Making friends gets harder after you turn 30. Seventy-five percent of women don't feel satisfied with or supported by their current friendships. This is a problem, ladies! Loneliness can cause more physical and emotional problems than smoking or alcohol abuse. We need to make time for friends and for deep friendships. This takes consistency, positivity and vulnerability. We look at some key advice from friendship expert and author Shasta Nelson on how to do just that.
The first time I felt true loneliness was the semester in college I studied abroad. The week before Christmas break I was singing to Britney Spears in my dorm with my two roommates . Three weeks later I was sitting in a rented bedroom in a foreign country where I knew no one and barely spoke the language.
I wasn’t part of a cohort of American students. I wasn’t living with a host family. I was renting a room from a courteous but aloof Spanish-speaking family. Taking classes in a Spanish-speaking university with no access to “my people” at home. It hit me really fast and super hard that I had taken my friends - and how much I relied on them - for granted.
I’m the oldest of two sisters, so all of my childhood memories involve sister-friends. I went to a rural school, so I grew up with the same kids from fourth grade until I graduated high school. I had strong bonds with friends in that group (my kids refer to one of my close high school friends as Uncle Brad). My undergrad university was also in the middle of nowhere, so I formed strong bonds through my dorm friends and activities and clubs on campus.
My personal security blankets are people and words. When I took our quiz to see my #1 Secret Weapon as a Working Mom - no big surprise, my top weapon was community.
I surround myself with people for lots of reasons:
- I process information verbally
- I find my best ideas through conversations with other people
- I feel more secure when I’ve bounced decisions off at least one other person
- Truly connecting with people - helping them and letting them help me - fuels me. Though I’ve also been known to refuel by disappearing with a book or burying myself in my laptop. We’ll save the introvert/extrovert discussion for another day.
So there I sat on my twin bed in a foreign country with no cell phone or laptop (yep, in 2000 I didn’t have a laptop or a cell phone that could handle international calls), no friends and a very limited ability to speak to the new people I was meeting. Holy learning experience Batman. I can point to several experiences in my life that really changed me as a person, and this is one.
Two local students shifted my paradigm when they took me, a shell-shocked foreign exchange student, under their wing. They taught me the important stuff - jokes and swear words in Spanish - but they also reminded me how it feels to have someone reach out when you truly need a friend.
This is a page out of my college scrapbook. Oh yes, an actual scrapbook. And I'll probably get yelled out from south of the equator if my friends find this online. It's a risk I'm willing to take.
I rocked Spanish by the time I came home, but I’m rusty now from lack of practice. But what never dulled was the appreciation I gained for friendship. The clearer vision of the serious impact it has - either positively or negatively - on your health, your outlook and honestly your ability to live your best life.
Make New Friends, But Keep the Old
I listened to a podcast interview with author and speaker Shasta Nelson last week. I had no clue who she was before the podcast, but a friend recommended the episode and I was driving a couple hours for my once-a-year get together with a high school friend - do you like that irony?
Ok, so I feel like I know a little something about good friendships, but Shasta still blew my mind a little bit in this Jen Hatmaker For the Love podcast episode with both the research she shared and how much her explanations hit the mark in my mind.
Here are some highlights:
Crazy Stat #1
Shasta’s research shows 75 percent of women say they want better friendships; they are disappointed with the friendships they have and don’t feel as close to the friends they want. This Huffington Post article shares more on the results of Shasta’s survey of 1,200 women.
Shasta Truth Bomb: Most women look around at other friendships and feel like everyone else has these amazing kinships and that they’re only ones missing out. Based on the stat above, that’s straight up not true. The MAJORITY of women still want better and closer friendships.
MAKE TIME FOR FRIENDS BECAUSE...The window for your ability to make new friends and cultivate stronger bonds with existing friends is still wide open. If you aren’t satisfied or fully supported through your current friendships, chase after stronger friendships. Don’t miss out.
Crazy Stat #2
Shasta talked about a New York Times article where a doctor said if a patient is a chain smoker, obese and lonely, the most important first step is getting that person to make more friends. An article in The Economist calls loneliness “a serious public health issue.”
Shasta Truth Bomb: Research shows if you feel disconnected or unsupported, it’s as damaging to your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. She says, “It’s twice as harmful as being obese and does the equivalent of damage in our bodies as being a lifelong alcoholic.”
