Friendship is one of life’s greatest pleasures. It’s also, as we get older and leave behind the built-in possibilities of making friends in high school, university or graduate school, sometimes much harder to grow and sustain.
People become consumed by work, family obligations, long commutes. They move away and change jobs or careers, weakening easy access and shared interests.
But it’s also been medically proven that having a strong network of people who truly care about you improves our health and longevity.
Sometimes all we really need is a safe place to vent our feelings — whether joyful or angry. It takes time and energy to really pay close and undivided attention, but it’s the greatest gift we can offer.
2) Show up in person
Because so much of our lives now are lived on-screen and only through texts and emails, some people think that’s plenty.
People really need us to be there with them in person, for a hug, a smile, a hand to hold. I skipped a friend’s pricey Jamaica destination wedding but went with her for chemo and the day she had her eggs extracted in case they were damaged by her cancer treatment. (She had traveled 40 minutes by train to my town, and trudged up a steep hill in a blizzard at 6:00 a.m. to accompany me to surgery.)
Weddings and parties are fun and easy — hospital bedsides, wakes and funerals less so. Go for the hard times too.
Some people hate and avoid using the telephone. But texts and emojis are useless when someone needs to be heard. We miss a lot if our only communication is through a screen.
4) Send flowers
I know you mustn’t send flowers to a Jewish funeral. Other cultures have issues with the number, type or color of a bouquet. But, if they’re culturally and religiously appropriate, they can be a welcome and cheerful addition to someone’s desk or bedside.
5) Mail a card or letter
On paper, with a stamp. Twenty years from now no one will lovingly cherish an email as much as a beautiful card or a long, chatty letter.
6) Stay in touch
It’s so easy to be “too busy” and, if you’re parenting multiple small children and/or care-giving and/or working, yes. But it’s really not a heavy lift (especially with Skype or FaceTime) to check in with people you care for, even every few weeks or months.
I know some people hate to entertain, and come up with every possible excuse not to do it. You can always do a potluck or order in, but gathering a group of friends is a great way to make introductions, expanding your circle and theirs. I often hear stories in a group that I’d never heard before one-on-one.
This is a biggie for me, and has ended some of my friendships. If your friend(s) are always the first to extend an invitation and you never reciprocate, what’s up with that? A strong friendship is a two-way street.
9) Remember their special occasions
Birthdays and anniversaries are obvious, but we’ve all got others.
Only one friend (and it meant a great deal to me) sent a hand-made condolence card when my dog died. It might be your friend’s wedding anniversary or the anniversary of the death of someone they loved dearly and dread facing every year. Let them know you know and are thinking of them that day.
And if you know someone who’s about to become a published author, find out their publication date — it’s a very big deal and one they’ll remember forever.
10) Be honest
One of my oldest friends said a few difficult words to me recently. I didn’t enjoy hearing them, but we both knew she was right. She said them lovingly, not in anger, and I appreciated that.
Honesty is crucial to any friendship worth keeping. If all you do is tippytoe around someone’s sore spots or are too scared to confront a pattern that’s destroying your love or respect for them, how intimate is the relationship? Why are you hanging onto it? The deepest friendships can not only withstand loving candor, they rely on it.
These few weeks can be a tough time for many people — thanks to social media and the mass media, we’re barraged with endless images of group cheer: parties, family togetherness, piles of presents under a decorated Christmas tree.
My husband and I now work as full-time freelancers, which means no office holiday parties for us, no matter how much profit our skills have added to many others’ bottom line. Even if you actually hate office parties, it’s important to have some social face time with the people you work with to help build those relationships.
The holidays can also be a time of intense loneliness — no matter how many people you know, if there’s no deep, growing intimacy with any of them, you might as well know no one.
For several friends, this year marks their first as a widow, and for one, her first in a nursing home far away from her home city, friends and lovely apartment.
People can feel lonely even when surrounded by lots of people, especially if the relationships are not emotionally rewarding. In fact, Dr. Carla Perissinotto and colleagues at the University of California at San Francisco reported in 2012 that most lonely individuals are married, live with others and are not clinically depressed.
