There is nothing like a close friend. But other kinds of friends are important, too, including casual acquaintances. In midlife and beyond, these might be the most important friends of all.
How did you learn what a friend was, and how to be a good one? Most of us learned through trial and error, by making friends and losing them. We observed other people and talked to them about their friends.
Today we can learn from experts in sociology and psychology who study friendship. “Friendology” — the science of friendship — is even taught in some schools. Its basic tenets are provided in much of the current literature on parenting.
Author Jessica Speer, for example, writes about friendship for pre-teens and teens. Speer has developed a “friendship pyramid” to help youth and parents navigate this tricky social terrain.
The pyramid shows close friends at the top. This is a very small, select group, maybe only one or two people in a lifetime. Most songs about friendship are written in homage to these people because they are so hard to find. Someone once said, “rare as is true love, true friendship is rarer.”
On the next level is friends, a larger, less intimate group that waxes and wanes over time. Many of the people we associate with on a regular basis fall into this category.
Acquaintances are an even larger group. We recognize their faces but may not always know their names. We see them at work or around the neighborhood. They go to the same exercise class or wait on us at our favorite restaurant or coffee shop.
A final category in Speer’s pyramid are people who are not really friends (NRFs), but we associate with them. These people can raise conflicted feelings, because we may not like them, or they might not like us, but we still have to get along. Speer wisely advises that we use our encounters with them to practice “boundaries with kindness.” A civil society is built on such boundaries.
Along the sides of the pyramid are the words “change” and “misunderstandings,” indicating that friendships are always in flux. As evolving humans, we have different needs and expectations at different times in our lives, and these must be acknowledged and negotiated. Otherwise, misunderstandings occur, and friendships may diminish and disappear.
Life with Friends
Most of us have more friends in youth, when we go to school and associate with people who live in the same area. As we mature and move farther away, our friendship networks spread out, and social ties weaken.
Midlife brings the demands of family, career, and homemaking. Our friendships often take a back seat to these obligations. Maintaining a friendship takes time and effort, and both are in short supply during this time in life.
In later life, when we have finished raising a family and retired from full-time work, friends become more important again. Unfortunately, this is also the time when friends begin to pass away, and it is harder for us to make new friends because our social circles have become smaller.
Now is when we can tap into the power of acquaintances. These people are usually more diverse than our close friends and provide a broader perspective. They offer resources, information, connections, and the kind of “social capital” that helps us feel like we’re part of a larger community.
The casual, low-stakes interactions we have with acquaintances can improve our health and social well-being almost as much as closer friendships do. As one author puts it, “weak ties can offer strong rewards” (“Why You Need a Network of Low-Stakes, Casual Friendships,” 2019).
The Power of Acquaintances
I know all of this from personal experience. At the age of 57, I reconnected online with my high school sweetheart. After a whirl-wind courtship, I married him, retired, and moved 2,000 miles from Michigan, where I had lived all my life, to his home in Idaho. I left all of my friends and family, as well as a long-time career, to embark on a new life where I knew no one but this man, whom I didn’t really know that well, either.
One of the smartest things I did within the first three months was introduce myself to a local university professor in my field, who invited me to join her book club. That group saved my life, socially.
Ironically, it was called the Save Our Sanity (SOS) Book Club. It had formed in an election year nine years earlier, when the group’s founding members (of which the professor was one) felt that newly elected officials did not represent their values and concerns. Depressed by politics and the news, they decided to get together to discuss books that would take them deeper into the social issues they wanted to change, as well as books that would uplift and inspire.
Over the years, SOS had become a place where women from a variety of professions and backgrounds could socialize and learn from each other. By the time I joined, it had over thirty members. Once a month, we gathered at someone’s home (hosting rotated) to share conversation, ideas, delicious food and wine.
This group helped integrate me into the community. They taught me about local politics, social activism, public health (one member was the state epidemiologist), and public education (many were teachers and professors). They educated and inspired me. I learned about their travels around the world (at the first meeting I attended, the host presented slides of her recent trip to India), how they stretched their minds and bodies (one member was challenging herself to run a marathon in every state), their different views on spirituality (the group included atheists, agnostics, Mormons, Christians, Buddhists, and a Mennonite) and even the joys of caring for big animals (one member fostered Mastiffs).
When I joined the book club, I felt displaced and disoriented. They helped me feel connected, gave me a sense of belonging, and showed me how to create a life in my new hometown.
Goodbye and Hello Again
So I was deeply saddened when, a few months ago, the list master of the SOS Book Club sent an email saying that, after 17 years, the club was ending. Changing life circumstances of members (divorce, retirement, moving, caregiving) and various challenges that came with the COVID-19 pandemic made it harder and less appealing for us to gather.
As the friendship pyramid reminds us, change is a constant in all relationships.
In the years since I moved to Idaho, I’ve changed, too. My husband and I built a solid, stable marriage, and he is now my best friend.
I have volunteered for three local non-profits, which has given me an avenue for staying connected and contributing to my community. I have made many more acquaintances, and I value what they add to my life.
As for the book club, we got together recently for a reunion and discussed the possibility of starting up again. We discovered that we miss each other.
And I meet regularly for lunch with a handful of my favorite book club members. These women have become my friends.
Next time we meet, I will hear about the long trek that one of them just finished. She walked several hundred miles across France and Spain as part of the Camino de Santiago, a historic pilgrimage that leads to the shrine of the apostle Saint James the Great in Galicia.
I’m far too timid and out of shape to undertake anything like that myself, but I can experience it through her.
Isn’t it amazing how much bigger and richer the world becomes with a little help from our friends and acquaintances?
Written by: Ruth Ray Karpen
Ruth Ray Karpen is a retired English professor who now works as a freelance researcher and writer. She has published many books and articles on aging and old age, life story writing, and retirement. She also volunteers her time at a local hospice and animal shelter. In our series on Heart and Soul, she explores how later life, including the end of life, offers unique opportunities for emotional and spiritual growth.
On behalf of Smart Strategies for Successful Living, our sincerest appreciation goes to Ruth Ray Karpen for her contribution to the heart and soul of living and aging.