Life Gets Better

The unexpected pleasures of growing older.

There's Nothing Like an Old Friend

Longstanding relationships become an irreplaceable bounty.

 

It is idle, having planted an acorn in the morning,

to expect that afternoon to sit in the shade of the oak.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery

 

Old friends know our stories. As we narrate a current quandary, such friends can draw parallels to our earlier struggles. They comprehend what still dogs us, while serving as witnesses to the many capacities for endurance that we have accumulated over the years. There is relief inherent in the wider perspective they provide, but best of all is the sweet reminder of what it is to be known and understood.

Old friends laughing

To be accompanied through life - this is a privilege made rarer now by smaller families, geographic mobility in youth, and divorce. Through a sibling bond, friendship, or pairing as a couple, longevity in a relationship locates us in a shared past. The most important things do not need to be said; much can be communicated with just a grunt or a nod. Laughter at our earlier foibles comes more easily and rises to a higher level of hilarity the more years that have intervened since our original folly. There is no other way to attain this kind of rootedness and belonging, such a keen sense of being in it together. Only duration over decades grants this consequence.

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Siblings are still sometimes each other's oldest friends, a bit of luck made more likely when several children are raised in close sequence. A woman in her late fifties said of her older sister, "Somewhere along the line we became the same age," guessing that this occurred when she achieved equal footing by striking out on her own when she turned eighteen. Her sister, four years the elder, disagreed. She claimed that it was not until both reached midlife. "Now I feel there's no age difference, except when we fall back into old roles - like when I become the bossy older sister."

Intimate partners who manage to stay together for years certainly evolve as friends, but those outside the pair may be able to pose questions that partners resist from each other. Couples often collect a host of topics each may not be able to hear dispassionately from the other, while friends can grant the freedom of wide-ranging, unimpeded exploration. With a different stake emotionally, friends allow each other to think out loud and test ideas without worrying about the impact of what is being ventured. Such friends may also offer perspective from the years preceding the partner's arrival, supplying reminders of what was carried into the relationship from the past and thus cannot be blamed on the partner.

Overall, we become better equipped for well-being in relationships as we get older, becoming more skillful in the arts of compromise and consonance. We fight more fairly. Studies have demonstrated improvements in how we regulate our emotions and ways in which we become less reactive to negative situations with age. As elders, we tend to choose our arguments more carefully and tolerate mixed feelings with less distress.

I have noticed that I am less prone to succumb to pettiness during a conflict. I also say what I mean more directly, and I am better able to set aside my pride in order to admit to a swoon of vulnerability or to give voice to a need. When I was younger, I was not as self-aware and couldn't see my faults as well as I do now. Now I apologize more readily and with a sincerity that no longer needs to shelter in a silent self-defense.

Just as we see ourselves more clearly as we get older, we see others in a more penetrating way. As time passes, we may notice aspects of an old friend we never appreciated before. Fresh areas of inquiry and conversation may open up. Each other's expanded fund of experience may enliven the dialogue and propel the give-and-take to new depths. Friends who get to grow old in tandem may discover unsuspected dimensions of each other in the later versions of themselves.

Sadly, it is also possible to gauge our own growth by noticing the ways an old friend has not advanced. Divergent viewpoints that once did not matter may have widened into a gulf, or we may find that a trait admired thirty years ago now seems less impressive. Even when realizing that we have grown apart from an old friend, we may choose to persist in such longstanding relationships out of the recognition that such bonds are irreplaceable and still give us precious access to our own past.

The timeless quality old friends feel upon being reunited derives from having once been young together. Time itself seemed to move differently back then. Experiences lasted longer and loomed larger. A friend from youth can bring us back through the decades to a key event in a rush of feeling and memory, as if it happened yesterday. Recollections held in common comprise a great storehouse from which insights can be derived and sense can be made.

A single woman reached her mid-forties with several loyal friends. Her childhood and adolescence had been lonely, and so she knew the worth of kind companionship. She had always been the one to bring over meals when a friend was ill, or to give a ride when a friend's car needed to be repaired. Her one failing in the art of friendship was in being unable to let others know when she needed help. At core, she saw herself as a solitary traveler, a loner whose path diverged from how others lived.

When she got breast cancer at the age of forty-six, her friends rallied around her. They took turns accompanying her to chemotherapy, preparing meals, and walking her dog. She discovered that her life was rich in relationships. During and after her cancer treatment, her conception of herself shifted. She saw that her life was fully animated by friends who were like family and that growth for her consisted of counting on others and receiving their nurturance. This revelation carried her forward without fear for her future.

As closeness deepens with the passage of years, longstanding relationships become an irreplaceable bounty. Old friends grant us views of ourselves that we cannot obtain any other way, allowing us to discern continuities and be assured by a semblance of coherence. During rough times, we can lean into that mutual familiarity without excuses or explanations. Old friends are just there for us, as they have always been.

Copyright Wendy Lustbader. Adapted from: Life Gets Better: The Unexpected Pleasures of Growing Older, Tarcher/Penguin, 2011.

Wendy Lustbader, M.S.W., is an affiliate associate professor at the University of Washington School of Social Work.

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