Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari
Stumbling Upon the Secret to New Friendships in Midlife
I’ve never been the one with hundreds of friends. I appreciate having a few significant and meaningful relationships over large social circles. By modern standards, I’d most likely be put in the introvert box. I take pleasure in solitary activities, enjoy time spent alone, appreciate and feel recharged in quiet. I’m big on observation and self-reflection. This is somewhat in contrast to the modern definition of extroverts, who are talkative, seek and feel energised by the presence of others, manage many friendships, and thrive in large gatherings.
Carl Jung, who introduced the terms 100 years ago, referred more to the psychic energy than the modern mental understanding of introversion and extroversion. He also argued that everyone has both qualities, though one tends to be more dominant than the other in each of us. Over time, these terms and their usage have changed, and nowadays people tend to get boxed into one category or the other. With that modern labelling in mind, I’m definitely on the introverted end of this spectrum.
And yet, a few years ago, something shifted in me, and I felt a longing to start building new female friendships. It was the combination of finding myself with some extra ‘me’ time (once my younger daughter moved to secondary school) and having fewer opportunities to meet new friends. The difficulty wasn’t, at least for me, in meeting new people. I meet new people on a daily basis as I teach and train therapists. It was more about creating new meaningful female friendships.
This was a realisation that triggered some reflection.
Make New Friends and Keep the Old
My longing for new friends, I knew, wasn’t coming from any lack in my existing friendships. I value them deeply, and it’s so important to me to sustain those relationships. These are the people who have witnessed, and, in many cases, been part of my growth over the years.
But that growth, for me, has meant making the decision to be open to new experiences, new learning, and new connections. This is where my reflection led me: new relationships, especially with people outside of my bubble, can be a wonderful way to expand my ‘being’, challenge myself and nourish my own growth (and hopefully provide the same to the new friend!).
I felt, at this point in my journey, eager for such nourishment and expansion.
When you have young children, each ‘playground’ you enter offers the potential to meet other parents. You’ll see people each time you’re at the park with your kids, or waiting to pick them up from extracurricular activities, or – most regularly –in the school playground for drop off and pickup. There are always opportunities to start conversations and get to know new people.
For me, many of those relationships ended up contained to the playground. The daily “Hey!” and “How are you?”, and a shared friendly smile. With some, though, our connection ended up being much deeper than having kids at the same school. Endless walks to school together, family gatherings, coffees and chats during our kids’ playdates, and shared family festivals have come from those playground friendships.
The playground wasn’t just a place to meet people. Built into these friendships was a regular time and place to chat (school drop offs and pickups), easy topics of conversations (our kids’ funny antics), and a whole cast of characters in common (that teacher we both felt inspired by). Even when life was at its most hectic, and we struggled to prioritise making time for friendship, we had these small, shared moments built into our daily routine.
And then, just like that, the school playground days were gone!
Finding New Playgrounds
In some ways, the playground friendships of my kids’ primary school years felt like coming full circle: my very earliest forays into friend-making, of course, happened on my own childhood playgrounds, decades ago.
And all the contexts in which I’ve made friends, in the intervening years, weren’t so different to the playground. There was high school, then university, then the army, then the workplace. In each of these spaces, I was introduced to new people who I already knew I had something in common with (since we’d all, after all, ended up in this ‘playground’). I would see these people regularly, and get to know them better, simply by consistently showing up to somewhere I had to be.
I don’t take for granted that, in each of these situations, I was able to find ‘my people’ (those few close, treasured relationships). But many of us who are lucky enough to have lasting adult friendships will have come across them in this way: life presents us with situations in which it’s natural to meet people with whom we have shared values, interests or experiences. We often stumble upon connections without actively seeking them out.
Then, at some point in adulthood, these situations stop presenting themselves. I had a growing sense of this, as my kids became older and more independent. There were no more playgrounds coming, unless I actively sought them out.
Try New Things, and Return to Old Passions
So, how do we find these new relationships, once we run out of playgrounds?
