Making friends in later life is almost as bad as dating

At the age of 35 Annabel Fenwick Elliott’s social circle has never been smaller – but she’s not alone in her loneliness

For years, my hobbies have largely included solo travel, Netflix and vegetating with my dog Credit: Geoff Pugh

I have never been good at making friends. Nor at keeping them. Perhaps it is because I’ve always moved a lot. Or because I don’t remember birthdays. It could well be that I despise small talk, which is a fundamental step in the path towards any kinship, and a dance I find too excruciating to perform. This is a by-product of my being, to my very core, an introvert – someone who loses energy from socialising, as opposed to an extrovert, who draws reserves from it.

Maybe I am just unlikeable, or the other way around, so most people just don’t do it for me. It is true that while I would cross a dual carriageway at rush hour to greet a dog I like the look of, I have been known to hide around corners so as to avoid bumping into a human acquaintance who might wish to engage me in a conversation about the weather.

Regardless, I have carved out a solitary existence for myself, and broadly speaking, at the age of 35, it agrees with me. Or at least, I tell myself that it does. But a few times a year, generally at Christmas or on my birthday, I do regret having so few people in my life to gather around a table. More profoundly, I got engaged recently, and I am now seven months pregnant with my first child. The fact that I am having neither a wedding nor a baby shower is, I like to think, because I find these sorts of ceremonies ostentatious and gag-inducing. But is it also, underneath it all, merely because I’d have hardly anyone to invite?

I wasn’t always such a Billy No-Mates. As a child, a teenager, and at university, one has to go pretty far out of one’s way to avoid being in the near-constant company of one’s peers, so as a result, I knew a lot of people back then. This is normal, says psychologist Zoë Aston, the UK mental-health expert for meditation app, Headspace. She counts plenty of female clients in the 25-45 age bracket who fret over the state of their friendships, or lack thereof, and tells me: “In those early environments we’re almost forced to find people to bond with – it’s a matter of social survival, and there’s not much effort involved.” Indeed, there’s a sense of camaraderie that develops in sharing the same subjects, teachers and timetables with the same faces for years on end, which for many, sustains them well into later life. “These close relationships are essentially made up of an encyclopaedia of memories,” Aston explains. But is that enough?

Personally, I hated school, was miserable as a teenager and eventually dropped out of university, so none of these are chapters I particularly want regular reminders of. The friends I kept during those eras were forged despite, not because of, our circumstances – or so I assumed. As it transpired, few of these unions survived when our life plans went their separate ways.

I was convinced, for example, and quite smug about the fact that Claire, who all through my 20s was my closest confidante and favourite person on the planet, was not so just because we happened to have met in the same dorms during our first week at Bristol University. We always swore we’d grow old together, and perhaps we would have, if we’d stayed in tandem. But we grew apart as she settled down with marriage and a mortgage, while I stayed single, of no fixed abode, and devoted to frequent travel. It’s a friendship I fought hard to hold on to until the bitter end, and still remain injured over and incredulous to have lost.

I didn’t manage to prevail with my close male friends, either, when, one by one, they entered long-term relationships, too. Given it’s generally not on for a married man to have platonic female friends who aren’t linked with their wives, I gave them up with less of a battle. Add to that the pandemic, and a two-year government-mandated ban on fraternising with my few remaining far-flung chums, plus the fact that I have since joined the mass exodus from London and moved out to the countryside, and it’s no wonder I stand before you today as a fully-fledged loner.

If anything, a lot of the people I spoke to when researching this topic said they preferred the trimmed-down version of their social circles following all the coronavirus restrictions. “Less pressure, less to keep up with; the pandemic made me realise I don’t even like going out much any more,” one, a fellow freelance writer, told me. Which only confirms my long-standing suspicion that the majority of our “friends” are actually just people that are convenient to know based on the routines in which we operate. Thousands of years ago, Aristotle had a term for it, “friendships of utility”, which he didn’t place much value on.

