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Why friendship is important

In midlife friends matter more than ever -- both close ones and acquaintances. Find out why

“We need a posse,” my friend Angela said, as we sat drinking Cuba Libras at her kitchen table two years ago. “I have friends, but I feel like I need a gang.” Her comment came somewhat out the blue but jibed with something I’d been feeling myself: I had lots of individual friends but for the most part they were separate. I saw them one-on-one or in set groups.

“We need to introduce all our cool friends to each other!” I said, squeezing a lime into my glass. We put together a short list of women we thought would like it and sent out an email, wondering if we’d receive a deafening silence. Instead, the response was ecstatic.

“I love this idea!” said one. “Can I invite someone else to take part?” said another. Suddenly we had a substantial list of women in midlife – interesting women doing interesting things – who wanted to get together not to network or promote their businesses but to make friends.

As the Friends cast reunites, having created another generation of fans on Netflix, it’s reminded me of the impetus for starting our little group. Never mind Friends’ funny bits and recurring jokes that stick in our minds: being on a break, Janice, “Pivot!”. What the sitcom really did was celebrate the enduring benefits of friendship.

As we get older, the role friendships play becomes even more important. Our friends are not just good for our social lives. They’re good for our health.

Friendships evolve over time

We use the word in a pretty blanket manner but friendships perform all kinds of functions in our lives: They alleviate loneliness, provide opportunities to laugh and learn, support us in staying healthy, provide emotional support and companionship. In older life we can become even more aware of these benefits, when our interests can stretch beyond needing a wingman on a night out.

“I don’t think you would have gotten through these past two years without us,” my friend Debra said to me, referring to the small group of friends I made on a Masters course. Her comments might sound a bit arrogant but actually they acknowledged how important we had all become to one another. We had supported each other throughout our course but also blown off steam in the student pub (surrounded by twentysomethings), laughed together and done plenty of crying – about parenting, grown-up relationships problems, the fear of the next phase of life and coping with lockdown. Because midlife gives rise to so many seismic changes – menopause, empty nest, divorce, death of a parent – friends are not important. They can be a lifeline to sanity.

Ronita Dutta, a writer and mother of one, has definitely felt for recent changes in her life. “Female friendships are vital as we move into midlife and transition through perimenopause to menopause,” she says. “Whether it’s sharing symptoms, remedies, advice, a shoulder to cry on or someone to laugh and share a bottle of wine with. It was critical for me keeping my sanity. I can’t imagine having to navigate this time of life without the help and support of some of the incredible women in my life – including a handful who have stuck with me over many years.”

For Benita Finanzio, a trained secondary school teacher who works for Arsenal Football Club, it’s the easy joy from shared experiences that buoys her. “I crave the support and companionship of good friends, especially the quirky humour and silly stories.”

Friendships matter whether you are married or single

Even in marriages, friendships serve a distinct function, says Kathryn Seaton Reid, an interior designer. “My friends let me witter on,” she says. “We have meaningful conversations even when they are not necessarily deep or high brow. It’s a very different type of conversation than I have with my husband.”

Romances come and go but friendships…

And of course, for many people friendships can outlast romantic relationships and marriages. “Studies consistently show that friend relationships are as important as family ties in predicting psychological well-being in adulthood and old age,” a study from the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships reports. This is especially good news for those without a long-term partner in midlife and beyond. And especially good for women, who tend to outlive men.

My best friend and I have known each other since age 16, when we listened to Depeche Mode, had asymmetrical haircuts and liked guys with names like Cam and Wyatt. She called me yesterday “just to check in”. “Sisters before misters” indeed.

It’s not just warm and fuzzy benefits

Even beyond the emotional support, friends actually help keep us mentally and physically healthy. The social aspect of these relationships helps maintain cognitive function. Friends also encourage us to care for ourselves physically. They love us, and they want us to love us too. Friends even provide caring responsibilities during times of injury, illness or disability as we age – a vital benefit for society.

And we can rely on them. As we get older, our friendships remain more stable. While we may bicker over mah jongg, we still hit the retirement home cafeteria together each night.

How many friends should we have?

In the era of Facebook friends and social media followings in the millions, the idea of friends can become a bit devalued. And the question for some might be: How many friends should I have? Research, naturally, have a number: Five. They hit upon that figure after studying a group of people’s phone records and frequency of contact. (One reason we might like Friends is that it represents this ideal social circle number.) However even a larger casual network of ‘friends’ has benefits.

A 2014 study looked at ‘weak’ ties: connections to people you know by sight and say hello to, such as other dog owners on the street, the newsagent, familiar clerks at the supermarket. The study found that the more weak ties a person has, the happier they are. It makes sense, as this mesh of connections embeds us even more in our community. It’s stimulating and it puts us in contact with people in a range of ages and personalities. It makes us feel part of the wider world.

Enjoying weak ties

I’m a fan of both the core inner circle and the wide-ranging outer one. For our posse of women friends, we booked an area in a central London wine bar and more than 20 of us mingled for hours. I chatted with an elegant Lithuanian that Kathryn had been telling me for years that I “had to meet”. My friend who trains horses in America and the Cotswolds circulated, marvelling at “how many cool women are here”. “It’s just great to get out and be ‘seen’,” another friend told me. In our subsequent meet-ups, we’ve eaten tacos in Brixton and canapes in Victoria.

The best part is that, unlike when I was younger, there wasn’t that feeling that I needed to ‘make the most of it’, to make a connection for work or romance. And now my wider circle extends beyond the women I’ve worked with or seen at the school gate. What we have in common is that  desire to make a connection. It feels stimulating and energising. We all were hungry for it.

Whether or not the return of this particular TV show reunion excites us, it’s a good reminder to relish our close friendships and enjoy the more casual interactions that we have every day. Or in other words, we should celebrate our own Ross, Rachel, Monica, Chandler, Phoebe and Joey as well as Gunther, Ugly Naked Guy and yes, even Janice.

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