“Being unmarried is a significant risk,” Dr. Holt-Lunstad said, “but not all marriages are happy ones. We have to consider the quality of relationships, not simply their existence or quantity.”
As Dr. Nancy J. Donovan, a geriatric psychiatrist and researcher in neurology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, said in an interview, “There is a correlation between loneliness and social interaction, but not in everyone. It may be simplistic to suggest to people who are lonely that they should try to interact more with others.”
I’ve struggled with loneliness for years since moving to the United States — despite having made good friends quickly in Toronto, Montreal and Paris.
I’m happiest deep in lively, long face to face conversation on a wide range of subjects, not merely texting.
I’m also just not much of a “joiner”, maybe because — being a professional observer as a journalist — I’m more at ease one-on-one, not in a group. And because I have to market my skills all the time to make a living, the effort to get out and forge new friendships just really feels like more work.
I hate that very American thing of “Heyyyyyyy!” that’s outwardly “real friendly” — but often comes with no curiosity to go deeper and to nurture a more solid and enduring emotional and intellectual connection. In a culture focused, it seems, so relentlessly on economic survival, many “friendships” here (certainly in New York) are purely transactional — after you’ve each exhausted one another’s professional or social utility, that’s it.
True friendship can also withstand less-sunny moments.
I recently spent an afternoon with a new-ish friend, (we met in June 2016), and I was snappish that day.
I was in terrible pain, between my arthritic knee and damaged right ankle. A bitterly cold wind whipped through the canyons of downtown New York, where we met near the World Trade Center, a place that brings up too many awful 9/11 memories, so an area I usually avoid.
And the place we chose to meet was costly, noisy — and closed early, ruining our plans for a long, relaxed lunch.
I apologized the next day, fearful my horrible mood had hurt our friendship.
Thankfully, it had not.
Hoping that each of you — wherever you are this holiday season — are enjoying it with loved ones!
And, if you’ve got extra space in your home and at your holiday table, be sure to include someone who might be lonely, but too shy or proud to ask for an invitation.
Today in the U.S. is Thanksgiving, a huge holiday that the fortunate will spend with people they love and who have welcomed them into their homes with food and drink and kindness.
We are in suburban Maryland, just outside D.C., with a dear friend and her husband, a fellow journalist who stood in Toronto in September 2011 as our official wedding witness. We’ve visited them many times, but this year were grateful she was able to also welcome a younger friend of ours, a freelancer in D.C. whose mother died a few years ago and whose father lives far away.
We were also grateful recently in Ontario when our friends there welcomed my former sister-in-law to stay the night and dine with us — we live in a one-bedroom apartment, so we can welcome at most two people, (if Jose sleeps on the floor and I get the sofa and the couple get our bed.)
When people have room to spare, (and we always bring gifts and wine and pay for groceries and write thank-you notes!) it’s a blessing.
The opening of one’s home, heart and table are great gifts.
I’ve recently begun following a smart, tough Christian writer and pastor named John Pavlovitz, and his new book, A Bigger Table, brings the same spirit of generosity and openness in a time of deep and bitter social and political division.
I haven’t yet read his book, but I follow him on Twitter and like his voice and his point of view.
Wherever you are today, I hope you’re safe, solvent, healthy, well-loved and well-fed!
There are a few people I always want to find again, to know how their lives turned out and if they’re happy and where they live and if they had kids or grandkids.
But two of them have — bizarrely in an age of media saturation — no digital footprints at all. One is a physician, so I guess I could track her down through a medical society but the other…no idea.
The former is someone I knew from our shared years at a Toronto boarding school, where we were both nerdy, although she was much more serious and quiet than I. The latter is a man I knew (and had a huge crush on) through high school, also in Toronto, who was extremely talented as an artist. We were, for a few years, close friends, but lost touch when we graduated.
A third person is a former journalism colleague who became a crusading lawyer, but, to my shock and dismay when I last searched for him on-line, had died prematurely.
They’re like ghosts for me, visions from my childhood, adolescence and 20s I’d like to reconnect with now.
