by Dorothy Littell Greco
When most of us were growing up, friendship were more narrowly defined. Our extended family likely lived within a one-day drive. Friendship circles were composed of classmates, neighbors, and cousins. In today’s hyperconnected world, things have changed—particularly for those of us living in metropolitan areas.
According to Facebook, I have 1,642 “friends.” I’ve only met about one quarter of them face-to-face. It’s virtually impossible to manage the ever-expanding relational circles without engaging in a form of social Darwinism. To bring some semblance of order, we categorize relationships into hierarchies based on any number of criteria such as close friend versus mere acquaintance, religious beliefs, membership in common organizations, or shared interests such as kombucha brewers with a sense of humor. (I did not make that up.)
This kind of rating system didn’t exist when friendships depended on proximity or blood ties. Back then, we worked harder to maintain friendships because our options were limited. Today, our seemingly limitless options coupled with the ease of unfriending encourage us to function as if friends are expendable, which of course isn’t true.
We also spend increasing amounts of time forming and nurturing relationships online. These points of connection can be meaningful and sometimes develop into rich friendships. But the hours spent in front of a screen also render us unavailable to the neighbor across the street—or the spouse living under the same roof.
So what does it look like to cultivate healthy friendships in midlife and beyond and is it really worth the effort?
Sowing into relationships is one of the best decisions that we can make during this season of life when we’re constantly facing losses and bumping into our limitations. For those of us who are married, even the most amazing spouse will not be able to consistently meet all of our needs. Friendships fill the gaps, help us laugh, and as researchers have been discovering, improve our overall health.
A recent article in The Wall Street Journal noted that “loneliness takes a physical toll, and is as closely linked to early mortality as smoking up to fifteen cigarettes a day or consuming more than six alcoholic drinks a day.” In a 2015 TED talk, Professor Robert Waldinger reported it wasn’t midlife cholesterol levels that predicted how men were going to age but rather how satisfied they were in their friendships. “The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.”
Once a quarter I have a standing date with three female friends. We’ve been having meals together for twenty-seven years. We laugh, we cry, we endure poorly made restaurant food, and we pray for each other. They know my strengths and my weaknesses. Their intimate, consistent friendship has brought light and hope into some of my darkest days and I am truly grateful for them.
There are many legitimate reasons why prioritizing friendships later in life can be tricky, including lack of time and conflicting beliefs (political and otherwise). Regarding the former, we all have many urgent demands pressing on us. So much so that the thought of initiating a meal with friends can feel impossible or even irresponsible. The truth is, we can and should prioritize connecting with friends on a regular basis. Yes, it does require energy and effort. But in the long run, it’s worth it.
In the past few years, it seems to have become more difficult to stay in relationship with people who hold opposing views on any number of topics. This is attributable to the polarization of culture as well as the fact that as we age, many of us move further east or west on the ideological spectrum. Our deeply held opinions and beliefs can make us wonder if our love has enough malleability and grace to stretch without snapping. In certain situations it might feel tempting to conclude that the relationship has run its course. Sometimes, it may be best to take a break for a season. More often than not, when ambivalence or friction surface, we need to look back and remember how these same friends have shown love and support over the decades. And then we need to pray for grace because these friendships might be God’s provision for whatever lies ahead.
The post above is adapted from Marriage in the Middle: Embracing Midlife Challenges, Surprises and Joys by Dorothy Littell Greco. Copyright (c) 2020 by Dorothy Littell Greco. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
Dorothy Littell Greco is the author of Making Marriage Beautiful and Marriage in the Middle. When she’s not writing or making photos, she loves to kayak and hike with her husband. Follow Dorothy on Substack and on Instagram.You can find more of Dorothy’s work on her website or by subscribing to her newsletter or her Substack channel.