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Is there a friendship crisis?

It’s not just you. Many of us feel that our friendships are getting worse and despite the much-vaunted digital bonds, it is getting harder to make new friends and forge meaningful real-life connections with old ones.
Last Updated 29 July 2023, 20:15 IST

‘April is the cruellest month’, wrote T S Eliot once. It came home to me rather cruelly this April when two friendships ended. Death, the grim reaper, felled one friend. And I ended another long-standing friendship for reasons upsetting and troublesome.

One end was inevitable. Death brooks no questioning. It drove home some basic lessons —about making time, keeping in touch and understanding what is important. But the other? Why had it come to this? Whose fault was it? What were friendships all about anyway? What sustains them? What ends them? How does one spot the dodgy ones? How does one work on the dull ones? Are all old friendships worth preserving? Are there different kinds of friendships? I had many, many questions. But no clear answers. And that was what spurred me on to dive into understanding this quintessential relationship that pretty much defines our humanness.

Friendships in the digital age

In the past decade or so, in large part due to the growth and growth of the digital world, friendships do seem to have undergone something of a reboot. In this brave new world, are friendships like those of yore possible and what are the rules?

When reading up on what researchers say about this, it seemed like the advice dished out on how to create healthy friendships seemed to emphasise that the usual rules applied. Support, trust and honesty, advised one. Kindness and listening skills, advised another. Park the judgment, offered a third. Reciprocity and celebrating each other, said yet another. None of these could be argued with. But how does one ensure that all this can take place in our digital world? A lot of the advice on digital friendships was largely directed at teens and younger people who had come of age in the past few years. Experts perhaps assumed that older adults, many of whom were of pre-digital vintage, did not need this kind of advice.

The research, however, spoke to me— an old, old adult — in fundamental ways. Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar believes that the human mind is not quite equipped to deal with the excess (or should I say overabundance) of online interactions. It can only deal with intimacy with a few individuals. So while our environment has been irrevocably altered, our need for good old-fashioned focused and direct communication with people has not quite changed. Teens need to be told this in order that they limit digital time.

So, is it all pointless then — the possibilities thrown up by the digital universe? Not quite. All advice on how to make friends encouraged people to do a few things — attend events, extend invitations, look for communities who shared your interests and so on. There is, of course, an old-fashioned way of doing this and there is now a digital way. So, digital offers many new possibilities to get started on making friends. But it doesn’t quite cut it when it comes to taking it to the next level.

For that, one needs to get out there into the physical world and smell the roses … together!

Beware the poisoned chalice

Given my recent experience of choosing to blow the final whistle on a friendship of some three decades’ standing, friendships that weren’t quite all there or those that had turned rotten were of particular interest to me. Why does it happen? Can anything be done?

There is enough and more research on how to recognise a toxic friendship. One researcher encouraged the question “Why are you friends with that person” to be asked and answered honestly. And added the caveat that just because you have a history with a person isn’t reason enough. The larger question was whether the friendship was supportive. Did you trust the other person? Does the other person have your best interests in mind? It was how you answered these that would determine the quality of your friendship. Longevity isn’t therefore a strong enough foundation.

But that apart, what were some other things that one needed to sort out to have a good friendship and not end up with a toxic one? Most researchers advised against being in a state of competition with someone you regarded as a friend. Well, maybe a little healthy competition was fine. But if you wanted to win and win every single time, it wasn’t going well. It was time to pivot or maybe disengage. Apart from that, it was about feeling good about yourself, trusting the other person, being easy around each other and all the other hallmarks of a healthy friendship.

Could a bad friendship be saved? There were possibilities. Calling in a third party to mediate was one idea. Setting new boundaries was another. Listening to the other side was also critical as was also asking yourself what you wanted out of the friendship. Of course, ending things was a possibility that no expert seemed to think was unthinkable.

Eyes on the road

It is one thing to make friends. It is quite another thing to remain friends. Whether you are young, old or middle-aged, chances are that you have lost as many or more friends as you currently have. And it is not that things soured. You just lost touch.

Is there a secret to sustaining friendships? In an age where many wish they had a forty-hour day and not a forty-hour week, being busy is an all-too-common reason for losing touch. ‘Examine your busyness’ is one recurrent piece of advice. Are you blowing off your friends, for this reason, a little too often? Experts also suggest that you cultivate a routine. Have some regular times you can meet with friends. As boring as it may sound, this ensures sustainability. Being there for a friend at a critical moment brooks no compromise. Saying thank you is important too. As is regular communication. All of this is as obvious as the advice that friendships are important.

Can an old dog make new friends?

As the years pass, careers peak and people change jobs, residences, cities, countries and so on, friends could become a casualty. If you are of a certain age, try and remember the last time you met your friends from high school or college. Is all your socialising now restricted to colleagues from work or with relatives? Have most of your friends vanished? You’re probably not alone. Many suffer from this malady.

The option exists for you to reconnect with old friends and revive those ties. But there is a strong possibility that they too have moved on. So, can you then hope to make new friends? Experts contend that it is easier than it seems. When we are younger, we make friends with our peers who are on the same wavelength as us. When you are older, the people you want to bond with are likely to be different from you in many ways. But what could work for you are your changing expectations from friendship itself.

Given the multiplicity of relationships one forms and sustains in the course of one’s life, it is reasonable to assume that everyone we know may not become a friend in the fullest sense of the term. Maybe there is a person you could discuss work-related matters with. Another for sports or books. Yet another for family issues. There is also the possibility that you could bond with someone over a shared niche interest. These friendships could remain limited and flourish in a small way or they could become abundant. Perhaps, thinking clearly about what you want, remembering the rules of sustenance and acting accordingly are the keys to making friends at an older age.

The final word about friendships is that when you speak of them, you should do so with stars in your eyes. All the cliches should come to your mind … because they all apply!

The author is a publishing professional who writes on literature, language, and history.

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(Published 29 July 2023, 19:33 IST)

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