Why is it so hard to make friends as an adult?

"Now that I was approaching thirty, had the best friendship sailed?"

"Now that I was approaching thirty, had the best friendship sailed?" Photo: Getty Images

I met Alison when I was 21. She was the life of the party: smart, warm, outgoing, friendly, with big eyes and dimples. Over lots of late nights and many D&Ms, we became best friends. The sort of best friends who could breathlessly finish each other’s sentences, who cried on each other’s shoulders and wore each other’s clothes, who are honorary members of each other’s families. Together we have been through overseas relocations, medical emergencies, addictions, break-ups, break downs, an abortion, a suicide, and much more. No matter where we are in the world, I know she’s got my back. I will always have hers. But Alison lives in Melbourne and when I moved back to Sydney two years ago, I found that I had nobody to play with. Now that I was approaching thirty, had the best friendship sailed?

“In your 30s and 40s, plenty of new people enter your life, through work, children’s play dates and, of course, Facebook,” says Alex Williams of The New York Times. “But actual close friends — the kind you make in college, the kind you call in a crisis — those are in shorter supply. As people approach midlife, the days of youthful exploration, when life felt like one big blind date, are fading. Schedules compress, priorities change and people often become pickier in what they want in their friends. No matter how many friends you make, a sense of fatalism can creep in: the period for making B.F.F.’s, the way you did in your teens or early 20s, is pretty much over. It’s time to resign yourself to situational friends: K.O.F.’s (kind of friends) — for now.”

I had lots of great friends all over the world, but back in Sydney after six years of living elsewhere, suddenly I didn’t have that BFF to call in an emergency at 4am. How was I going to find that special someone who could finish my sentences and borrow my clothes? According to The New York Times article, there are three factors sociologists consider crucial to making close friends: “proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other.” The planets needed to align so I could find someone in my orbit, who I would see all the time, with some vulnerability thrown into the mix.

Easier said than done — everyone seemed to have already made their best friends and weren’t looking for any more. Potential bestie after bestie were closed for business, but I couldn’t figure out why it was so difficult to connect with new people properly, not just on Facebook. Nadja, 31, says it was easier for her to make friends when she was younger because that’s when people are more open to new friendships. “When you're older, you're stuck in your own world and might not open up yourself to a new friend.” These days she might meet someone through her mother’s group or sport, but it’s not the same as the friendships she’s already formed. Adrienne, 37, agrees, saying that her thirties have been about becoming better friends with people she already knew. She attributes a lack of time as a reason why it's harder to make new friends now, and what time she does have is spent nurturing existing friendships. At a certain age we just become busy: the demands of work, love, and family can sometimes mean that friendship takes the backseat.

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But surely we have more to offer as a friend once we’re over thirty? We’re more comfortable in our own skins, and know who we are and what we want. Karen, 39, thinks having more life experience and better judgement can help with making new friends. She says “At uni there were so many people doing interesting things it was easy to make new friends. Since leaving uni I've made a couple of friends but it's harder. As I get older I appreciate old friendships more and I'm more inclined to work on the good ones I have.”

On the flipside Amy, 39, thinks it can be easier to make friends when you’re older. She’s made most of her now closest friends recently. A common interest or shared passion is another factor that can forge a new friendship: Amy and I met on a six-month creative writing course, where all seven of us in our tutorial group quickly became the best of friends. Intense experiences like this can create an extraordinary bond — just look at reality TV contestants who claim that they’ve made some of their best friends throughout the competition because they’ve found a group of people who share their passion.

Adam Liaw, winner of Masterchef Season 2, says of his experience on the show, “I think it varied from season to season, but in my group we became really close friends - and we still are now more than two years later. Even though we should technically have been competing against each other, it was more about each individual wanting to do their best rather than wanting to beat someone else. It was easy to become friends because we had a shared interest in food, but more than that we also shared some unique and wonderful experiences that people that weren't there can't really imagine.”

But I wasn’t going to audition for Masterchef to find my new best friends. My new BFFs crept up on me in the workplace, where I found some wonderful women who not only shared my passions, but I also had to see them everyday (proximity!), run into them at the photocopier (repeated, unplanned interactions!), and spend time with them at work functions with a glass of wine (a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other!). They welcomed me to the fold with open arms and have taught me about the wonders of making close friends in your thirties. 

Recently Alison threw a big birthday for me, and having all my best friends in one room brought me to tears. I was thrilled that I hadn’t shut myself off to the possibility of new friends, and was grateful for the friends that I’d already made. Perhaps there are circumstances that make carving out time for old and new friends difficult, but I’m not sure if I want to settle for K.O.F.’s (kind of friends) for the rest of my life. We always need a shoulder to cry on and someone who’s got our back.