By Catherine Ryan
When you're younger, friends are everything. As you get older and people change and family responsibilities and jobs require more time and attention, it's not unusual to lose touch with friends. And if you move to a new city, distance makes it even harder.
"In midlife, women's lives are particularly full," explains Irene Levine, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry at New York University and author of Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend. "But having supportive friendships is important -- it reduces stress, blood pressure and the risk of depression." Besides, friends make life more fun.
So check out these strategies for how to seek and develop meaningful friendships. They require only a little extra effort and repay you with a priceless gift.
1. Work your current commitments.
Conventional advice may suggest you sign up for an art class or book club to meet new people. But you're probably overscheduled as it is! So instead, become more engaged in the groups you already have. For example, instead of watching soccer games with 30 other parents, become a board member of the league. Or lead a subcommittee for the PTA.
"You'll connect more regularly and intimately with the same people," says Levine. And doing so allows friendships to develop naturally, even though you aren't shouldering much more of a time commitment.
2. Elevate an acquaintance to a friend.
When you find someone you click with, take baby steps toward making her a bosom buddy. "Share your real self slowly and wait for her to reciprocate," says Levine. Meet for coffee and start by talking about your background or your interests (e.g., cooking or scrapbooking). Peeling back layers may be uncomfortable for shy types, but you need to expose yourself to see if there's good mutual chemistry, she says.
On the other hand, should you feel totally at ease, resist the temptation to spill your life story right away. If your new pal is overwhelmed, she might back off unnecessarily.
3. Integrate yourself into a group.
If you're on the periphery of an established social circle, breaking in can be daunting. Solution: Develop a closer relationship with one person first. Once the friendship sprouts, your pal is likely to involve you more with the group.
One warning: Don't get too clingy with your go-to gal. At gatherings, chat with others so you don't alienate her. And be patient. It takes time, but eventually you'll be chummy with more members and become part of the inner circle yourself.
4. Spend time outside mommy-dom.
Being a mother is probably the most important part of your life, but it's not the only part. "Mommy friends are our mentors and consultants, but it's nice to have girlfriends with whom you can talk about more than kids," says Levine.
So when reaching out to another mom, suggest a movie or art exhibit -- anything that doesn't involve kids. And steer conversation away from little ones. Exploring other parts of your personality helps a relationship transform from a one-dimensional interaction to a full-fledged friendship. Plus, you'll feel more like the well-rounded woman you are, beyond your role as mom.
5. Be open to friendship.
"It sounds sappy, but most friendships begin with a smile and openness," says Levine. That means engaging in small talk where appropriate -- your office elevator, the community pool, courtside at your kids' games. "If you act friendly and show people you're interested in them, you'll get a few ‘nibbles,'" she adds.
But finding your friend may be a hit-and-miss process. For example, you chat up a neighbor and she invites you to a party that turns out to be a pressure-filled sales pitch for her jewelry business. Don't give up! Stay cheerful and talk with the other guests. Who knows, your future BFF may be there feeling duped too.
6. Nurture new connections.
Once you've made a friend, make her a priority by scheduling time together. If it feels forced or you're just too busy, get your haircut at the same time and grab coffee afterwards. Syncing must-do's guarantees a little one-on-one without overburdening your schedule. Also remember that you needn't always connect face-to-face. Try other ways to stay in touch, such as Facebook, texting and quick calls, says Levine.
If you ever feel guilty about missed family time, know that investing in friendships pays off -- for everyone. "Friends help us relax and keep life in perspective," says Levine. Those "selfish" moments recharge your soul so you can be a better mom, spouse, daughter and sister.
Catherine Ryan is a freelance writer and editor who writes on health, nutrition, beauty and green living for such magazines as Self, Ode and Parents.
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