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.

25 comments

  • I had this problem, until I up'd and moved my BFF to Melbourne, getting her out of a rut and me my BFF back, violla lol

    Commenter
    Relocated
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    August 21, 2012, 8:18AM
    • I haven't got to my 30s yet but I think it would be great to have time to solidify friendships. I recently made friends with a woman over 30 so I guess it can happen??? We met through team sports.

      Most of my friends these days tell me I have to stop making new friends. I have a need to be liked by a lot of people it seems. I once decided 7 good friends was a good number, one for every day of the week but ultimately it was too many. A few drifted away then a few came back.

      My biggest fear seems to be what you describe.

      Commenter
      Shell
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      August 21, 2012, 9:31AM
      • I don't think that's confined to your 30s. Am in my early to mid 20s now and am experiencing a similar situation. Still have one of my best friends nearby but our social circle is a small one. Have made great work friends too but they stay just that-work friends. I think as adults it can take that extra effort not a lot of people are willing to do.

        Commenter
        Tall Girl
        Date and time
        August 21, 2012, 9:54AM
        • Agree, I've worked with many women over the years, once you move on from the job they rarely stay in touch. Emails and calls go unanswered, there are half hearted suggestions to catch up for lunch 'one day' but that rarely happens. Many women form friendships with other mothers, they have motherhood in common, but for those of us who spend the majority of time at work, there isn't a lot of opportunity to make friends except with other women at work. I've found they're friends of convenience really, remaining friends only while you work with them.

          Commenter
          sunny
          Location
          sydney
          Date and time
          August 21, 2012, 11:54AM
      • I agree about intense experiences forming new friendships but I don't think those are always based on shared passions. I think any time you share an intense experience with people you tend to bond with them, but shared interests may be what keeps it going. Going to business school at any age or going on a month-long golfing tutorial trip or an Antarctic expedition or being trapped up a mountain could turn up some new BFFs too, but I'd be surprised if most of the people on Big Brother are still close a few years later.

        Commenter
        Karen
        Location
        Melbourne
        Date and time
        August 21, 2012, 10:21AM
        • I too found I had this problem, while I had lots of girls in my life, none had time to regularly catch up and develop a bff friendship. I decided I needed to find a girl who also was looking for a friend who had time for each other. I signed up to a friendship network and after a few cocktails with different girls, I met Kristie. We clicked instantly, outgoing and bubbly we compliment each other. We make sure we commit time to each other and develop our friendship. And I'm glad we did, I have no secrets from her, she knows the good and the bad, and she has been there for me in some pretty tough times. I'm glad I pulled myself out of the friendship rut and did something about it.

          Commenter
          pipsta82
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          August 21, 2012, 10:22AM
          • I agree, it gets harder once you're out of uni. It can be difficult making friends in the workplace because you are not always lucky enough to have a large group to choose a few friends from.

            I'm in my late 20s, but this has been a problem for years:
            I didn't stay good friends with many people from high school or uni and as a result, I have few close friends. My newer friends eg from workplaces, are lovely and we catch up every few months, but they all have a much closer core network of friends on which I'm not a part of. It seems these high school and uni friends are all much closer than anyone else who might come along later, will ever be. It's like a type of unintended snobbiness, and it makes it really hard to become more than friends with someone and to break into the good and close friends categories. The crux of it is that I have many friends I could invite to a party and few who would define it as a not-to-be-missed event, not due to any lack of hosting/party skills, but the category I find myself in. If your best mate has a birthday, you'll be there in a flash, otherwise its a maybe or maybe after something else type scenario.

            I don't know what the answer is, but its really frustrating and disappointing too. Being friendly and breaking down a few barriers isn't the hard bit, its crossing over to be the one that's called on or having someone you can call on.

            Commenter
            Nina
            Date and time
            August 21, 2012, 11:37AM
            • I have been waiting for an article to pop up on this topic! I was wondering if I was alone in feeling it was difficult to meet new friends. In a way it sort of feels like dating - if you do meet another woman you feel you click with, you don't want to appear too keen or desperate, on the other hand you want her to know you like her. I would love to meet new female friends but I just don't know where to find them!

              Commenter
              Kate
              Location
              Fitzroy
              Date and time
              August 21, 2012, 11:51AM
              • I'm hearing ya! Are there any websites that we can go to for friendship? I'm 32, from Geelong and the older i get the harder it is....

                Commenter
                Sez80
                Date and time
                August 21, 2012, 12:41PM
              • I agree that its hard. I had a social group but when we moved out of the area we all gradually lost touch. I've had some luck with joining a group on Meetup.com. They are a local group of ladies (and men) with basically the same plan. I've met some really nice people but it would be nice to have a 'bestie'. I find work friends are generally not open to be anything other than 'work friends'.

                Commenter
                Alldara
                Location
                Sydney
                Date and time
                August 21, 2012, 1:26PM

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