Thanks to social media, some people I’d lost touch with have found me again and reconnected, like a childhood best friend and her two brothers, the eldest of whom took me to my first formal dance — where my cool vintage blue crochet dress split right down the back when the zipper broke halfway through the evening. He was a perfect gentleman and loaned me his jacket. But it was not the elegant impression I’d hoped to leave on him.
One of the reasons I hope to find some people from my past, selfishly, is also to reconnect with our shared memories, those unique to us. And, as someone not close to my family, my friends really are much more the repository of my memories. Too often, they know me much better than my own mother, (whose care I left at 14, for good) and father, (whose care I left at 19, for good.) I have 3 step-siblings, but we never lived together and are not close.
Half my life was spent in Canada and the second half in the United States, making me more eager to seek out those who “knew me when” — when I was young(er) and with whom I share specific memories no American has or could understand.
In London this past summer I met up again with a man I’d traveled with in Spain decades ago for two weeks after we met on a train station platform there. On that journey, I was 22, alone for four months moving across Europe, and already weary of fending off male advances.
I craved companionship and, bluntly, a male foil to keep the rest at bay.
He was smart, funny, good company. He was also handsome, with brilliant blue eyes, a student at Cambridge four years my junior. Much later he became a friend on Facebook, albeit one who never posted anything.
He asked me to go to lunch on this London visit, and I agreed, both curious and a little nervous; we’re both happily married so I knew this was innocent.
Like me, he is long partnered, had traveled widely and had no children.
We went to the Hokusai exhibition at the British Museum, (which we loved), and our afternoon was easy and comfortable and as though no time at all had passed since we’d seen one another.
It was lovely.
I’m glad we found one another again.
Do you seek out people from your past with whom you’ve lost touch?
After 30, people often experience internal shifts in how they approach friendship. Self-discovery gives way to self-knowledge, so you become pickier about whom you surround yourself with, said Marla Paul, the author of the 2004 book “The Friendship Crisis: Finding, Making, and Keeping Friends When You’re Not a Kid Anymore.” “The bar is higher than when we were younger and were willing to meet almost anyone for a margarita,” she said.
Manipulators, drama queens, egomaniacs: a lot of them just no longer make the cut.
Thayer Prime, a 32-year-old strategy consultant who lives in London, has even developed a playful 100-point scale (100 being “best friend forever”). In her mind, she starts to dock new friend candidates as they begin to display annoying or disloyal behavior. Nine times out of 10, she said, her new friends end up from 30 to 60, or little more than an acquaintance.
I like living in New York, and our town’s proximity to one of the world’s liveliest and more interesting cities.
But it’s one of the loneliest places I’ve ever lived.
I’ve found it tougher than I expected to find and keep friends here, maybe because…
–— Not enough time together
New Yorkers face the longest commutes of anyone in the U.S., robbing them of leisurely moments for friendship. It takes time to get to know another person well.
— Not enough spontaneous time together
Between work, family and commuting, all of which have rigid schedules, “Hey, let’s meet for a drink!” can take weeks, even months to plan.
—– Few shared memories
I arrived in New York at 30, with my deepest ties back in Canada, to friends from childhood, high school, university, a newspaper job, freelancing. They remain, decades later, my most intimate friendships.
— Unresolved conflict
I lost three close New York friends within a few years. That still hurts. In contrast, I’ve had full and frank conversations with my Canadian pals — and they with me — and remained friends.
One casual friend finally told us his annual income was $500,000 and I was stunned; thanks to his humble style I had no idea. We live (modestly) in a very affluent region, and many people out-earn us by enormous sums. When one person, or couple, has to keep choosing pizza or ramen and the other can drop $200 a night on cocktails, how much can you enjoy together?
— Political differences
Since the election of President Trump, many American relationships have been torn asunder.
— Professional differences
I’m nearing the end of a long and successful career, in a competitive industry, like my husband; I’m a writer and he’s a photographer and photo editor. Professional envy and competitiveness can, and do, make us cautious about what we share about our current clients and projects.