MAKE TIME FOR FRIENDS BECAUSE...Friendships keep you physically and emotionally healthy. They help you celebrate your wins and survive your losses. They remind you of your strengths and push you to fortify areas of weakness.
Crazy Stat #3
Apparently research shows that when it comes to your close friends, you lose about half and replace them with new ones after about seven years. This from a researcher at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.
My eyebrows went way up when she mentioned this research because I have some long-time friends. I also might be guilty of statements like “I don’t need any new friends. I can barely stay in touch with the friends I already have.” Please excuse the snobby way that comes off. I promise I meant it from a place of guilt about friends I need to check in on and stress about adding new friendships I worry I can’t invest in as I should.
Shasta Truth Bomb: Shasta says eyebrows go up in the room every time she mentions this stat. Then she asks the women in the room to bring to mind their top 10 friends - the people they talk to regularly and can count on when they need someone. And then she asks them think back seven years and see how that list changes. In her experience coaching and working with women, the seven-year stat seems to hold true.
Seasons of life definitely shift friend circles. Seven years ago I had a 4-year-old and a baby and was one year into a new teaching job. I leaned heavily on my Mothers of Preschoolers (MOPS) friends and my former co-workers because we’d been together through weddings and babies and our bond was strong. Now, I have all elementary school kids (well, after my youngest graduates from preschool this week) and closer friendships with neighbors and moms of my kids’ friends. I have a deep bond with my teaching colleagues because we’ve now had years of shared experiences. I run a business with Kristie and talk to her almost every day; I barely knew her seven years ago. Ok, research, you win this round.
In case you wonder, we really do drink this much coffee and laugh this much. It's our survival strategy.
MAKE TIME FOR FRIENDS BECAUSE...Life changes and you need different people with different experiences each step of your journey.
Friendship Takes Intention
Yes friends, roll up your sleeves. Strong, lasting friendships - the kind that hold you up when you feel like falling or provide tears and laughs when that’s what your soul needs - they just don’t happen by accident. In fact, Shasta has written two entire books on friendship:
- Friendships Don’t Just Happen! - The Guide to Creating a Meaningful Circle of Girlfriends
- Frientimacy: How to Deepen Friendships for Lifelong Health and Happiness
I haven’t read the books yet, so I cheated and hopped over to website to take her “frientimacy” quiz. It gave me a score in each of three categories: positivity, consistency and vulnerability. Shasta says these are the three required actions in developing friendships. I received the lowest score in positivity. Ouch. I got a 76/100. Cs don’t get degrees where friendships are concerned, so I’ve got some work to do.
The quiz reminded me that it’s my responsibility to bring joy, positivity and rewards to my friendships with others and be cautious of how often I’m venting or seeking advice. It says, “Friendships have to be about two people feeling better for spending time together.” Agreed.
The quiz reminded me that I need to be intentional about bringing positivity to each of my friendships, even during trying times.
This was my highest score, but I still miss the mark on this one a fair amount. I forget to respond to a text until a friend sends a follow-up. I shy away from suggesting a get-together because the calendar feels jam-packed.
Shasta points out that today’s world is oriented much less toward relationships and much more toward ambition, success and money. We seem to be busier and busier and have less time for relationships. Consistent connection is a prerequisite for strong friendship.
This rang so true, because just a couple weeks ago I wrote about why I want and need to be a working mom, and one of my biggest reasons was strong relationships. You don’t get much more consistent than seeing someone every single day at work.
NOTE: I did not say constant connection, I said consistent connection. The friend I visited last week I typically only see once a year, but it’s usually for a couple days of catching up. She’s better about the planning, but the consistency of that dedicated time together keeps us connected despite living in separate cities and only sharing sporadic texts.
Shasta recommends joining something as the easiest way to build consistency into a friendship. Think book club, tennis group, school committee or bible study. The consistency is inherent. Otherwise, you have to create your own consistency and that can get lost in the shuffle or back-and-forth text messages about availability.
Friendship changes as we get older and busier. For many people, their closest friends are from childhood, college or a first job. Why is that? We can probably chalk part of it up to periods of intensely consistent time spent together, but the other part falls into this category of vulnerability. We shared the big life events and emotions that often happen in life from ages 15 to 30: crushes, heartbreaks, marriages, births, deaths. The vulnerability of walking through those things together creates strong bonds.
