is it might be worth to think about your temperament.. are you glass half full or empty? Do you need/desire the same or the opposite in others?

I say this.. cos I regularly have 'waves' of this mission and am also prone to hideous depressions. Recently I was particularly trying to force myself to go against it.. get out there see new friends (I quite recently moved). On this mission I spent a day with someone who is incredibly bright/breezy/optimistic by nature. I left screaming inside feeling lonelier than ever. I can't hack extreme optimists most of the time.. any more than they can hack my bleaker outlook. For the most part I need people that understand the waves or are a bit more optimistic than me. Nthing the looking out for red flags things... all too easy to get driven by loneliness. You may also want to look into co-counelling international as a useful support network where you will find some good people.
posted by tanktop at 3:52 AM on June 6, 2014

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