We have none. At our age, younger friends are obsessed with child-rearing and our peers with their grand-children, We’re never invited to join child-related events, even if we’d enjoy it. That cuts out a lot of socializing.
I do very much value my pals in far-flung places — L.A., London, Berlin, British Columbia, Seattle, Oregon, Alabama, Maine, rural Ontario. I just wish we could hang out more often!
Are you finding it more difficult as you age to find and enjoy new friendships?
If my European journey taught me anything — or reminded me more powerfully than ever before — it’s to live, and savor, an unmediated life.
By which I mean, one experienced firsthand, feet-first, immersed in all of it.
Not, as has become normal/affordable/easy for me — and so many of us — a world and its wonders seen and heard only through a screen or scrim, whether social media or explained by the traditional mass media of newspapers, magazines, radio and television.
The soft, smooth cobblestones of Rovinj — a small seaside town in Croatia — were silky beneath my bare feet, the light snaking around corners as the sun moved through the sky, every hour offering a different tableau.
I’d have known none of this without my (grateful!) physical presence.
Ironically, I follow several cool, adventurous people on Twitter whose lives are devoted to professional exploration, including aviation and wildlife photographers and three archeologists.
I love seeing what they find, but this is also, I realize, a little weird.
I need to go find this stuff myself!
Sadly, it’s now considered normal — starting in infancy — to spend hours consuming others’ visions and impressions and analysis of the world, instead of gathering every sense impression ourselves. (As I write this on our balcony in the early morning, I hear traffic on the bridge, a passing train and birds in the trees. The air is fresh and cool, the sun gilding the balcony’s outer edge.)
I work alone at home in the suburbs of New York, with no kids or pets to distract me. I work full-time freelance, which means I have no boss or coworkers with whom to share ideas or jokes or talk about our weekends.
Most of my friends here are too busy to actually get together in person, which all combines to create isolation, and so I’ve slipped into the tempting bad habit of feeling connected to the world through consuming social media — instead of socializing face to face.
If I want to actually be with someone, it takes me an hour each way, and up to $25 in train fare or parking fees, to go into Manhattan.
But if I don’t, I’m essentially a self-imposed shut-in, which is — my six supersocial weeks in Europe reminded me — a terrible choice for mental health.
My time in Europe, literally, exposed me to hundreds of strangers, some of whom became new friends, like an archeologist and travel blogger and translator, all of whom live in Berlin, all of whom had only been Twitter and blog pals before they became real, corporeal human beings sharing space with me, laughing and joking and hugging hello.
I was also struck by people’s gentleness with me, like the man on the busy, crowded Tube stairs in London, watching me slowly and painfully climb beside him, who asked: “Are you OK?”
People can be perfectly nice on social media, but they’re not beside you.
They’re not — as two young men did — ready to carry your heavy suitcase up (!) three flights of stairs.
In Croatia, I sat for hours in a cafe with three new friends, talking and talking and talking.
No one stared into their phones.
No one stared into their laptop.
No one was rushing off to something more important.
What we were doing — just being together, enjoying one another’s company and conversation — was more important.
I only “knew” her from her Facebook posts and blog, but we had a great time. I later hired and paid her to coach me on how to better use social media for work, which she teaches at my alma mater, the University of Toronto.
This trip — most of it solo through seven European cities and six countries — has also finally given me a chance to meet some people I’ve only known through social media.
Several years ago, I started reading Small Dog Syndrome, intrigued by the worldly young woman who wrote it. We began by reading one another’s blogs, worked together (virtually) for a year, and finally met face to face only in January 2015 when I stepped off the Eurostar from Paris.
We sat and talked for so long at the train station her worried husband called to see if we were OK. We were indeed!
They generously hosted me — having just met — for a week(!) in their teeny London flat, and this month I was able to return the favor by hosting them for several nights at the Paris apartment we rented this trip.
It’s been a huge pleasure to get to know them both.
Now in Berlin, I’ve met three more social media pals, all of whom I’ve gotten to know through their blogs, some private emails and weekly Twitterchats focused on travel, like #trlt, #culturetrav and #travelskills.
