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Make New Friends, Keep the Old: As We Silver, They Are Gold

Aging and friendship through the course of life.

Key points

  • Friendship is important throughout our life and supports our personal development.
  • Friendships are a marker of healthy aging.
  • There are a variety of friendships, each serving a function, and there is not a hierarchy of which one is more important.
Melissa Askew/Unsplash
Source: Melissa Askew/Unsplash

Friendship is incredibly important as we age. For many, friends can feel like family, and if family dynamics are fraught with tension and competing demands, relationships with friends can provide an alternative source of support, connection, and comfort.

Just like following a good diet, getting plenty of exercise, sleeping restfully, and reducing stress are important for our short- and long-term health, so is friendship. Engagement in social life, being active and connected with others, and enjoying intimacy are equally important markers of healthy aging.

As we age, friendships serve as a buffer from work, caregiving demands, tensions in the larger world, etc. Friendships can help counter some of the loneliness and fear that often accompany aging. For those living alone, friendship can also help counter isolation and remind us that someone else in the world is looking out for us, is concerned about us, and will be there in a time of need.

Maintaining friendships over the years is helpful as we age, as those relationships are an anchor to our past. Our friends are like our memory banks, providing us with information about our past selves, dreams, and desires, and this can serve to keep us on track to pursue our passions, to chart our growth, and to develop future possibilities. Adults who grew up as only children benefit from friendships that began in childhood just as those with siblings often find that their brother or sister is a key to understanding and remembering their past.

Research on friendship tends to categorize and make a typology of different friendship groups. Broadly speaking, there are lifelong friends, best friends, good/close friends, and acquaintance-type friends. Of course, there might be overlap with the first and second categories, or the first and third categories.

These categories need not imply a hierarchy of friendships where one is deemed more important than the other, where for example lifelong friends are somehow better than friends from activities we do in our daily lives. Rather, it is helpful to remember that each category of friendship—and the personalities of our various friends—can serve different purposes and functions and fulfill different emotional needs, all of which can nourish and sustain us.

We benefit from friends on all levels—friends with whom we share a history, akin to sibling relationships who anchor us to our early years; friends who have known all the major players in our lives and been with us through life's major ups and downs; and friends we can enjoy doing something with, where perhaps the conversation is less intimate but where there is fun, laughter, novelty, and joy in participating in doing something that counters isolation, for example, exercising, eating, or watching a movie.

Friendships can provide us with a partner for thinking things through, for doing activities with us that can be more fun in the company of another person, and for challenging us to become the best versions of ourselves. Through intimate relationships, including friendships, of course, we learn a great deal about ourselves and our wants and needs. This helps serve us in other relationships as well.

We also might benefit from learning something new from a friend—perhaps something to do with the other person's culture, religion, or political viewpoints. With a friend, hopefully, we can be more open and ask and answer questions more honestly, even about touchy subjects. This can lead to vulnerability, openness, and growth.

There is no magic number for how many friends a person needs or should have. Some of us may know people who have tons of friends but even in a case like that, that person likely feels super close to only some of them and maybe even just a few of them.

In addition, friendships can emerge and be sustained online. For some people, those friendships spring from social groups or acquaintances or even online support groups. Indeed, some of us have had the experience of becoming very close to someone through email and social media with the hope and intention to eventually meet in person.

And, of course, there is also the issue of what I call a sort of "friendship lite" that can occur in the world of social media—for example, can anyone really have hundreds or thousands of friends, even if our numbers indicate we do? In fact, the people we communicate with the most deeply and intimately may be, in fact, the people we communicate with least on platforms like Facebook. Social media has expanded, for better and for worse, our definitions of what friendship means.

Enjoying a diverse group of friends at the various levels of friendship alluded to above is healthy. The problem comes when a person becomes overly reliant on one person to fulfill what a variety of friends could and should provide. For example, typically, heterosexual men who are married or partnered are the most likely to rely on that one woman in their lives to fulfill all their needs. Ultimately this is not good for anyone; it's bad for the man and for the woman who is being saddled with so much emotional labor. It can leave a man feeling disappointed, hungry for more, and it can leave a woman feeling like she has come up short in a variety of arenas in her life, feeling not good enough as a girlfriend/wife or as a friend to others. It can also lead to controlling behavior where a man is overly focused on what a woman has or hasn't done for him and dominates her time.

In the end, we all have much more to bring to our intimate relationships and marriages when we are involved with other people and activities and then have more to come back and share. Friendships, on all the levels they exist, offer something that enriches our lives.

More from Deborah J. Cohan Ph.D.
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