Photo courtesy of Matt C Bauer
How to Make Lasting Friendships as an Adult
How to Make Lasting Friendships
as an Adult
Friendships change as we get older. It’s part of being a human. And they change often, explains researcher Geoffrey Greif. In fact, friends can become even more important to us later in life, both emotionally and physically. Greif is a professor of clinical social work at the University of Maryland School of Social Work and the author of Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendships. He interviewed nearly 400 men and more than 100 women to compare the differences—and similarities—in how we navigate and maintain friendships over the course of a lifetime.
As a social worker and a therapist, Greif has found that while men and women may have different expectations when it comes to their friends, the connection of a real friendship is meaningful to everyone. There is a direct connection between having friends and having a more fulfilling life. And maintaining those friendships, says Greif, requires vulnerability. It’s nonnegotiable.
A Q&A with Geoffrey Greif, PhD
Men tend to have shoulder-to-shoulder friendships. Women have face-to-face friendships. That shapes how we interact with friends. Men tend to get together to do things, while women often get together in face-to-face situations. Obviously, sometimes both situations could be true for either men or women, but in general, men are going to want to say, “Let’s get together and do sports” or “Let’s get together and watch sports” or some activity. Women broadly are going to feel more comfortable in “Let’s get together and talk. I haven’t seen you for a while.”
Some of this that is gendered is, in fact, still true. And while I can frame everything by saying there have been enormous changes in men’s and women’s roles, there are still some distinctions. In my survey of more than 350 men, 80 percent of them said, “What I do with my friends is play sports.”
Men also tend to hang out with men of their same level of masculinity. Men tend to not like men who are emotionally needy too soon or those who are high-maintenance. Men don’t need to have as much frequent contact with one another to maintain friendships, so those are three other areas in which men and women may differ. Women tend to like more contact in order to maintain their friendships. Women are not as afraid to be emotionally vulnerable with one another as men are.
The frame that we use with men’s friendships should be different from the frame we use for women’s friendships. Women have this belief, as do many men, that you need to be emotionally and physically expressive with your friends. And we can make jokes about the wife whose husband goes over to watch the game with his friend, and he comes back home, and she says, “Did you find out that he and his wife have separated?” And the guy says, “I don’t know. That topic never came up.”
It may be that men don’t need to have the same types of interactions as women. There’s a standard for friendship that is written by many people in the social sciences—both men and women—that says you always have to be emotionally and physically expressive. But a lot of the men who are very happy having somewhat emotionally contained relationships, that’s all they want from their friends.
Some men may even escape from the emotional pull that a loving and supporting wife is trying to put on them by hanging out with their friends so they don’t have to open up. While I personally think that people should be very open, maybe not all men need to have a friendship that’s deep and very self-revealing. Maybe that’s just not what they feel comfortable doing. Or maybe they don’t feel comfortable doing that around other men. They may feel comfortable doing that around women.
On the other side, there were a lot of men who admired women’s friendships and wished they could have that kind of open, physical, and expressive relationship that they observed in their wife’s or in women’s friendships.
Some men have very old friends or very dear friends that they would call within twenty-four hours if something horrible or if something fantastic happened—say, they won the lottery. We have a very close inner circle of people we need to call. It can be one, two, or three men you would really want to tell about news in relation to yourself or people that you love. Those are the must friendships, people that you must call immediately when something significant happens.
There’s the trust group, and that can be a much larger group. That can be a group of people, of guys that you really like, and if you run into them at a party, you have a very meaningful and deep conversation with them. You really enjoy it, and you say, “We need to get together again. This was great.” And maybe you do, or maybe you don’t. They’re people that you trust and that you really can relate to. You just don’t cycle in and out of the same circles, or your availability for each other is not as great as it is for those who are in the must category.
Then you have your rust friends (who can also be in your must category). These are people that maybe you once went to high school with and you see every ten years at a reunion. You keep in contact with them on Facebook. They’re your old friends, and maybe at your twenty-fifth reunion, you see yourself going back to when you were eighteen again, and you’re back in those old roles. They hold special meaning for you. Ideally, if your high school years were great years, it’s going to bring you a lot of pleasure. Those are your rust friends who could also be your very closest friends.
And then there are people who are just your acquaintances. They’re nothing more than friends. Maybe they’re also from work. You go out for lunch with them and it’s fine, but you don’t invite them over to your house. You don’t get invited over there, and you rarely go out to dinner with them. They’re fine to hang out with. Sometimes there are also niche friends. I may have somebody that I like to play golf with, but I don’t like his politics all that much. I’m on the left and he’s on the right, and I don’t get to hang out that much with guys on the right. He treats everybody well. I think he has a few odd political ideas, but otherwise he’s pleasant, fun, and not like any of my other friends. That’s a niche friend we could throw in there, too.