I met Kate and her fiance, and we spent the day talking and walking through a flea market and through Tiergarten, one of Berlin’s huge and fantastic parks, filled with brown bunnies, lakes with rowboats, beer gardens and lots of benches.
It felt immediately comfortable, as if we weren’t meeting face to face for the first time.
It was a cold, gray, rainy morning and the small Tarrytown, NY church — where author Washington Irving once worshipped — was filling up.
The long, dark wooden pews held friends, colleagues, cousins, a brother.
Several neighbors from her apartment building, including me, joined them.
So did one of her physicians, who would speak about her with respect and affection.
Attending a memorial service is — to put it bluntly — rarely fun.
It’s a spine-stiffening reminder of our mortality, no matter our age or health.
But someone has died and we’re there to honor them and their life, no matter how tenuous the thread of connection. To hold up, sometimes literally, their grieving friends and family, to show them that they, too, are loved and valued by a larger community.
It’s the right thing to do.
And, if you deeply knew and loved the person, it’s heartbreaking; even the female minister conducting the service warned us it would be difficult for her as she was a close friend of our neighbor.
One of my favorite writers, Susie Boyt, recently ended her 13-year column in the Financial Times; a great-grand-daughter of Freud, she is so deliciously un-British, all feelings and emotion, a huge breath of fresh air in those po-faced orange pages filled with PLU (people like us), and I will miss her!
She writes, in her farewell column:
I think that celebrating and mourning should be practiced in equal measure, sometimes at the same time.
I also loved this, from her:
You must try to prepare and be ready for the moment that you’re needed for the call could come at any time.
We now live in increasingly connected but disconnected times.
We check our phones constantly for some amusing text or parade of emojis.
We hang out on Facebook, Reddit, Tumblr, Twitter, “liking” and “friending” — but rarely sitting with someone who is in pain, scared and dying.
That’s the tough part. Showing up.
More than ever, now, we need to show up in one another’s lives: when someone is ill, or injured, or their parents are dying or your favorite teacher or professor is retiring.
Not every event is sad, of course, but we need to be present, to witness, to celebrate and to console.
I’m at an age now (sigh) where funerals and memorials — for friends, for parents, for neighbors — are more prevalent than graduations, weddings and christenings, all events filled with flowers and joy, hope and anticipation.
And few moments are more sobering and searing than a virtually unattended funeral or memorial service.
I’ve been to one of those.
I’ve been to one that was standing room only, for former New York Times photographer (and someone whose life you might know from the film The Killing Fields), Dith Pran.
I’m especially sensitive to unattended milestones; neither parent attended my college graduation. My mother wasn’t there for my second wedding and neither were my husband’s two sisters or their partners. That hurt, a lot.
So I try, (grateful for the freedom as a self-employed person to be able to do so), to attend memorials and funerals for the people I know, even someone like our neighbor A., a single woman, never married, who was ferociously private.
We never socialized and rarely spoke.
St. Marks in the Bowery, one of Manhattan’s oldest churches
But at her memorial service I learned a great deal about her, and how very deeply her life, and her enthusiasms, had touched so many others.
Until or unless you’re in the room for these intimate, once-in-a-lifetime events, you’re missing a great deal.
We’re all a thread — as one late beau, cut down too soon by cancer, used to joke — in life’s rich tapestry.
But even our easiest and richest friendships can be laced with tensions and conflicts, as are most human relationships. They can lose a bit of their magic and fail to regain it, or even fade out altogether for tragic reasons, or no reason at all. Then there are the not-so-easy friendships; increasingly difficult friendships; and bad, gut-wrenching, toxic friendships. The pleasures and benefits of good friends are abundant, but they come with a price. Friendship, looked at through a clear and wide lens, is far messier and more lopsided than it is often portrayed.
The first cold splash on an idealised notion of friendship is the data showing that only about half of friendships are reciprocal. This is shocking to people, since research confirms that we actually assume nearly all our friendships are reciprocal. Can you guess who on your list of friends wouldn’t list you?
As longtime readers here know, I’ve often blogged about friendship.
