May 31, 2016 by Jean
When I contemplated retirement, I expected it to be a time for the flowering of friendship. I was looking forward to once again living near old friends in Maine and renewing friendships that I had made in my thirties and that had survived my 25 years of living and working away from Maine. It would be a wonderful luxury to be geographically close to these friends again and to have time to spend with them.
What I didn’t expect is the flowering of new friendships in retirement. In a little over a year, I’ve developed friendships with two women that I met in my singing workshop last spring and three women from my Master Gardener class this spring. I’ve also developed friendships with at least two women whom I would previously have classified as acquaintances.
This unexpected flowering of new friendships seems to be the result of the combination of time and opportunity. I expected to have more time to devote to friendship in retirement, but I didn’t anticipate how getting involved in new activities would introduce me to new friends. This reminds me of the period when I was in my thirties and first moved to Maine to take up my first full-time academic job – and to meet all the professional colleagues who became valued friends.
I should probably clarify what I mean by “friends.” Several bloggers who have written recently about friendship in retirement have reserved the word “friend” for people with whom they have a close, emotionally intimate relationship – a person that you can share anything with and always call on, confident that they will be there for you. At least one blogger relegated those who did not fit into this definition of friend to the category of “acquaintances.” I draw the line differently. For me, acquaintances are people whom I know by name and may interact with in some formal setting, but whom I would not invite to a social event or call on for help. Friends are people with whom I enjoy spending time, will invite to my home or to join me on an outing, and on whom I would feel comfortable calling for some (but not necessarily all) kinds of assistance. Within this broad category of friends, I would distinguish some “close friends,” usually long-time friends whom I would feel comfortable calling if I were emotionally distraught, even if it were late at night.
The Best Friends Forever model of friendship, which considers only those I would put in the category of “close friends” worthy of the name “friend,” seems to be closely linked to the “soul mates” ideal of romantic love and of marriage, which became popular in the United States in the middle decades of the 19th century. This was a new way of thinking about family and love that emphasized intensity and emotional intimacy in a relationship. Before that, ideals of family and love were more of a “community” model, emphasizing an extensive network of family and friends who expressed their love more through practical assistance than through emotional intimacy. (One marker of this shift in ways of thinking about family and love was the transformation of the wedding trip – in which a newly married couple, usually accompanied by age-mate siblings and friends, would travel around visiting extended family – into the private, intimate honeymoon in which the newly married couple should be left alone.)
I wonder if the BFF model of friendship is more likely to be emphasized by long-married women whose adult lives have been defined by a relatively closed circle of intimacy. I think long-term single women (especially those who, like me, do not have children and do not have relatives living nearby) are more likely to value having an extensive network of friends, with different friends sharing different parts of their lives and filling different needs. For example, when I was diagnosed with cancer at age 50 and could not drive to my chemotherapy treatments, I did not look for a single BFF to go with me to my treatments. Instead, I put out a call for volunteers and was driven to and from my treatments by 12 different friends, each of whom either got me there for the beginning of one treatment or picked me up to drive me home at the end of one treatment. I called on other friends for other kinds of help. Most people loved being called on for this kind of limited assistance; it made them feel that they weren’t helpless in the face of my life-threatening illness, but they also didn’t feel overwhelmed by my neediness. (This extensive network also helped me through a difficult time by making me feel strong and competent as well as loved and cared for.)
As I age and need more assistance with both small tasks and important issues, I find myself even more drawn to the extensive, community model of friendship. I expect to get by with a little help from lots of different friends; and this has probably made me more open to the flowering of new friendships. Here’s to both old friends and new!