The importance of rebuilding your social circle

If you are looking around you and wondering, “Where did my friends go?” you’re not alone. Perhaps you’re an empty nester, a retiree, or recently bereaved or divorced. Whatever the reason, you feel like you finally have some free time, but the circle of people who used to surround you is shrinking.

In our younger years, making friends just seemed, to some extent, to happen without thinking. We met people on the sides of the soccer fields or at PTA meetings or around the office cooler. Now, without those moments — or at least fewer of them — finding new friendships can feel a bit impossible. Making friends can feel a bit like trying to date again after ending a long relationship: You’re out of practice, the pool of potential friends seems minuscule, and it just feels weird to hang out where you used to meet new people. However, having strong, close friendships is essential to staying happy and healthy, so you need to get back out there. 

The importance of friendship

Aside from the obvious merits of friendship, a growing body of evidence shows that friendships greatly impact your health, especially as you age. Isolation and loneliness are major factors in depression and can negatively affect our mental, physical, and cognitive health. Brian McCabe, a retired social worker from Guilderland, says that loneliness is one of the main complaints he dealt with as a social worker. “I often worked with people struggling with anxiety or depression,” he says, “but once I got to know them, a lot of the time the underlying issue was loneliness.” 

McCabe says many of his patients made an effort to develop intimate relationships when they were younger, but for a variety of reasons those friendships broke down over time. “By the time they get into their 60s and they’re struggling with depression and loneliness, they weren’t really motivated to seek out new friends,” he says, “or they had friendships, but they didn’t meet their [emotional] needs.”

If you’re over 50, you might have reached the point where the friends you made while you were schlepping your kids from activity to activity are no longer the people you rely on for social interaction. And that’s fine. But it’s not a good idea to just shrug and accept social isolation as your fate. Even if you still adore your spouse, it can be problematic to rely on them for all your friendship needs. Now is the time to either fortify the friendships you value, or seek out new friends, which isn’t as hard as you think.

The difference between male and female friendships

Perhaps unsurprisingly, men and women handle relationships quite differently starting at a very early age. Friendships between young girls are generally conversation-based and emotionally intense, while boys’ friendships are more casual. One Oxford psychologist, Robin Dunbar, put it this way: “[Boys/men] depend much more not on who you are, but the fact that you belong to my club. Doesn’t matter what defines the club … it could be just the guys who go drinking on a Friday night together, or play soccer.” Dunbar notes that even Facebook profile pictures corroborate this evidence, as men are more likely to show pictures of themselves among a group of people, whereas women’s photos are usually with a best friend or spouse.

McCabe’s clients often adhered to these generalities as well. “It’s almost stereotypical with men: They kid each other, tell jokes and funny stories, which is all fine and well — I do that with my friends — but it doesn’t meet your needs really deeply if that’s as far as it goes,” he says. “With men, that tendency to be a jokester doesn’t really produce the outcome that you need. It doesn’t increase the pool of people you can connect with in an intimate way.”

As a corollary to this issue, McCabe saw many more men self-medicating with alcohol and other substances. He said it’s like a cycle of loneliness, because the male instinct is to self-isolate and “circle the wagons,” but then they would turn to self-medication and that would only further isolate them.

The other side of the coin is that when married, women tend to do more of the emotional upkeep required to maintain long-term friendships. Sometimes this means that by the time a man has become middle-aged, he has been absorbed into his spouse’s social circle, and his friends are merely the other husbands who belong to his wife’s friends. More often than not, that is a recipe for men to feel lonely later on in life.

Women, on the other hand, do a better job of maintaining their social support structure. They are more inclined to desire regular communication and more intimate conversations with a broader circle. One theory for the difference has to do with the so-called “love potion” hormone: oxytocin. Studies have shown that when women are stressed, instead of having a fight-or-flight response (as most men do), women, at least hormonally, experience a “tend and befriend” reaction. When oxytocin is released as part of a stress response, women are more inclined to gather loved ones around them, which in turn releases more oxytocin, which further counters the stress and produces a calming effect. The long-term effect of the different stress responses is that women are more likely to develop strong, enduring friendships with a few other women, while the fight-or-flight response could hinder the same relationships for men.

In McCabe’s experience women suffer from loneliness too, but they tend to cope differently. He says that instead of turning inward, women rely heavily on family, particularly grown children. “[The women] would be very dependent on [their children] but also upset with them,” he says of these clients, “because they couldn’t give them what they fully needed.” It wasn’t that the children didn’t care, but they were busy with their own families and couldn’t provide the intense emotional support their mothers needed.

How to Make Friends

Making new friends never gets easier, regardless of your gender. It’s always just a little bit terrifying: You’re putting yourself out there — ripe for judgment — but you’re also afraid that you won’t find someone you can relate to. McCabe says that it’s important not to get too comfortable in isolation. “People start isolating because they’re scared; they’re feeling vulnerable and fearing rejection, so they circle the wagons,” he says. “But staying in yourself, that can be devastating for people.” While finding new friends can be difficult — especially if you are already suffering from depression and loneliness — it is important to quiet that little voice in the back of your mind and try to step out with your head held high.

Your first task, then, is to make yourself a priority. Leadership studies have shown that people with more physical, material, and intellectual resources have more social “capital,” which allows them to continue to seek out new relationships and forms of social involvement. Ask yourself: What are you good at? What do you love to do? What do you wish you were better at? If it helps, make a list of your preferred hobbies, and then make another list for all those things you’ve always wanted to try. 

Using that list, start looking up groups, classes, or events that relate to those hobbies (also see our story, Hobby Habits). If you have a green thumb, maybe the Master Gardener program is a good start. If you took one pottery class in your 30s and always wanted to do it again, see if there’s a program at a local community center or school. You could join a walking group, which would help you meet people and keep you fit — the proverbial win-win. 

Volunteering with local organizations, schools, or libraries is another great way to meet people who share the same values. McCabe always recommends volunteering because “then you’re doing something that is altruistic — which can make you feel good about yourself — but it also increases the chances you can meet someone [with similar ideals].” The important thing is to get involved. Friendships will evolve from there.

Another under-used asset in making friends are support groups. When you’re depressed, McCabe explains, volunteering might seem like an interesting concept, but you’re too lethargic, anxious, or emotionally empty to actually act on that advice. So particularly for those recently bereaved or with substance use disorders, these groups can be a lifesaving way to socialize among people who understand what you’re going through. “A lot of men who were struggling with alcohol and depression had their intimacy needs met in fellowship organizations like AA [Alcoholics Anonymous] or NA [Narcotics Anonymous],” he says. “They’re like a whole underground that can be very helpful to people not only struggling with drug and alcohol problems, but also with problems stemming from loneliness.” If you’re hesitant or wary of these types of organizations, you could start by joining an online support group through Facebook or an alternative social media site. If you find a group that resonates with your experiences, you could propose a group video chat or even an in-person meeting to deepen those bonds.

While you’re using the internet for socializing, you could also try to reach out to old friends. The beauty of social media is that it has opened new avenues for reconnecting with people. McCabe says that even in his own circle of friends, Zoom and texting have been invaluable to keeping in touch, which is such a huge aspect of maintaining relationships. “I would encourage in my practice to not be afraid of technology; get on board with modern ways. And get comfortable with texting!” says the 76-year-old. “That’s a thing young people do constantly. If it weren’t for texting, we wouldn’t be as well-connected as we are, which is a wonderful thing.”

A few ideas on how to make friends
A few ideas on how to make friends. Illustrations: Design by Tony Pallone.

Three friends photo: Images.

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