A lot of the broader, epidemiological studies show that the more friends you have, the happier and healthier you are and the longer you’ll live. That’s because people with large social networks get more social stimulation. They probably get more physical stimulation because they’re engaged in more things. You get friends who go out with you and say, “You don’t look well today. Why don’t you go see the doctor?” Or friends who say, “I just had this procedure done. I think you should get your health checked out.”
It makes sense that friends keep you active, so having a mix of friends keeps more people in that social network. But some men that I interviewed believe that they could be friends only with people they knew from high school. I try to disabuse people of that notion because as we all grow older, our friends retire or they move somewhere to be closer with their kids. If you believe that you can have friendships only with people you’ve known for fifty years, at some point you’re going to have a shrinking circle of friends in your neighborhood, and that’s not good for your health.
I have also interviewed men who have only one friend, and they say to me, “That’s all I need. And he is my go-to guy for everything.” I wouldn’t recommend it, but I can’t say that experience is any less valid than anybody else’s experience.
It depends on the person. In general, people say the more friends you have, the better off you are. As I said, people with wide social networks score higher on those health-related assessments. But we could also listen to the great philosopher Aristotle. Aristotle said a friendship requires so much work and effort that you should not have so many friends, and that if you want to be a true friend, it takes a lot of commitment. To give yourself or to have that level of commitment with so many people, maybe none of those are true friendships.
Not really. Men may have a longer fuse, but when you get to the end of the fuse, that’s it. My experience with men whom I’ve researched is that when a friendship is over, it’s over. You cross a line and it’s done, and men are not going to work to try and maintain a relationship to the extent that women do. Women tend to not want to end friendships as quickly and not want to end them as decisively, and they’re going to want to process it more than men do.
It’s going to be a little bit messier for women, but they may be able to hold on to those and get the friendships back. It’s obviously varied, but men tend to say, “No, you crossed a line, and that’s it. I’m not going to go back there again.” Which, of course, may also be a style that men and women bring to their relationships with each other, but it’s hard to say that as clearly as I believe the other one.
One of my books is about how couples maintain their friendships with other couples. The hardest thing for couples is to figure out time. If I am single and then I get married, do I get time to myself to sit in the basement and play the guitar? Do I have time for just myself and my wife? When do we have couple time? If we have children, when do you have family time? How do I find time to be with my friends? How does my wife have time to be with her friends? When do we find time to go out together with other couples? Having a language to talk about that is one of the things we tried to accomplish in the couples book that I cowrote, and that’s what happens across the life span.
What happens across the life span is that we’re more open to friendships when we’re single and we’re young, and then when we marry, we tend to turn more inward. We have to sustain our marriage. We have to sustain our family. We have to sustain our jobs, so there’s a period of time—the average age of marriage in the US is twenty-seven for women and twenty-nine for men—where people who were out with their friends are now going to have to stop spending some of that time with their friends because they’re spending it in a marriage, with children, or trying to advance in a job.
By the time you’re in your fifties and the kids no longer need you in their life as much, you’ve got a lot more freedom. Maybe your marriage is secure. You don’t need to tend to it quite as much as you did when you were first trying to establish it. Maybe your career is more established. You’re not putting in the hours at the same level of intensity. You begin to realize maybe one of your friends has dropped dead. You begin to realize, with some newfound experiences or time, that you need to reestablish your friendships, to find people to do things with. That’s when you start to turn—in your forties, fifties, or sixties—toward trying to fill your time again with friends. There’s a reverse arc to this. Friends are really important at the beginning and may be really important in later life.
There’s great value in making new friends for the same reasons as having friends: People with friends live longer, happier, healthier lives. Friends both intellectually stimulate you and physically stimulate you if you go out with them for a walk or play sports together. The issue is trying to get your head around the notion, as some men do, that unless you knew me when I was seventeen, you can’t really know who I am, you can’t really get to know me as a friend, and you can’t be a friend.
Part of the reason for Buddy System was also to say that you need to be open to making friends regardless of your age. That you can’t hold on to the idea that because someone didn’t know you back then, they don’t really know who you are. Men have to let go of that notion. There were men that I interviewed who said they could be friends only with people they knew growing up. And obviously, people evolve over the course of a lengthy lifetime.
So they need to be open to the fact that they’re going to have to work a little harder to make friends. If I’m meeting someone new, I have to give them the backstory that my friends that I’ve known for years don’t have to hear. I’m going to have to talk a little more about myself, explain a little bit more about who I am and how I’ve come to react this way or be who I am today. That requires work and also being open to listening and asking other people about themselves. It’s being willing to engage. Asking questions about other people is going to help you make friends, but you’re going to have to reach out to do it.
Geoffrey Greif is a professor of clinical social work at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, where he was associate dean from 1996 to 2007. He received his MSW from the University of Pennsylvania and his PhD from the Columbia University School of Social Work. He’s written more than 135 journal articles and book chapters and has authored fourteen books on parenting issues, adult friendships, and adult siblings. His next book is on women’s and men’s in-law relationships.