Embraced by some of the most popular women's magazines, The Friendship Crisis has struck a chord with women everywhere who know that finding close friends as an adult isn't easy. Most women rely heavily on their friendships with other women to share their joy and see them through the rough spots, but common life changes-having a baby, leaving a job, moving to a new town, starting an at-home business, becoming divorced or widowed-not only make it difficult to forge new ties but often fray the ones we already have. Marla Paul brings together the moving personal experiences of many different women with the keen insights of psychologists and other relationship experts in "her wise and helpful book on this much neglected subject," says Harriet Lerner, Ph.D.
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The Hunger for Friends
Why Everybody Feels a Pang
MAYBE there are some women who have never felt lonely for friends, but I doubt it. I believe virtually every woman has moments, or months, or years when she feels her dance card is empty, or at least not completely filled. No one is immune, not even the person who has spent her whole life in the same town and still hangs out with her old high school gang.
Losing companions may happen abruptly. Women yank up roots to relocate for a new job or to trail a spouse. The recently divorced may slip into social isolation.
But often the loss tiptoes up, the unexpected fallout of a hurried life. You race home from the office to ferry your kids to soccer practice and piano, sling dinner on their plates, and wedge in a hurried chat with your husband before you nod off in front of your favorite TV show. Who has time for friends? They're barely a blip on your screen, until your mother is diagnosed with Alzheimer's and suddenly there's no one to call.
Or perhaps now that you've quit your job, you feel like a stranger in your own town. You're pushing your toddler on the swings when you realize you don't know a single mother at the park--though they all seem to know each other. You never really got to know anyone in the neighborhood because your close pals were all at work. "I felt like I had two heads," lamented one of my neighbors when no one talked to her at the playground.
Sometimes you don't even realize what's missing. The only symptom of a friend shortage may be low-level doldrums, a shadowy malaise that you can't quite identify. The full measure of my own isolation smacked me in the head like a beanball when I filled out an emergency card for my daughter's school after I moved to a Chicago suburb. There were spaces for three neighborhood contacts. I didn't have a single name to write in.
Unlike many of our mothers, who sank roots into neighborhoods like ancient oaks--raising children, playing bridge, and drinking coffee with the same women for decades--our paths in the 21st century no longer follow neat parallel tracks. Our lives shift, veer off onto new paths, and old companions fall away. We have babies at wildly different ages or not at all. Our work lives often ricochet from a communal office to a home-based business and back again. We dip in and out of retirement.
Virtually every new life chapter has the potential to disrupt friendships: moving; leaving an office to stay home; divorce; the death of a spouse; retirement; illness. These seismic shifts can topple the walls of community.
But it's not necessarily a cataclysmic event that frays connections. Life chips away at your circle. You may thrive for years in a tight group of buddies, then several take jobs out of state. Interests change. If all your friends are having babies and you're not, you may no longer have much in common with them, or feel they don't have time for you. Shy women may have always been short on companions; for them the frustration is not losing friends, but pushing past their reserve to make them.
Whatever the reason pals are scarce, the impact is the same. It's like missing an essential nutrient. Without friends, problems weigh more and pleasures yield less joy. It's a palpable void.
Nobody expects to come up empty of friends. Men, yes; friends, no. When I was young, I used to creep out of bed and spy on my mother's weekly bridge game, hoots of laughter and gossipy whispers floating up the stairs like a promise. I thought I was witnessing a glimpse of my future. Instead it was the ghost of a fleeting past.
A Cold Bath instead of a Warm Welcome
The problem is not just that friends ineluctably disappear from our lives, but that making new ones is so arduous. We search in a climate that often seems icy and inhospitable. Our skills are as rusty as the old can opener in the back of the drawer. Making friends as children and teens was as effortless as breathing. As midlife women, though, it's suddenly a complicated dance whose steps we try to retrace but can't quite remember.
I resettled in Chicago with my husband and young daughter in 1993, following a five-year stint in Dallas. Every afternoon at dismissal time, I stared enviously at knots of moms clustered around each other's minivans, chatting outside the grammar school door. Once or twice I mustered my courage and plunged into their circle. But I sensed only politeness, not the easy welcome granted to others. After that, I brought magazines to read in the car and pretended it didn't hurt.
