The whirlwind of activities and deadlines that adult life throws at us often makes us resistant to closeness. We abandon old friends and neglect building new relationships until inevitably, the day comes when we start feeling pressed against the self-erected walls of loneliness.
The day Emma Beddington returned to her hometown after 12 years in Brussels held none of the sparkle of reconnecting with loved ones left behind. In fact, Emma didn’t have a single friend to reach out to, for whom the news of her return would have been a pleasant surprise.
She wished to reconnect with friends from college, but Emma had consistently followed a flawed relational pattern—whenever she moved from one place, she permanently severed any relationships formed there. This behaviour might have its reasons, psychologist Sally Austen says: “While old friends may link us to happy old memories, they also link us to the bad times. When we move it gives us a chance to ‘start again’, so if there’s a chance old friends will prevent our reinvention, it might feel safer to leave them behind.” Of course, this is only possible if forming new connections is second nature to the individual. On the other hand, friends we’ve had “forever” could be much more valuable than we think when we let them become just a fading memory over time.
Why cultivate old friendships
“Nothing, in truth, can ever replace a lost companion. Old comrades cannot be manufactured,” Antoine de Saint-Exupery says. New friends can also turn into long-term companions, but only after an investment of time and energy similar to what has been allocated to longer-standing friendships.
Studies on social networks indicate that relationships need maintenance if we want to reap the emotional and physical benefits that come with them. Reviving friendships that have lingered in the shadows provides four types of benefits—those associated with newly-formed relationships (efficiency and novelty) and those generated by old, robust relationships (trust and shared perspective).
Comparison anxiety can be an obstacle to rekindling older relationships, writer Temma Ehrenfeld says. Perhaps one friend has built a successful career while the other hasn’t achieved professional milestones, or maybe one has a happy family while the other fears being seen as incomplete without a life partner and children.
“Being able to laugh again with someone who knew you at 12 or 22 can go a long way to help you accept your life,” says Ehrenfeld, emphasising that as we lose beloved family members, witnesses to our past, we increasingly need people with whom we can talk about our memories.
At 35, on the brink of marriage, Max discovered he didn’t have a single close friend to invite as his best man. Standing in front of the house of a once very close friend he had inexplicably drifted away from over five years previously, Max writes that he couldn’t muster the courage to knock on the door and rekindle the strong connection they once shared.
A study by Oxford researchers reveals that, on average, we lose two friends when we fall in love because we no longer invest time in those relationships. “If you don’t see people, the emotional engagement starts to drop off, and quickly,” anthropology professor Robert Dunbar says. It’s a very familiar experience for Max, and quite common, especially among men.
“Loneliness among men is a problem, and many men in their 30s show signs of heading in that direction,” says Professor Damien Ridge from the University of Westminster. Ridge mentions that in his therapy sessions, men often come forward feeling emotionally isolated. His advice to Max and other men in this situation is to make an effort to maintain a friendship, akin to how we make a marriage work.
What we need to know when building new friendships
Building a friendship in adulthood can be a daunting task, says Irene Levine, a psychologist and professor of psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine. One reason is that the rules of friendship are very vague. “It’s easy making friends when we’re children. Five-year-olds can just say, ‘Do you like swings? I like swings! Let’s be friends!’”
As adults, we can handle a maximum of about 150 relationships, Robert Dunbar claims. This number is divided into smaller groups, differentiated by the closeness of the relationship. The core of this network, according to the anthropologist, consists of 4-5 people we see weekly—individuals with whom we share confidential information about our lives and to whom we turn to times of crisis. The next layer is comprised of people we see monthly—around 15-20 individuals, the “sympathy group,” whose death would sadden us and whose absence we would feel. The subsequent layers consist more of acquaintances—people we might greet at an airport and from whom we could comfortably borrow a small sum without feeling awkward.
Close relationships with friends in the numerically smallest layer bring numerous benefits to one’s physical and emotional well-being.
From the age of 25, our social networks consistently decline until the middle of the fourth decade of life. After stabilising for a decade, they continue to decline after the age of 55. Understanding this dynamic of social connections could be a compelling reason to invest more in relationships in youth and engage in forming new connections throughout life.
There’s a magical ingredient we should capitalise on when trying to weave resilient threads into the fabric of a new friendship. It’s not even a recent discovery. A study from 1968 showed that the more frequently we meet a person, the higher the chances of finding them more agreeable.
Regular meetings with a friend increase the robustness of the relationship. Researchers have found that the rule of friendship is somewhat counterintuitive: it’s not necessarily people with similar attitudes who become friends, but rather those who meet frequently in different contexts who tend to become friends and later even develop similar attitudes.
The rule applies even after a relationship has already formed. “Friends who lived within striking distance of each other found that scheduling opportunities to spend or share some time together was essential,” concludes researcher William Rawlins from Ohio University during interviews with middle-aged Americans in 1994. Unfortunately, says Rawlins, these encounters often stalled at the planning stage, failing to materialise.
No matter how busy or sophisticated we’ve become, the conditions for forging friendships remain those laid out by sociologists nearly 70 years ago—proximity, regular meetings, and a framework that invites confidences, says Rebecca Adams, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina.
If our happiness is so significantly tied to the quality of our social support, then we should make an effort proportional to the benefits gained to develop close relationships, psychotherapist Lena Aburdene Derhally says. She suggests that people invest more in two or three significant relationships rather than dissipate their energy across numerous friendships if they don’t have sufficient resources to manage them properly. Additionally, Derhally highlights two essential conditions for friendship to flourish. Vulnerability might be intimidating for someone who has been betrayed, but without this ingredient, a relationship doesn’t progress. Moreover, the relationship can’t even take off if we don’t strive to step out of our comfort zone.
A network of friends is one of the most valuable gifts we receive in life, but not everyone can initiate and cultivate entire constellations of close relationships. Psychotherapist Mark Vernon emphasises that even one friend can profoundly change someone’s life.
Here’s good news for all those for whom socialising has never been a forte. This brief guide on how to forge and sustain enduring friendships would be incomplete without the insightful observation of the poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The only way to have a friend is to be one.”