Because life in developed societies follows a more or less regular pattern, sociologists have managed to identify the age at which conditions are most conducive to forming a friendship. It’s not that people who are not of this age are unable to form meaningful connections with other people, but at other ages, life takes us on different paths, without asking for our permission.
There is nothing as simple yet as complicated as walking up to another child on the playground and saying those magical words that can transform you from a satellite of your mother’s skirt into a prominent member of the micro-society in the park: “What’s your name? Do you want to play together?” At 4 or 5 years old, friendships are formed at the speed of light, or maybe only at the speed allowed by the communication abilities, still under construction, of the two protagonists. In this social microcosm, stories dependent on the well-defined time and space of the park are tied and untied. From then on, time and space govern all our social relations, including friendships, sometimes discreetly, sometimes in a more obvious way.
The sociologist Anthony Giddens wrote in his monumental Sociology that “most people spend a zone, say, from 9 am to 5pm, of their daily time working. Their weekly time is also zoned: they are likely to work on weekdays and spend weekends at home, altering the pattern of their activities on the weekend days.” If we zoom in on a single day, we also notice a movement “across space as well: to get to work, we may take a bus from one area of a city to another, or perhaps commute in from the suburbs.” All these movements influence our social interactions in one way or another, so the sociologist concludes that we cannot analyse the context of social interactions without analysing our movements through time and space. For this reason, when speaking of the ages of friendship, we implicitly mention its places.
The ages of friendship
In childhood, friendships are opportunities to practice for life. In friendship, children learn self-control and, as they grow up, they become less self-centred and more aware of the needs of others. Friendship teaches young ones what empathy means, but also their need for resilience following small failures and rejections. Most children describe their friendships as relationships in which they share their resources with others. Children will more easily share what they have with a person they consider their friend. Developing the ability to make friends in childhood helps the child to socially adjust later in life and have better problem solving skills. At this age, friendships need only three ingredients: openness, likeableness, and willingness to have fun together.
In adolescence, friendship acquires more intense nuances. At this age, friendships begin to be based more and more on shared values, loyalty, and common interests, rather than on proximity, which is a top priority in childhood.
Since the 1950s, sociologists have placed proximity in the top three most important ingredients for forming a friendship. In addition to it, experts say repeated, unplanned interactions and a framework that encourages vulnerability are of major importance.
Coming back to adolescence, because the identity is still developing and sometimes is moulded by the extremes typical of the age, newly formed friendships are more vulnerable. “In adolescence, people have a really tractable self. They’ll change,” says William Rawlins, a professor of interpersonal communication at the University of Ohio. That is why Rawlins, like other social scientists, is convinced that early adulthood is, in fact, the best time to form a lasting and fulfilling friendship.
Between the ages of 20 and 24, a multitude of factors converge to give us golden opportunities for friendship: it is the age when most people don’t have pressing responsibilities in their family of origin (caring for elderly parents) and don’t have the pressure of responsibility for their own family (spending time with their life partner, caring for children). The young adult’s strongest resource is time. According to the Encyclopedia of Human Relations, a young adult spends, on average, between 10 and 25 hours a week with friends, the ‘champions of socialising’ being adults between 20 and 24 years old.
This is the age at which going to college facilitates access to a dense social network, in which young adults can manifest themselves more confidently than in adolescence and find it easier to find friends who share their values. Young adults also have a greater flexibility in overlooking the small shortcomings of others.
Then, as we get older, new elements appear in the equation: returning from college to our hometown, or moving to another city for work, replacing college with work (and the network of same age friends with a much more heterogeneous network regarding this aspect), as well as forming a family.
Marriage is a strong shock to our friendships. First of all, because the new responsibilities and new priorities add up to the ones that we already have as adults, they come at a cost that we often pay with the time we would have spent with our friends. When children appear, the pressure on old friendships increases again. “After all, it’s easier to put off catching up with a friend than it is to skip your kid’s play or an important business trip,” says Rawlins.
Then there’s the aspect of compatibility between old friends and our life partner. “Once people start coupling up, the challenges only increase. Making friends with other couples ‘is like matchmaking for two’, wrote journalist Kara Baskin. Not only are you worrying about whether the other woman likes you, you’re also worrying if her husband likes you, if your husband likes her, if your husband likes him.”
A certain amount of consolation comes from the fact that we’re all in this together. We all live with this tension between our ideals of friendship and reality that is full of requirements that are opposed to the lives we live. Our friendships have this vulnerability to circumstances, to all the things we “must do,” which become a priority over the things that “would be nice to do.” Another piece of good news is that things don’t stay that way forever.
Towards the middle of life and beyond, as responsibilities and pressures take a step back, friendships become a priority again. Once retired, with children already adults, we have more time for friendship again. We rebuild relationships that were once broken and we begin to give more importance to the experiences that bring us satisfaction in the present moment, including time with close friends and family. Dedication and communication were found to be the two keys to lasting friendships, following a 19-year study. Other studies have highlighted the importance of equity—feeling that you receive as much from the relationship as you invest in it.
What is there to learn?
Friendships give us purpose and meaning, motivate us to stay healthy, and create a good environment for a longer life. Even though life takes us through stages where it’s sometimes harder to spend time with friends, it’s important to know, in the words of Lydia Denworth, author of Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life’s Fundamental Bond, that “friendship is a lifelong endeavour and that it is something that people should be paying attention to at all points in life. I think that people sometimes think (especially in their 30s and 40s), ‘I just don’t have time for friends right now’, and that’s a mistake. If you get to be 65 and then now you’re ready to start paying attention to friends, well, it’s a little bit like stopping smoking when you’re 65. If you go from 15 to 65 and you smoke the whole time, it’s still better to stop than not, but some damage will have been done. And if you don’t pay attention to friends all the way along, the same thing is true.”
A few intentional steps can help us invest more time and energy in our friendships, says the author. “It really does just begin as simply as paying attention and prioritizing. I try regularly to plan to get together with my close friends and the people I care about seeing a lot. We all have relatively busy lives, but I, first of all, make an effort to make the plan, and then I make an effort to get there—to show up. I think showing up is a really critical piece of friendship, in every sense of the phrase.”
Alina Kartman is a senior editor at Signs of the Times and ST Network.