Trying to hatch new relationships, I invited women out to lunch, enrolled in a yoga class, became a classroom mom, but my efforts were mostly one- way. When my daughter's first new friend came over to play, I was prepared to warmly greet her mother. I never got the chance. "Hi, when should I pick her up?" she asked breathlessly before zooming off. When another woman dropped off her child, she suggested we meet at the park sometime. But whenever I called she was unavailable.
What was the secret code these other women seemed to instinctively know, and why couldn't I crack it? Was it my faded jeans? Did I laugh too loud? Did I seem too needy?
To prop up my sagging self-confidence and reassure myself that I wasn't a total loser, at school functions I silently recited the mantra, "I'm okay, I'm okay." Corny, but it helped a bit.
The nadir was our grammar school's holiday sing. In the bright, overheated auditorium, women in Christmas sweaters shouted hello and greeted each other like long-lost sisters. Groups clustered up and down the aisles. The cheerful din buzzed in my ears as I perched solo on a metal folding chair.
"We moved to the wrong town!" I wailed to my husband later that night and many others. I was sure the perfect friends, and acceptance, were several miles away in a university community. I was so busy feeling sorry for myself that I failed to notice I wasn't the only woman not partaking in the gabfest.
This was unfamiliar territory for me. Before relocating, I'd always had ready-made companions in an office. But now I worked at home and didn't see a soul all day save the UPS man. While a few close buddies from my earlier days in Chicago were still around, they were ensconced in downtown offices during the week and didn't live nearby. Any get-togethers had to be inscribed in black leather planners (theirs, not mine) weeks or even months in advance. I yearned for women to meet for coffee so we could lament the dearth of Saturday night babysitters and the volatility of young girls' friendships.
Because writers have this strange habit of exposing their foibles, I wrote about my wallflower status in an essay in the Chicago Tribune. While I wanted to shine some light on my conundrum, I was mortified when the piece appeared. It's perfectly acceptable to be on the prowl for a man or a partner, but don't go announcing to the world that you're looking for a friend. Women fear we have some glaring personal flaw if we're not flanked by companions. It's like being the only person who doesn't hold an invitation to the party. Surely no one else was in this pickle.
Boy, was I wrong. The essay appeared on a Sunday. By Monday morning my phone was ringing, and by Tuesday the letters began to arrive. People had tracked down my home address and phone number. One woman pulled me aside at a wedding; another grabbed me in the hallway of my daughter's grammar school. Their response and relief were universal: "Thank God, it's not just me!" they said. When I wrote a similar story for Ladies' Home Journal, I was also flooded with letters--this time from around the country.
I'd yanked the curtain off a shameful secret, only there is nothing shameful about it. A lot of women are lonely. And it's damn hard to make new friends in our culture of busyness. As we frantically juggle a constellation of demands many of us are unwilling, or unable, to fold a new pal into our lives.
How hard is it? When a Chicago-area therapist recognized the isolation of her female clients, she launched a service that fixed women up with friends instead of romantic partners. After she placed an ad in the newspaper, she was swamped by people wanting to sign up--some of whom, amazingly, lived in the same high-rise building or on the same block. One of the reasons it's so difficult to find new companions, she surmised, is because nobody realizes other people are looking, too. "If you're not wearing a sign, nobody knows," she says.
In another sign of friendship hunger, several alternative newspapers now run ads in a "friends wanted" section, a move sparked by reader demand. And at a popular New York singles club called Social Circles, 90 percent of the people who join say it's to make friends, a hike from 60 percent five years ago.
Loneliness Is Not Your Destiny
Much has already been written about the glories of women's friendships. Yet a lot of us feel like we're standing outside in the rain, hungrily peering in through the window at the buffet. The truth is, that party might not be as big as you think. In fact, the idealized fantasy we weave about other people's companionship may be just that.
So I began writing a column on women's friendship for the Tribune to explore this dilemma and chronicle women's efforts to find new companions. Over the years, hundreds of women have generously shared their stories with me. I listened to their frustration, anger, and hurt. But as we kept in touch, I also cheered their successes because they eventually forged rich, new relationships. I did, too. These pages tell what we've learned.
It turns out bouts of loneliness are universal but not incurable. Friends are a renewable resource, thank heavens. It may not feel that way when you're perched by yourself in the bleachers at your daughter's soccer game or sitting home on a Saturday night when your married friends are going out to dinner. But even the most isolated women I interviewed ultimately found satisfying companionship. It took perseverance and creative strategies, but it did happen. This book offers their blueprint for success. Loneliness is not a life sentence, just a natural, temporary interlude.