It doesn’t help that making new allies at this stage is about as awkward as dating. Most 30-plus-year-olds have by now established their coalitions, and have no interest in adding to them. I met a fellow writer last year on a press trip who I really got on with. Excited, upon getting back to England, by the promising nature of this encounter, I suggested we meet for lunch. Cue crickets; I’m pretty sure she assumed I was a lesbian. And forget making friends with men – you can’t, if they’re married; and if they’re not, they too assume you want to shag them.

Whatever the case, it seems I’m not entirely alone in feeling so sheepishly alone. There are those – the brave among us – who are on the active hunt for new tribes, often via the medium of the worldwide web. So much so that popular dating app Bumble launched an entirely separate function in 2016, Bumble BFF, to serve platonic matches.

Naomi Walkland, the company’s European vice president, remarks: “The past two years have been particularly lonely for many and people are really seeking connections with others around them, especially those who share values and interests. Bumble BFF was created in response to seeing a rise in people using the app to make friendships, rather than form romantic connections. During lockdown we saw people adapt – looking for gaming communities, socially-distanced workout partners, company for dog walks and just people nearby to chat to. In fact, during the first three months of 2021, the average time spent on Bumble BFF globally grew 44 per cent for women and 83 per cent for men.”

While I applaud this go-get-it approach (why not source friends the same way you do partners?), I think I’d rather die knowing I’d have not a single guest at my funeral than broker interpersonal relationships in this manner. I did tip my toe into the world of online friendship-seeking communities – in a sheer act of desperation, soon after I found out I was pregnant – and joined Peanut, a fast-growing platform that “connects women at similar stages of fertility, pregnancy and motherhood”. There is a tendency, as we have seen, for people to bond over shared circumstances, and I did yearn for someone to talk to about all the hushed intricacies involved with formulating a new person inside one’s body. But within minutes of scrolling through the app’s catalogue of perfectly lovely-looking mum candidates, the prospect of actually arranging a meet-up, one that would guarantee small talk, just made me need a nap.

Perhaps this goes to show I am not cut out for having lots of friends, and that’s OK. Aston points out: “The truth is, psychological research indicates that we only need three to five close people in our circle to be fulfilled. Moreover, the data shows that if we have too many relationships on the go we experience a sort of information overload that leads to difficulties in maintaining the quality and structure of each one. In my experience, it can be people who had loads of friends as teenagers who find that as adults, they are not sure who their “real ones” are. I’ve also worked with patients who appear to have tons of friends but who experience a deep loneliness for the same reason – that they’ve put quantity over quality.”

As I enter a major new chronicle in my life, becoming a mother, I imagine I’ll find new cohorts the natural way, just as I did when I was at school, only now I’ll be at the gates, not in assembly. Already, since announcing my pregnancy on social media, I’ve had ghosts from my past get in touch to welcome me warmly into the fold. I have mixed feelings about this (where were they when I was trying to keep in touch with them as a singleton?), but maybe it was always going to be like this. People prefer being friends with others who are doing the same things. For years, my hobbies have largely included solo travel, Netflix and vegetating with my dog. It’s not surprising that my social sphere shrunk into obscurity.

But for the next 18 years at least, I’ll have fellow parents to form allegiances with. I can only hope that at least some of them will be of suitable quality to endure after our offspring flee the nest, and maybe even in sufficient quantity to supply my funeral.

Top tips to making friends

Go back to school 

The most natural way to develop kinships with other people is to spend time in a room with them, just as we did in our youth. Join a new club or class and you’re bound to fall in with a new crowd

Dive in online

If the prospect of dating apps doesn’t horrify you, nor should the world of online friendship-forging groups. Dedicated apps for this include Bumble BFF, Friender and Peanut, or there’s good old-fashioned Facebook, where specialist groups provide fertile ground for like-minded connections

Brush up on your small talk

If you hate it as much as I do, come prepared for any encounter that will involve idle chatter with some half-interesting questions. It is often less awkward to listen than to speak

Make peace with your personality

If you are an introvert, you’re not alone. Experts estimate you make up a third to half of the population. Don’t beat yourself up for wanting to spend time alone and try to take comfort in the quality of your existing friendships – few as they may be – not the quantity