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The most surprising thing about midlife? The friendship shift
Having children, quitting alcohol… life changes can have a big effect on your social circle, as Georgina Fuller discovered
As I approach my 45th birthday, the Facebook memories of parties in the back rooms of pubs, tables full of smiling faces and hazy dance floors keep popping up, reminding me of friends who have come and gone. It’s almost like the ghosts of friends past.
This year, my birthday will revolve around brunch with four girlfriends and a family walk. No party, no hangover, no overflowing bags of presents to open. And, do you know what? I can’t wait.
That’s because my friendship circle has shrunk considerably in midlife. I have gone from being someone who relished having a large group of friends from all walks of life – school, university, work and so on – to a small group of cherished confidantes I can count on two hands and really invest in.
I’m probably quite unusual in that I have known quite a few of my friends since my school days, but I have noticed over the years that it’s harder to maintain some friendships that I, perhaps naively, thought would stand the test of time. Over the past few years, life with three children, ongoing work deadlines and, of course, lockdown, has felt quite overwhelming at times. I have stopped making such an effort to keep friendships going.
Looking back, I think our middle child Eddie’s autism diagnosis in 2019, when he was seven, was something of a turning point. It’s no exaggeration to say it turned my life upside down and the ongoing battles we have had since then to get him the right support at school and to fit our family life around his additional needs, left me feeling depleted.
Some friends really stepped up ‘It was a shock that, on top of losing my daughter, I lost my friends too. Many of them stopped calling’ to support us, inviting Eddie and I over after school, offering to pick up his siblings to ease the pressure on me, checking in with weekly texts. Some just… disappeared.
Yet, this friendship shift in midlife seems to be very common. When I posted about it recently in a new group I was invited to join, I was overwhelmed by the response. It seems lots of women my age were experiencing the same thing, especially those who had gone through some sort of change in life.
Anniki Sommerville, 50, a London-based author, said she had lost lots of friends since going sober and realising that many of her friendships had revolved mostly around drinking.
“I gave up drinking 18 months ago when I was coming into the perimenopause and feeling pretty lousy much of the time. I simply felt like the cons outweighed any pros I had experienced from drinking regularly,” she says. “This, combined with coming out of Covid [when people seemed to be less social generally] meant that I simply didn’t get invited to as many things anymore.”
While no one specifically mentioned anything about Anniki not drinking, she felt it was because she wasn’t perceived to be as “fun” when sober.
‘I now have a small group of friends who don’t make me feel boring because I don’t drink’ ‘Yes, it’s great to stay home and watch TV, but in the long run, it is so much better for you to invest in your friends’
“The other thing that happens is that it’s hard to fake friendships when you’re sober. It means that you need to feel a genuine connection with someone and this has meant that it’s become quite apparent with a couple of friends that we no longer have anything in common.”
Anniki realised that without alcohol as a buffer, she really had to work at her friendships. As a result, some simply tailed off. “I now have a small group of close friends and really enjoy their company. They don’t make me feel boring because I don’t drink – in fact it doesn’t matter. I have also changed the way I socialise: I tend to go out more in the daytime for lunches, to go to the cinema, or to explore new areas of London rather than just sitting in a pub drinking,” she says.
Ellen Manning, 40, who runs a PR agency in Warwickshire, says the fact she has chosen not to have kids has caused a growing gap between some of her friends.
“Once friends have children, their priorities quite rightly change and while I might be planning the next meal or fun escapade, they’re up to their eyeballs in nappies, school pick-ups, or ferrying kids around at weekends. I’m not averse to spending time with their children, but I’ll confess that a Saturday morning at soft play probably isn’t my ideal friend date,” she notes. “It’s almost an unspoken agreement that we wouldn’t get together to do that, which means, inevitably, we tend to spend less time together.”
As a result, Ellen says she has formed new friendships with people who are either a few years older and have grown-up kids or younger than her and not at that stage yet. She is quite sanguine about the fact that her other older friendships have become less important.
“Given my only comparison to having a baby or toddler is raising a puppy, it’s nobody’s fault – our lives are just incredibly different. It’s a shame, but I get it and I think my pals do too.” She thinks things might shift again when people’s children start growing up and become more independent. “Nothing is forever and I’m looking forward to seeing where our friendships go – whatever form that may be.”
A major bereavement can also, sadly, be the catalyst for a friendship shift. Lauren Rosenberg, a 54-year-old therapist and phobia expert from London, said she lost several close friends when her 20-year-old daughter, Liora, died seven years ago after catching pneumonia in hospital.
“It was such a shock that, on top of losing my daughter, I lost my friends too. Many of them stopped calling me and some would even walk the other way if they saw me at the shopping centre. I think they felt uncomfortable and didn’t know what to say. So they decided to no longer be in my life instead.”
Lauren found it incredibly hurtful, but also went on to make new friends with people she met when her daughter was ill.
It seems the nature of women’s friendships also seem to change at this time of life too, to reflect the stage we are at.
Catherine Hallissey, a chartered psychologist, says that a friendship shift in midlife is inevitable. “As we get older, our lives continue to grow and change and our friendships are part of that. In our 20s, we tend to have a wide circle of friends with a significant focus on spontaneity and fun. In our 30s, our friendship circles evolve to account for focusing on career, babies and family life. Our 40s often bring more change – for many, careers have been established and children have moved out of the early-years phase.”
Karen Webber, a 43-year-old marketing business owner from Manchester, says she has found her friendships have become more about having things in common with people. “I have made some brilliant new friendships with others who share my interests, like my friend Katya, who I met online, and is all about ‘microadventures’. We love going out in her camper van or going for a hike and a cold water dip – things I hadn’t done before knowing her.”
Some women have also found social media the best place to make new friends. Sue Bordley, a 51-year-old author from the Wirral, says: “These days, my closest friends are people I’ll probably never meet: members of a writing community on social media. I talk every day to these people and we share a lot of intimate, personal ideas, probably because being an author is an isolated existence and we’re all glad to have each other.”
Dipti Tait, a relationship therapist, says, however, that while many friendships naturally ebb and flow, it can also be very upsetting to lose a friend. “We will know when a friendship is ending, because there will be signs, which will be subtle at first. Things begin to feel ‘off ’ and the length of time between contact increases; the excuses of not being able to meet up start happening; there is a general frostiness and communication breakdown occurs.”
There may also be resentments, disagreements, “comparitis” or a growing lack of trust, Dipti says. “There may be mutual friends who take sides when your friendship starts to tail off, or we begin to hear rumours and gossip about the other person, which is the beginning of the friendship fallout.”
Losing a good friend can be painful. “We can compare it with bone damage; a small fracture that is not properly repaired, which splinters and finally a break occurs,” Dipti says. “If we have lost the willingness to repair, strengthen and rebuild – the friendship won’t heal.”
It is worth remembering, then, that while friendships naturally fluctuate over time, if you really want to keep someone in your life, you need to make the effort.
“Above all, remind yourself that friendships need to be nurtured. This takes time and effort. Yes, it’s great to stay home and binge-watch TV but in the long run, it is so much better for you to invest in your friendships,” says Catherine Hallissey.
I have to say that having fewer friends can actually make celebrations much more fun, though.