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Why You Might Find It Harder to Make New Friends

It's a common dilemma, but it may not mean what you think.

businesswoman standing alone in front of people walking
© Ron Chapple | Royalty Free

In an intriguing essay, Boston Globe correspondent Jaci Conry captured a perplexing yet very common dilemma:

"I am grateful to have cherished friends from childhood I talk with often but seldom see. I’ve also maintained college friendships formed nearly 20 years ago. Yet I hadn’t made a new close friend in years."

Or to put it more succinctly...

Where Did All My Friends Go?

This isn't an illusion or a craving to turn the clock back to one's youth. A recent study published in Psychological Bulletin documented this very common phenomenon. The researchers conducted a meta-analysis of 277 studies based on 177,635 participants ranging from adolescence to old age. The results consistently showed that:

  • Global social networks (which include your family, friends, coworkers, business acquaintances, and so on) increased up until young adulthood and then decreased steadily.
  • Personal and friendship networks (which include just family members, close friends, and other close confidants) decreased throughout adulthood.
  • The family network was stable in size from adolescence to old age.
  • Other networks, with coworkers or neighbors, were important only in specific age ranges.

In other words, even if you have thousands of "friends" on Facebook or Google+, the number of close friends we have peaks in our 20s and then steadily declines.

These facts may seem alarming. But they aren't. Here's why.

As We Age, So Do Our Social Connections

When you're young, you're yourself. By our 30's, most of us are raising small children and building a career. And when you marry, have children, and/or pursue a career, you become other people in addition to yourself. You're not just your core self anymore. You are Sally's mom, Chris' spouse, or Company X's agent. You belong to each of them, and they to you.

Career and family will devour the vast majority of your energy and time. You will "lose" yourself for a while. Even the time and energy devoted to our marriages will decline as the "cannot put this off" demands of young children and career take center stage. Unfortunately, many couples decide at this point that they have really "grown apart" and that a change of spouse is in order. Sometimes such a change is needed. But often, just time and patience are required—an understanding that you will return to each other as the demands of career and children begin to subside.

More important, your spouse, children, and career will bring you into contact with people who share those aspects of yourself but not necessarily others. This broadens your social networks, but does not necessarily deepen them. These social connections serve particular needs and they may or may not last. You shouldn't expect them to. You may find yourself socializing with the parents of your children's friends. The connection you have with them is your children—the fact that you have children of the same age and interests. As your children age, graduate from school, and start their own lives, the connections you had to their friends' parents may recede, because they were not connected to your core self.

The same can be said with coworker friendships. What you have in common is your place of employment or choice of career. If those change, those social relationships may or may not endure.

In fact, according to a related study, every seven years we lose about half of our close network of friends and replace them with others—a period of time that typically corresponds to life events that redefine our lives.

Conry quotes clinical psychologist Janna Koretz of Boston-based Azimuth Psychological:

“We are all looking for a best friend—but that’s not really realistic as an adult. One friend doesn’t have to offer everything. I have a lot of friends I wouldn’t call if I was having a bad day, but I’d invite them to play paintball. You can have one friend you love to talk about fashion with, someone else you go running with, another whom you call to help you get through a crisis. It can be fulfilling to have friendships on different levels.”

For women in particular, thinking this way often requires a quite dramatic shift. Women seek friendships primarily for emotional connection, and for this reason, the ending of a friendship can be as traumatic as a divorce. But as we mature, we need to undergo a subtle shift in the way we think about friendship. We need to think not in terms of emotional sustenance but in terms of social connections for the diverse roles you yourself now play.

How to Respond to These Life Changes:

Once you shift your thinking about friendship, these simple steps can bring more people into your life.

1. Go out and look for conspecifics.

A "conspecific" is someone who is like you, or more precisely, like one or more parts of you. If you're a parent, that means other parents. If you're a bookkeeper, that means other bookkeepers. If you're a jogger, that means other joggers. You get the idea.

Koretz put it this way in Cory's essay:

“Think about what you like to do. Put yourself in a place where you’ll be surrounded by people who share your interests. Find a biking group that meets on Saturdays and go even if you’re tired.”

2. Accept invitations, even if you don't want to go.

Even if you're tired, even if you think you're going to be bored, just get up and go. Once there, refer to point #1.

3. Appreciate that what people look for in a friend has changed.

Most simply, people just want company. They really don't care if you are funny, entertaining, smart, interesting, or have really cool opinions. They just want to be with people who seem to like being with other people and are open to being with them.

4. Appreciate that social relationships in business are based on rank and power.

In order to build a career, it is necessary to form social connections to other people in your field or place of business. And those who hold high ranking positions or otherwise wield power are also those who can make or break careers. Don't be surprised or put off by the fact that these people are most often the targets of social connection, and don't be surprised if you find yourself pursued in this way as your status rises. These connections serve a purpose in your career like other connections do in other aspects of your life. Everyone needs successful mentors and well wishers as they build a career. Just be sure to pay it forward as you rise.

Copyright Dr. Denise Cummins February 9, 2015

Denise Cummins is a research psychologist, a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, and the author of Good Thinking: Seven Powerful Ideas That Influence the Way We Think.

Facebook image: Wrangler/Shutterstock

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