Upon reading my account of visiting friends in my old home town of Rochester, one of my regular readers suggested she’d be interested to know how I think friendship changes as we age. I’ve been mulling over her question since I returned from the trip, and this is what I came up with:
As a child, I tended to have one best friend and a small circle of other friends. I was never surrounded by legions of people, or the center of a large social group. That was by choice. I dated that way too: I went steady with the same young man for six years, dating only a few others at the fringes of that primary relationship. I tend to keep friends. One of my guests for Panama 2015 was a woman I’ve known since the third grade. Another, that I met in junior high, lives here in Seattle and we see each other fairly often.
That pattern continued in college, where I had a small circle of very good friends. I love seeing them now, even though we don’t get together often. We shared a significant experience, and are able to find new things to talk about. That’s critical, as “do you remember?” gets old very quickly. The same is true for my Peace Corps friends.
When I married Jerry we formed a circle of couple friends. Finding four people who like each other equally is hard. Some of our couple friends were people Jerry liked more than I did, but I cultivated the relationships because we got to spend time with people he enjoyed. Those tended to be the relationships that faded after Jerry died.
When our kids were little we were friends with their friends’ families. The baseline here was simple: Are you kind to my child? If so, I like you. And, are you willing to bail each other out if one of us gets stuck for child care? Some of those people became personal friends; my dear friend Sally and I met when our kids were in first grade together.
During those years I also had a fairly wide circle of professional colleagues. Those relationships all had a transactional quality about them, at least at the start. We were all ambitious, and we were adding names to our Rolodex files [the precursor to smart phone contact lists] in part based on what we could do for each other. Some of those colleagues became friends too, but not all. I didn’t see any of those people on my recent short visit to my old home town of Rochester. With limited time, I wanted to see friends with whom the bond was personal and significant, not transactional, even though I liked some of those people a lot and found them interesting at the time.
I should say that there were more people in Rochester I consider friends and would have liked seeing than I had time for. If you’re reading this and knew me in Rochester and are disappointed not to have heard from me, send me an email or comment below, and I’ll put you high on the list for my next trip and be touched and honored that you want to see me. One person I ran across purely by chance has already done that, and I’m honestly tickled to know that I’m an important person in her life.
I kept some of our couple friends after Jerry died, and lost others. The dividing line for me was whether I was accepted as a whole person, not viewed as the remainder or the lone single woman or half a couple. The ones for whom I was the latter were always trying to introduce me to someone, and that grew tiresome. I even made some new couple friends in Rochester, which was something of a pleasant surprise.
Here in Seattle I’ve tended to form women friends rather than couple friends, although I enjoy the company of men and could probably try a little harder to follow up on coupled social contacts.
The thing I notice most about being 70 is that I’m more discerning in friendship. In earlier years I sometimes tolerated friends who were narcissistic or passive aggressive or who just had poor people skills. Now I tend to extricate myself from relationships like that pretty quickly. I don’t want to work so hard any more, just to have a friend.
Those are my thoughts on how friendship has changed over my lifetime. The next interesting question, of course, is how to be a friend as we age and some of our capacities diminish. Perhaps I’ll write about that next.