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Where have all the friends gone?

When we’re young, friends are everything. For most of our childhood, whether we’re finding them, losing them, fighting with them, or playing with them, friends are the focus.

Fast forward a few decades and suddenly friends are supporting characters, not central to the plot. In our twenties and thirties, life shifts to finding a partner, building a career, and raising children. Suddenly, in middle age, we wake up and wonder: Where are all my friends?

Making friends as a grown up is hard

In conversations with peers, the topic of friendship comes up a lot. Regardless of geography, profession, or marital status, there’s a common theme among the adults I’ve talked to: Making friends as a grown up is hard. Not many of us have met people since our college days with whom we feel as deeply connected. Set against the backdrop of comfortable old friendships, new friendships can’t quite measure up. What is it about those seasoned friendships that makes them so compelling? What is it about how we try to connect with new friends these days that misses the mark?

It’s tempting to blame friendship challenges on our life choices. If only we’d stayed single, lived closer to where we went to school, or had moved back home before we married, then our evenings and weekends would be filled with wine tastings, book groups, and movie dates with our besties. But I hear enough complaining about feeling friendless from adults who live close to home or near their college roommates to know that few of us are prioritizing friendships the way we should.

It’s well-documented that social connection pays massive dividends with respect to psychological and physiological health. Friendships—even surface ones—are crucial to our well-being. Friends help us cope with stress and rejection, support us in reaching our goals, keep us active mentally and physically, and may literally add years to our life spans. Given these impressive outcomes, why aren’t we flush with friends?

Friends help us cope with stress and rejection, support us in reaching our goals, keep us active mentally and physically, and may literally add years to our life spans. Given these impressive outcomes, why aren't we flush with friends?

Here’s one theory about why it’s so hard to make adult friends: The carefully curated selves we express on Facebook and Instagram aren’t very…friendly. Those polished, perfect online identities can be off-putting to a new acquaintance. Then, too, our overexposed social media selves don’t leave much room for discovery or intimacy offline.

All friendships require maintenance, whether it’s a high school friend you Skype with monthly, or a new friend for whom you plan a birthday surprise. And

Imperfection leads to intimacy

Another possible explanation: By the time we reach our mid-twenties, we’re more careful about what we share and show the people around us, making deep connection and bonding less possible. Think about the misadventures your oldest friends have seen you through: All-nighters before finals, bad boyfriends, and haircuts that were even worse. How willing are you today to show that imperfect self to someone you barely know? To make new friends as an adult, we may need to look to our younger selves. We must be more open to new experiences and different viewpoints. We need to be willing to be needy, to be wrong, and to be vulnerable.

Think about the misadventures your oldest friends have seen you through: All-nighters before finals, bad boyfriends, and haircuts that were even worse. How willing are you today to show that imperfect self to someone you barely know?

In our teens and twenties, it felt easier to be open about the kind of support and friendship we needed. Adulthood demands more self-reliance, so I submit we aren’t as good as letting our weaknesses show.

And, about letting that guard down—here’s a secret: Perfect friends don’t exist. And you won’t ever be one, either. To make new friends we may need to lower our standards and accept from a new friend the same kinds of quirks and behavior our high school friends threw at us. Consider the words, actions, and subsequent misunderstandings we tolerate (and sometimes even love) in our oldest friends. We aren’t nearly as forgiving with those who are new on the scene. That might need to change. Surviving awkward conversations and misunderstandings demands trust and communication. How willing are we these days to give the benefit of the doubt to someone we’ve just met?

As adults, we meet new people because of where we live, where our children go to school, and based on the occupation we’ve chosen. When it comes to friend options, it’s often proximity more than preference that seals the deal. If you’re paired off, most of your time is going to be spent pursuing friendships as a couple. Which means it’s twice as hard to find time to get together, and four times as unlikely you’ll all hit it off. Add in a few kids and the probability of a friend match gets even more remote.

Speaking of kids, it doesn’t help that parenting has become so all-consuming that there’s little left for other relationships. When parents manage to steal time away from Little League tournaments and dance recitals, the focus is date night, not entertaining other couples. This wasn’t always so. When I was growing up, children were rarely included in adult events. My parents went out with friends often, never hesitating to leave us with sitters with zero credentials who weren’t much older than we were. When they hosted parties, my parents left my brother and me to our own devices, the TV barely audible over the sound of the cocktail shaker. Today, adult entertaining typically means harried conversations amidst chaos, otherwise known as a Friday night dinner with the kids.

However you go about it, meeting up with friends is important. When we fail to tend to grownup friendships, we not only shortchange ourselves, but also send the wrong message about friendship to our children.

Perform a friendship audit

It’s hard to determine which factors makes friendship trickiest for adults, but thankfully it’s easier to identify a solution. In a word: effort. It takes work to forge connections as a grownup when you don’t live, study, and play with a built-in community of people who are also looking for new friends. There’s really no way around it: If you want friends, you need to make the effort. And be ready for plenty of rejections and failed attempts before your friendship seeds flower.

It takes work to forge connections as a grownup when you don’t live, study, and play with a built-in community of people who are also looking for new friends. There’s really no way around it: If you want friends, you need to make the effort.

If you’re feeling dissatisfied with your friendships, you miss old friends you rarely see, or you’re embarking on a quest to make brand new friends, it’s worth coming up with a gameplan. Luckily, developing an intentional approach to friendship is easier to do in middle age. Time has laid bare a lot of information about our existing friendships, specifically, how durable and satisfying they are. Putting some thought into which people you want deeper connections with, which ones are fine as is, and which are too much work for what they give in return, isn’t as Machiavellian as it sounds. Ask yourself, how can I stay better connected to friends who live far away? Who would I like to become better friends with? Crucially, do they feel the same way about me? If not, take them off the list and move on. You only have so much time—invest it wisely.

In search of a BFF?

At a loss for how to begin making new friends? Well, like most things, there’s an app for that. Online matchmaking isn’t only for individuals seeking romantic partners. A plethora of social apps aim to connect you with your new (platonic) best friend. Try Vina, a female friendship-focused app, or Bumble’s new feature, “Bumble BFF.” While many apps are targeted more toward women, most aren’t exclusively so, notably Meetup and Skout. Must love dogs? Meet My Dog connects dog owners in the same location for an afternoon of fetch at the park.

In the final analysis, the old friends who’ve seen you through health scares and heartbreak are probably the ones you’ll turn to the next time you need advice and support in hard times. But you still need day-to-day friends, the ones who will try out a new restaurant or take a yoga retreat with you. With the right care and attention, it’s possible a flickering midlife friendship could become the real thing. And if it does? Make sure you tell your kids how you made it happen. Because one day they’re going to need grownup friends, too.

Laura Shear is a Bay Area-based freelance writer and consultant. Once a professional chef, she now primarily cooks for a discerning party of four… with mixed success. She's addicted to home improvement projects and rescue puppies and firmly believes rosé should be enjoyed year-round. Through her writing, she enjoys tackling the thorny issues around parenting, generational cohorts, and cultural trends, endeavoring to do so without being too snarky.