Some people find it harder to form actual and meaningful friendships as they grow older, as they feel that there is too much going on in their lives. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Thirty-five-year-old Dubai-based Sushmita Chatterjee, an entrepreneur, has quite a thriving social rolodex. Work friends? Check. Gym crew? Oh, yes. Neighbourhood coffee klatch? Absolutely. Weekend clubbing entourage? Indeed. Loneliness? Not a chance.

However, as she jokingly describes, it’s like lots of small, delicious plates, but nothing that quite fills you up. Conversations are more "what are we doing this weekend?" than "what's your deepest fear?"

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“I prefer to keep it that way. I don’t have time and neither do they, to get into emotional, deep conversations - maybe it’s just the person that I am now,” she adds. Chatterjee enjoys the company, the parties, the coffees and the jokes. The groups keep changing, and those who leave, drift out of touch slowly. “Life does go on, and everyone’s busy,” adds Chatterjee.

She firmly maintains that she has made the close friends that she needs to: She doesn’t need more. “I still have two close friends from university with whom I keep in touch, but they’re in different countries, so it does get difficult to keep up, sometimes,” she says.

This comfort in older friendships cannot be replicated as we grow older, some believe. Saakshi Khubani, a freelance public relations consultant adds, “I do feel that the deep bond and shared history with childhood friends can sometimes make us less motivated to seek out new long-term relationships, mainly because you feel like you can be yourself with them,” she says. These old friendships provide a sense of fulfillment, and owing to busy life schedules, we don’t have the bandwidth to recreate that depth again. Finally, we end up making more acquaintances to just get through the day. “So, after a point, it does feel like I am collecting friends to network rather than looking for deep connections,” she admits.

As mental health experts explain, this preference for quantity over quality in friendships can be a result of several factors.

Why do some people just ‘collect’ friends?

Friends in office
People prefer to maintain large groups of friends, out of pressure to keep up with others. Image Credit: Shutterstock

The most obvious reason for ‘collecting’ friends rather than ‘cultivating’ friendships is due to limited time. “As an adult, you just have increased responsibilities leaving less free time for in-depth conversations and cultivating long-lasting friendships,” explains Anna McDonald, a British Dubai-based clinical psychologist. “People find it easier to maintain these ‘easier’ friendships - I don’t want to call it superficial, but it is what they believe works for them. A quick coffee catch-up, or attending a social event is just more convenient, where you relay casually what has been happening in your life. It doesn’t require the same level of emotional investment and bandwidth,” she says.

'We become more choosy as we grow older'

Naheed Maalik, a Dubai-based entrepreneur subscribes to a similar point of view. The transitions in life, especially moving cities and countries play a role in changing the dynamics of friendships. "We tend to form our deepest friendships in the first two decades of our lives. People we grow up with, go to school and later university with - those shared experiences forge a bond that sometimes lasts a lifetime," she says. "As we grow older, both the number of friends and the nature of friendship change. Lives get busy with growing careers and families, and we aren't left with much time, energy, or mental bandwidth to devote to developing and maintaining relationships," adds Malik.

As Maalik says, "By your forties, you may know a lot more people and have a vast social circle, but very few of those tend to be real friendships. Personally speaking, my deepest friendships are with people who've been in my life for half my life or more. I'm super selective now about how I spend my time and with whom," she adds.

'A temporary fix'

Moreover, sometimes people prefer to maintain large groups of friends, out of pressure to keep up with others. “The connections will mostly be shallow, but they convince themselves that they have friends. This is driven by a fear and a desire to project a certain image,” she says. It’s a temporary fix: They do this to feel connected and avoid feelings of isolation.

Past experiences that involve betrayal, anger, and hurt can factor into a person’s understanding of friendship, too. “Opening up is difficult for people. It’s risky,” explains McDonald. “Many people fear being vulnerable and don’t want to share their true selves with these new friends. So they engage in easy friendships. It’s a safe zone, or so they feel,” she adds. “Sometimes, they’ll convince themselves that they are just too busy for more meaningful relationships. This usually suggests deeper psychological reasons about why they don’t want to become close friends with people too,” she says.

‘I don’t want to use the term close friend loosely again…’

Some wounds don’t heal so easily.

