The Unexpected Flowering of New Friendships

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May 31, 2016 by Jean

group-of-friends-clipart-vector-friends-clipart-by-prawny-216843When 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!

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16 thoughts on “The Unexpected Flowering of New Friendships

  1. Edith Ellis says:

    Wise words.

  2. Brenda says:

    It sounds as if you have a knack for making friends wherever you go Jean. It’s another element that adds to a rich retirement.

    • Jean says:

      Brenda, It’s funny; I don’t think of myself as someone who makes friends easily. I’m an introvert who tends to be a bit shy and a bit reserved, especially with people I don’t know. Maybe I inherited more of my father’s extrovert genes than I realize. 🙂

  3. A great perspective on friendship. Many is better than one or a few.

    • Jean says:

      John, I value the more intensive relationships I have with a few close friends, but I consider the more extensive type of friendship just as valuable.

  4. Jean R. says:

    I agree with Brenda that you have a knack for making friends. Part of that is probably your academia background and part of that is probably because you seem to be a warm, interesting person to get to know.

    I think your theory for a model for BFF with women who were/are married a long time is right on target. I went from having a best friend from kindergarten through college, then our husband’s became our best friends for the next 42 years. It’s that having a confidant that comes with a BFF that is missing now that I’m a widow. The other day at a Gathering some of us were talking about going to coffee afterward next month and I was shocked to hear my inner voice say in my head, “Is this really what I want, more casual friends?” My biggest fear is ending up with a clingy or needy friend/s.

    • Jean says:

      Jean, I can understand that fear; I don’t do well with clingy or needy friends either. (I like to be needed and to be able to do things for people — but with boundaries.) A few years ago, one of my single women friends received a terminal cancer diagnosis and responded by becoming very needy. For example, after living alone for years, she wanted someone with her at all times and was rapidly burning out her friends. My solution was to set firm boundaries. I asked her to choose one half-day per week that I would devote to her. Every Saturday afternoon, I would show up at her house shortly after lunch and we would do whatever she wanted for the next several hours, often ending with dinner out. It wasn’t a perfect solution and she made it clear that she would have liked more from me, but it was a workable compromise.

  5. Melanie says:

    Thank you for sharing your journey into retirement, Jean. Your blog is so enjoyable to read. I hope you are planning to turn it into a book. Many people could benefit from your perceptions and insights and experiences. Your positive outlook is very uplifting.

    • Jean says:

      Thank you, Melanie. You are one of two people this week who has suggested turning these blog posts into a book. Something to think about, but not something I feel ready to take on yet. I consider my positive outlook on life one of my great strengths — but I know there are people who find Pollyanna types really annoying and who would beg to differ 😉 .

  6. Carole says:

    It was interesting to read your description of the models of friendship. I never really thought about it in that manner, but then I am/was not a social worker. Fascinating!

    I always had a feeling my definition of friendship was a little different than most. Being an introvert, I never had a lot of friends. Plenty of acquaintances, though. My joy in being quite active has helped me to make new friends in retirement. That feeling of being like-minded is a good foundation for friendship.

    Being retired has me feeling like I could use a few more friends. I still sometimes struggle with being a little shy and not wanting to impose myself on others. And, there is that underlying feeling of not wanting to be rejected. Which of course is ridiculous, but it is there nevertheless.

    • Jean says:

      Carole, I am very familiar with those struggles about shyness, not wanting to impose yourself on others, and fear of rejection. I like issuing social invitations via email because of the distance between asking if someone would like to do x and getting a response. Telephoning people causes me fits of anxiety as I first worry that I’ll be catching them at a bad time and then worry that, even if it’s a good time, they won’t want to do x with me and the moment of rejection will be awkward. Over the years, I’ve gotten much better at asking friends for help — although I still find it easier to do this by issuing a general call for help via email and then seeing who volunteers. I try to remember, though, the questions a psychotherapist friend asked me many years ago: “How do you feel,” she asked, “when someone asks you for help?” “It makes me feel good;” I answered, “it makes me feel needed.” “Then why,” she replied, “are you so determined to deprive other people of that good feeling?” Hmm.

  7. my definition of friendship tends to be closer to yours. I’ve generally relied on family and a couple other groups for serious emotional support, but have been blessed to have many friends. I sometimes joke that I have my book group/next door neighborhood friends, my knitting and crafting group friends, my swimming friends and my church friends. Each group has its own small social groups which sometimes cross over and sometimes do not. I have found that no matter how much you enjoy the group participation, the closer relationships develop when you go out to coffee, have lunch together or other similar times.

    • Jean says:

      Barb, Your description of all your sometimes overlapping social circles resonates for me — kind of a Venn diagram of friendship. When I was younger, I kept trying to turn more casual friendships into close, intimate ones. With time, though, I learned to value relationships that involve sharing of some parts of your lives, but not others. Last night, for example, I was out to dinner with a group of gardening friends and acquaintances. These are people with whom I can muse and share still-incoherent ideas about developing my garden. There were a couple of times, however, when I was tempted to throw some political allusions into the conversation and had to refrain, knowing that we are not all on the same political wave-length and those comments could have been a real conversation-killer.

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I am Jean Potuchek, a professional sociologist who has just stepped into the next phase of my life, retirement, after more than thirty years of college teaching. This blog is about my experience of that new phase of life.

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