November 23, 2016
Many of us struggle with loneliness as adults, unexpectedly. Maybe you've moved to a new area, lost a spouse or parent, or left a sociable job. I used to work in an office with people I'd known for years and conduct phone interviews most of the day. It was fun. Now I'm working at home and do much of my research is online.
We’re more likely now to work remotely or spend our time on emails, rather than in face-to-face meetings or even phone calls. Research suggests that as many as 15 to 30 percent of the people around us chronically feel lonely.
It can be hard to make and keep new friends after age 30 or so, especially if you don’t enjoy groups. Often really making friends in a group means taking on responsibility, and you may not feel you have the time or ability for organizing.
But as I've turned 55, I've noticed a happy tendency I didn't expect — reunions with lost friends from the past.
Philosophers and artists have historically valued friendship as our most prized and significant relationship, and old friends especially so. Some friends bring out your humor, others your ambition, others a taste in music or movies. So when a friend cuts you out of her life, you not only lose access to memories. You lose a way of being yourself, writes the philosopher Alexander Nehamas in his book "On Friendship."
“Each friend represents a world in us, a world not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born,” said Anais Nin. Such a world can be re-born, as well.
In just a few years, I'm newly in touch with at least six people after years of silence. The old friendship chemistry is there, but deepened by our experiences in between. And I also feel the romance of a new bond.
We may need a catalyst — a death, divorce, retirement, or a child reaching a milestone. If you parted with a friend because of anger, you might see things differently now.
One friend I knew when we were 13 and I spent an intense year before her family moved away. She found me through Facebook when her stepdaughter turned 13, saying she kept remembering herself at that age. She had become a psychologist, and I write about psychology. There was plenty to keep us connected.
Another childhood friend found me in her thirties when she married. I attended the wedding, and we've been in touch for the past 20 years.
A friend in her fifties called me out of the blue, crying, when her mother died.
Rekindling old friendships can help soothe fears that you’ve become hard to accept by other people. Over time we naturally lose some connections, but if it happens too often you might see yourself to blame. Once you’re a little lonely or isolated, it’s easy to worry that you're a misfit — boring, too needy, too long-winded, too quiet, too something. You start to doubt your social skills. It's more likely that you're suffering from performance anxiety, some research has concluded. A lost friend may have become anxious, too. Maybe you built up a career while your friend emphasized family. Maybe you're both nervous about being judged. Maybe she's worried she's boring. Maybe you think she sees you as incomplete because you didn't have kids or marry.
Reach out and find out the truth. Being able to laugh again with someone who knew you at 12 or 22 can go a long way to help you accept your life.
If you're thinking about reaching out — or someone contacts you — you may need to think about the reasons you drifted apart, but don't dwell on conflicts, blaming yourself or your friend.
You don’t have to plow through any rough history right away. It's fine to start with a casual Facebook message or text, or respond lightly to an overture, if you’re willing to get on the phone or meet. It’s better to not use electronic media to discuss something important.
When you talk, you might well find it wasn't about you after all — or that it wasn't about you in the way you think. I'm always amazed at how communication can feel like a miracle, changing my world in an hour. Small things make big differences.
Many people begin reaching out after they’ve lost a spouse. Rekindling old friendships when you’re older can deepen your sense of personal history. You've lost a daily presence — a mother or husband — and a witness to many years of memories. Your friend can be a witness, too.
Your health and happiness will both benefit from reconnecting and staying connected. In a review of studies over 34 years, researchers concluded that feeling isolated or lonely upped your chances of dying young by about 30 percent, for both men and women. It also increases your risk for dementia, heart disease, and depression. People live longer when they socialize and volunteer.
One of my dear friends, who is nearly 70, often talks about two friends of his, one he'd known since high school, the other since college. I assumed they'd remained in touch for all that time. But when I told him I was thinking of writing this post, he confided to me that both of those friends came back into his life in his mid-50s after a long silence. Those rekindled friendships can really last!
Don't expect too much. You may never spend the time together you once did. But don't expect too little. Love can always surprise you, again.