Some like Kellie Shafer, an Irish-American Dubai-based sales professional, are rather wary of “opening up” to friends, again. “I get along very well with many people and have a lot of social circles, but no, I won’t trust any of them with a 3am meltdown call, and I wouldn’t want them to call me either,” she says, citing rather “painful experiences” in friendships over the past few years. “I’ve had close friends at work who let me down to please the boss. I’ve seen dearest childhood friends let jealousy overwhelm them and turn spiteful. It hurt to let those friends go, but it just made me more careful of using the term ‘close friend’ loosely again,” she says.

Shafer would prefer to not refer to her current friendships as superficial; she just has stronger boundaries. “I think different people have different experiences that make them not want to invest more time in certain relationships, and prefer to keep them at a distance. I wouldn’t call it a superficial friendship, it just means that you have strong boundaries which you prefer not to cross,” she says emphatically.

‘A sense of introspection’

The nature of friendships in later life can reflect one's journey towards personal understanding and emotional maturity. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Rahaf Kobeissi, a Dubai-based mental health expert and mindset coach explains, “The dynamics of making and keeping friends as we age can vary widely from person to person, heavily influenced by the inner work one has done on themselves,” she says. “How much self-awareness have they built? How much have they healed from their past wounds and relationships? This personal growth deeply impacts whether someone gravitates towards quantity or quality in their friendships,” she adds.

Sometimes, those who have engaged in self-development and reflection, might note that they are more discerning in their choice of friends, she says. “They prioritise relationships that are aligned with their values, nurturing and deeply connected,” she says.

The dynamics of making and keeping friends as we age can vary widely from person to person, heavily influenced by the inner work one has done on themselves...

- Rahaf Kobeissi, mindset and mental health coach, Founder of Rays Your Mental Health

Without this introspection, people might seek out numerous and less meaningful friendships to mitigate feelings of loneliness, insecurity or to fit social expectations, she explains. “The nature of friendships in later life can reflect one's journey towards personal understanding and emotional maturity, showcasing a preference for quality over quantity when substantial personal growth guides their social choices,” says Kobeissi.

Going beyond the ‘collection’

Light-hearted exchanges can gradually evolve into significant friendships if we allow ourselves to be open and fully present. Image Credit:

Life does go on, as Dubai-based Sushmita Chatterjee explained earlier. And while it goes on, it also steamrolls over your understanding of relationships.

New friendships don’t have to stop at just casual exchanges. Adult friendships can be deeply rewarding, adds Kobeissi. “Approaching them with openness and a willingness to be vulnerable, much like in romantic relationships, can lay the foundation for strong and supportive connections. Light-hearted exchanges can gradually evolve into significant friendships if we allow ourselves to be open and fully present,” she says. “You can dedicate about ten minutes each day to nurturing your social connections. This could be as simple as sending a text, sharing a funny meme, adding a quick comment to a group chat, or making a brief phone call. It’s about regular, small interactions that keep the bond alive and show you care.

These collection of friendships can mean something if you want them too, adds McDonald.

On a personal note…

To be honest, I was keener on ‘collecting’ friends in childhood and teenage years. Owing to my own pervasive sense of loneliness at the time, I believed that having different circles of friends was a sign of some sort of acceptance in people’s eyes. You needed to be seen at parties, to be noticed, I thought. Yet, I could never tell any of them when there was an actual problem.

Later, many of these friendships began to fade away; the friend circles gradually grew smaller. People shifted jobs, cities and countries, messages reduced to just annual birthday wishes. For a person like me, who hates letting friendships go, I had to let them go as much as I wanted to hold on to them. I was seemingly content with the few close friendships that I had, believing strongly that I didn’t have the bandwidth to make more friends in my thirties.

Ironically, I did — it was hard not to. And the stranger thing is, I’ve “collected” richer and more fulfilling friendships in the past few years than I did back then. It didn’t stop at networking just for events or goodbyes at the office’s car park. The casual coffees, teas, five-minute meetings gradually paved the way to long conversations over life, loss and grief, with a tinge of inside jokes.

In short, I understand friendships now, more than I did earlier. For me, it’s just about who brings about the ‘real’ you in you. And, it doesn’t matter if it starts with just being someone you met for networking purposes, a casual gym friend, or a colleague whose charger you borrowed.

Maybe, what matters is where you go from there.