This is me with my sisters - do you like the total lack of resemblance? We're spread out over 10 years but see each other and talk often. They're in my inner circle 100%.
As we get older, friendships seem to get a bit more transactional. Letting a neighbor’s dog out, organizing a carpool, chatting at a school event. The New York Times ran the article Why is It Hard to Make Friends Over 30? two separate times because the topic is timeless. My favorite line is the quote from a comedian's stand-up routine:
“I spend whole days with people, I’m like, I never would have hung out with you, I didn’t choose you. Our children chose each other. Based on no criteria, by the way. They’re the same size.”
The comparison game also seems to escalate the older we get. We see what feels like perfect kids, spouses, vacations and houses on social media and choose not to authentically share our struggles and messes. Which is a shame, because it’s holding us back in the friendship department. We did a post on How to Stop the Comparison Game for Good because it’s just so darn hard.
10 Types of Friends You Need in Your Life
Sinking serious efforts into building friendships also means making choices on which friendships you choose to cultivate. Social research shows that humans’ social networks look like a bullseye with only about five intimate relationships with friends and family in the middle. It circles outward to a ring of 15, then 50 and then 150, and the intimacy declines with each ring. And regardless of your number of friends on Facebook or Instagram, most people max out at 150 in terms of people they can interact with on any kind of consistent basis.
Bottom line: the goal is not to build super intimate relationships with every single friend.
- Who are your inner circle five right now and how can you pour into those relationships in terms of positivity, consistency and vulnerability?
- Who falls in the next ring of 15, and what should that look like in terms of your time and energy investment?
- Friendships in the 50 and 150 rings are still valued and authentic, but you can let go of the guilt about not doing more - at least right now.
I think there are a few different kinds of friends every woman needs in the inner two rings of her bullseye - in fact, I created the checklist below. You’ll never regret finding these friends and intentionally deepening those relationships. Also, one friend can absolutely check more than one of these boxes.
1. A Friend You’ve Known Forever
With these friends, the vulnerability criteria is already met. I saw a wine glass at a shop the other day that summed up this type of friend:
“We have to stay friends. You know too much about me to let you leave."
2. A Work Friend
This friend has built-in consistency and will bring you fun and sanity during the many hours you spend working.
3. A Wise-Like-Yoda Friend
This might be a mentor or a friend in a different stage of life. Or maybe you just have a friend with the gift of seeing situations with a healthy dose of wisdom.
4. A Brutally Honest Friend
This friend tells you like it is, even when it might hurt your feelings in the short-term. You know when she gives out praise, it's legit. And when she serves up constructive criticism, you know others might be thinking it and aren't willing to put themselves out there enough to tell you.
5. A Different-Perspective Friend
Having a friend from a different culture or background helps you learn new things and remember that there's a great big world outside the bubble of your day-to-day. This friend can challenge you to explain what you think/believe and why, and share her feelings and experiences in response.
6. A Friendly Neighbor
Um, surely you need to borrow eggs or have someone check your mail at some point. Bonus if this neighbor periodically invited you over for a BBQ or summer drinks on the deck. Double bonus if they have kids the same age as yours or are empty-nesters who want to act as surrogate grandparents to your kids every now and then.
7. An I-Need-a-Favor Friend
Every woman needs a friend she can call in her moment of need. Like that time I forgot to pick my son up from after-school karate and was still sitting in my office when he called. One crazed phone call, and a friend who lives down the street from the school jumped in her super cool mini van and rescued my abandoned child.
8. A Little-Bit-Crazy, Fun Friend
This girl brings the life to the party. Life's full of responsibilities and sometimes we need to take a break for fun. To quote my little-bit-crazy and fun friend: "My husband and I basically live like 18-year-olds whose parents are out of town for the weekend." It makes me smile just to see that girl's face. But don't let her fool you - she's an amazing mom raising two kids and doing all the things.
9. An Always-on-Your-Side Friend
Sometimes you don't need brutal honesty or problem solving. You just need sweat pants, a glass of wine and a friend who's got your back no matter what. Loyalty, support and unconditional love are sometimes just the ticket.
10. An On-Trend Friend
This lady is my first call when I need to buy a stellar gift or wear a knock-out outfit to an event. She always knows the best places to shop and the coolest new items or Instagram accounts to scan.