One reason friendship is so compelling to me is coming from a family that’s always riddled with anger and estrangements that go on for years, sometimes permanent. That’s deeply painful.
We all need love. We all need intimacy. We all need people willing to listen to our woes, cheer our triumphs, attend our graduations and bar/bat miztvahs, our kids’ weddings, to visit us in hospital or hospice — and someone, finally, to attend our funeral or memorial service.
A woman in our apartment building, (which is only made up of owners, some here for decades), recently died of cancer. She was prickly and cantankerous and had no family.
A note recently went up from friend of hers in a public space here to thank every single neighbor who showed up for her, took her meals, drove her to medical appointments — proxies for a loving family when she needed it most.
Another reason I so value friendship is having lost a few, and mourning the memories and histories now lost to me, shared with those women, like a New Year’s party in Jamaica with (!) live shots fired into the air around us or the day her friend let me helm his yacht — running it aground in Kingston harbor.
Like you, I treasure my friends and feel bereft when I lose one, although time and hindsight has helped me see that losing three of them has not inflicted long-term damage and, in fact, freed me to find much healthier, more egalitarian relationships.
I discovered that one of them had been lying a lot. That was enough for me.
Some of the friends I’m so grateful for:
Jose. My husband. We’ve been together 16 years and it’s the deepest and best friendship of my life. Even when I’m ready to change the locks, furious, I’ve never lost my respect or admiration for him.
N. She’s been through a hell of a lot, including early widowhood and a trans-national move. Her sweetness and optimism are refreshing, and consistent. My blood pressure drops when I’m around her.
S. Who else would give me a stuffed octopus?! A fellow journalist and college teacher of journalism, her calm, wise advice helped me through some of my toughest classroom moments.
P. I haven’t had an adult pal-across-the-street since the mid-1980s when I lived on the top two floors of a Toronto house and made a friend living in a communal house across the street. Proximity makes it so fun and easy to meet for a coffee or an adventure shopping for Italian food in the Bronx. She’s got one of the biggest and most generous hearts of anyone I know. Also, funny as hell.
L. One of the very few close friends I’ve made at church, mostly a WASPy, frosty crowd. She’s an amazing mom, an attentive and loving listener, a font of calm wisdom.
The view from D’s apartment, which she sometimes lends me…
D. Oh, what we’ve seen, and survived! Both of us divorced, both of us career journalists still (!) in the business, both of us who’ve become New Yorkers who came from elsewhere. In a deep, long friendship, there’s so much shared history. She’s my oldest friend in New York.
M. More than family, she took me into her Toronto home year after year, hosting and celebrating birthdays like Jose’s 50th, and nurturing me for three weeks after my terrifying encounter here with a con man. Now she’s recently re-married, at 70. Yay!
MS. Young enough to be my daughter, this talented photographer is beautiful, smart, hard-working, adventurous. I admire her drive and skill, and so enjoy her visits. She’s slept on our sofa many times.
C. This astonishing young woman, also half my age, is a treat: whip-smart, emotionally intelligent, resilient as hell. She and I share a global perspective from life lived in various countries and some similar family issues. So happy that she and her fabulous husband are in my life.
PHMT. We met on a rooftop in Cartagena, Colombia when I was in my early 20s. I promptly fell hard! “I’m gay,” he said. Oh. OK. Let’s just be great friends! And we are. He finally stopped being cool to Jose when Jose and I married — knowing, finally, I was back in good hands, as he was so deeply protective of me for years. That’s friendship.
MO. Ohhhhh. We call ourselves the Pasta Twins, a play on each of our names, Marioni and Catellini. We met in freshman English class at University of Toronto, a very serious, very po-faced venue, when we rolled our eyes at one another. College pals know us in ways no one else ever will. We dated the wrong men, (like the gggggorgeous male best friends we met at a party, both of whom shattered our hearts), and fought for our independence from difficult fathers. Our adult lives could not be any more different — she’s the proud mom of three grown daughters and lives very far away now — but our love continues.
Wishing every one of you the blessing of friendship, now and for years to come!