For me, it started in 2019. I signed up for yet another training course: an Advanced Diploma in Transpersonal Psychotherapy, only this time without inviting any of my professional friends to join me. In the following two years of the course, I met beautiful souls. With some, I have no doubt, lasting friendships have been formed.
And just like that, by coincidence, I found the secret for making new friendships at midlife.
Going to new experiences by myself!
Coming as I am, without any 'baggage’, open with my heart and soul. And as my new motto in life is to try new experiences and expand anything that brings me joy and wonder, I’ve found myself meeting more and more people. It has now become a habit: I discover a new experience that I want to explore, or have been invited to explore, and I go by myself.
You could, just as easily, return to a hobby or passion that you already love. Something that has, perhaps, been neglected over the years, as your priorities have shifted. I did exactly that when I enrolled in a watercolour course.
What I love about trying totally new experiences, though, is the chance to meet people who I’d never normally stumble upon in my day-to-day life – the opportunity to forge connections with people I wouldn’t normally have come across. One example of such new experience was when I enrolled to a pottery wheel throwing course.
So, if until recently life has presented me with situations in which it’s natural to meet people with whom I have shared values, interests or experiences, now I am proactively presenting myself with situations that hold the potential to meet new friends. I seek experiences that offer the same opportunities as the playground: to spend regular time together (just like daily drop off and pickup) and develop friendships. This means that experiences spread over time with the same group hold more potential than one-off activities.
Go it Alone, and be Proactive
I’ve discovered that if I go somewhere new with friends, we find ourselves less open to meeting others, even if it’s not our intention. Somehow, arriving somewhere in a group can signal imaginary boundaries. Trying new experiences together is a lovely way to enrich existing friendships, which is also important to make time for! But although it’s fun to develop our own connection, it limits the potential of meeting new people. When I go to new experiences by myself it also forces me to be a little more proactive about socialising, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
You might think that the potential for introverts is limited if they try out a one-off activity or event, but a recent experience showed me that this is not necessarily the case. A woman who came by herself to Bat-Mitzvah party was proactive and started a conversation with me and my husband. At the end of the party, she asked for my phone number, suggesting we meet for coffee. We met a week later, and have seen each other several times since. Not every person you meet will be someone you want to get to know better, but if you feel a friendship connection with someone, be brave and ask for their phone number! Invite them to socialise outside of the context you’ve met them in.
If You’re Shy, Ease into it
For me, going out alone is comfortable and enjoyable. I have no problem going to a movie or whatever if my partner or friends are not available. I enjoy my own company. So going to classes and experiences by myself doesn't require mental effort.
I understand that this isn’t the case for everyone, though. It can feel daunting – perhaps vulnerable and exposing – to show up somewhere alone. If social anxiety is a barrier to you trying new things, you could ease yourself into socialising by trying to put yourself in situations where:
a) there’s a small group of people,
b) you will have a shared experience with others, and
c) there will be regular, short meet-ups rather than a one-off whole day experience.
You can also start with online communities, as they can be a great way to connect with like-minded people without the pressure of face-to-face interaction. For some, getting to know people online or over the phone first can make an in-person meeting less overwhelming.
However you choose to meet people, be open to new experiences, and try not to be too hard on yourself if things don’t go as planned. Be yourself and be kind. Remember that making friends takes time and patience. Regardless of what you learn in the new activity or experience, you will definitely learn something new about yourself.
My New Beginnings
Since this discovery, I’ve explored cold water swimming, water colouring, pottery throwing, sound baths, and more. The list of what I want to try next is even longer! But what’s common to all these activities is that I am coming as I am. At times not saying what I do for living (unless asked); natural, with my broken English, and open heart.
I could make a different post about each one of these experiences and the inspiring women I’ve met. With some I hope to create more meaningful friendships, with others I’ve shared moments of joy that don't require further interest. And for my old friends – now you know why I didn't invite you to join me! 😊
This article was written by senior couples therapist and parental advisor Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari. With a doctorate in Psychology, Dr Ben-Ari has worked in the field for over 20 years and runs a private clinic in Hampstead, London. She is also an author, speaker, international trainer, therapist supervisor, and has been the Chair of Imago Relationship Therapy UK since 2013.