American sitcoms like How I Met Your Mother, Friends and even The Big Bang Theory made us believe that no matter how busy or successful you are, you still have time to sit and have endless cups of coffee with your friends during the day.
Yet, the reality is rather different. What are friendships in adulthood like? Is it so easy to meet often, have coffee, right before you leave for work?
Is it hard to maintain close friendships in adulthood?
In school, you could run next door and play football for hours with a friend. Now, you might have to schedule a coffee date days in advance with the same friend.
Tulika Shukla, a Dubai-based psychiatrist from Millenium Medical Centre, explains, “It was easier to make and maintain friends when we were in school and college, because we were always around those people. We spent every day with them, perhaps around eight to nine hours, studying, or just having fun with them.” The atmosphere of college and school encouraged fostering friendships. It’s almost the ‘golden age’ to build these bonds, as people are still struggling to understand themselves and the transition from adolescence to adulthood. The friendships at this point provide a strong support.
As we grew older, there are many priorities that tend to supersede friendships, including spouses and focusing on our career choices, explains Sreehari Nair, a Dubai-based clinical psychologist. The demands are more pressing, as it involves in ensuring a livelihood for oneself, and in all probability, a family. Friendships take a backseat. “Now, we spend most of our time at work, and yes, we do make friends with our colleagues. Yet, that for the most part has a professional boundary as we cannot be vulnerable or too emotional at the workplace,” says Shukla.
It was easier to make and maintain friends when we were in school and college, because we were always around those people. We spent every day with them, perhaps around eight to nine hours or more, studying, or just having fun with them...
Naheed Maalik, a Dubai-based entrepreneur, who has moved cities and countries through her mid-twenties to late-thirties, has similar thoughts. "I have managed to form friendships along the way. It has been colleagues turned friends or parents of my children’s friends," she says. "These friendships differ from the ones we form as children or in our teens, where just by spending large chunks of time together at school or at play you became friends," she adds. "These take longer to cultivate, there's more conscious effort that goes into them, but they are also the ones where we ‘choose’ our friends through a process of elimination," says Maalik.
"Another decade later and as a business owner and an empty nester, I've made another small set of friends," she says. With age you realise the value of your time and the limits of your mental and emotional energy and want to be with people whose company you really enjoy, says Maalik. "And that's exactly what I'm striving to do now. My close circle of friends include some from my school and university days, people I have known for more than 25 years, but also includes friends I've made later in life.’
With age you realise the value of your time and the limits of your mental and emotional energy and want to be with people whose company you really enjoy
On the other hand, for British expat Lindsey Matthews, it has been a task to keep up with long-distance friendships. The 34-year-old homemaker who moved to Abu Dhabi five years ago, says, “I’ve shifted countries too many times. I’ve made friends everywhere I’ve been, but I’ve never been able to keep in touch, properly, with most of them, once I moved. I’ve been between jobs, handling two children, and a pandemic happened in the middle, and somehow, I drifted out of contact with people. It is particularly difficult to keep messaging people and explaining what’s happening in your life, and also too much effort to call as well, especially when you’re going through so much. In my case, unless those friends are around me, I find it hard to maintain friendships,” she says. “I don’t blame many people for leaving, I am sure they have stuff going on too. In adulthood, there’s just too much going on,” she adds.
‘Friendship is taken for granted’
Sadly, when it comes to relationships, friendships tend to take the lower rung of the hierarchy. First is romantic relationships, family, or marriage and children. You can go for months without contacting a friend, but you would never do that to a partner. And yet, having a social support system is crucial for a person’s mental health as research has often proved, says Sreehari Nair. People need a social circle, to share ideas with, or just relax and unwind, for the sake of their mental health. You need that company to enjoy and that feeling that you can depend on someone.
People take the idea of friendship for granted, says Natasha Lin, a twenty-eight-year-old school teacher in Dubai. “I think the problem is that people don’t think it requires the same amount of effort that a romantic relationship, or a marriage does. It’s easier to let friendships take a hit, than a marriage,” she says. “We feel that we don’t owe our friends anything, unlike what we feel for our marriages and jobs. We still think that they’ll be there, despite months of silence,” adds Lin, a Canadian-Taiwanese expat.
Moreover, with marriage and children, we have responsibilities. However, friends are the family that we choose, people see it as an easy walk-in and walk-out situation, depending on how difficult life gets. “For instance, you wouldn’t think twice between choosing to attend your child’s annual day over your friend, who asked you for coffee. You think that you’ll meet them another day, but sometimes that just never comes,” she says. “I am guilty of this, and I’ve lost many friends that way. Friendship is just as important as any relationship, and requires time and effort,” she adds.
‘An understanding of give and take’
However, in the midst of pressing demands from life, our perspectives on friendship also mature. As life is already so busy and hectic, we realise whom we want to make time for, explains Bhumika Menon, a public relations professional in Dubai. “I think we become more particular about the give-and-take equation as we grow older. We are not as unconditionally giving as we might have been when much younger,” she says. “We become choosier about whom we want to spend time with, and don’t feel compelled to keep trying to befriend people who aren’t our type,” says Menon. “If people really want to cultivate and save a friendship, they will try hard enough.”
Asavari Jha, a thirty-three-year old marketing professional in Sharjah, agrees with this train of thought and says, “I have a small group of very close friends that I have made over the past decade. I used to have many friends, people whom I met regularly for lunch or dinner. But as I grew into my late twenties, and went through a lot of difficulties with my job and marriage, none of these people were actually there for me. The people who were there for me, were my own group of close friends. It made me realise whom I really want to invest my time and effort in, and those I could let go. With this small group, I am quite happy, and it doesn’t even seem like an effort to be in touch with them regularly. I love talking to them, hearing about their daily lives, sharing inside jokes, and we go and watch films regularly. We all want to do it, and it is not an obligation,” she says. “It needs to be both sides, and not feel like a formal or awkward invitation.”
How can we maintain our close friendships in adulthood?
In the midst of the chaos that adulthood creates, how do you hold on to your friendships?
Somia Anwar and Grace Karim, two close friends and business partners at the bookstore Bookends in Dubai, believe that nurturing friendships in adulthood comes naturally. Anwar, a Pakistani expat, believes that casual interactions, spontaneous gatherings and comfortable conversations help in creating and boosting these friendships. “If the will is there, it’s easy to maintain a relationship, explains Karim, a Lebanese expatriate. “The key is to be a listening ear, and make an effort to get together on a regular basis, even if it’s once a year.”
Like Karim indicates, communication is key for any friendship to thrive. It requires both sides to maintain it. Show active participation in your friendship, by at least trying to ask to meet once a month for lunch or dinner, says Shukla. Don’t only call a person when you are in trouble, or vice-versa, and then never hear from that person again. Work on communicating harder with your friends, as no one is a mind-reader. The same way they don’t know what’s happening in your life, neither do you know what’s happening with theirs. If you’re working on reviving a lost friendship, start small with asking how they’re doing, once a week, or once in two weeks, and share small details of your life, nothing too much, till you get a more open response.
• Don’t having astronomically high expectations. Understand that your friendships in adulthood are different from what they were in college or high school; everyone’s got things to do. Don’t let hurt or rage consume you if they instantly can’t make time for you. Also know it takes two. If you can’t make time for them, don’t expect them to do the same for you. Angelo De Guzman, a Filipino marketing manager based in Dubai, echoes these sentiments and says, "Time is undoubtedly a crucial factor – dedicating moments to meet, call, or even exchange texts becomes crucial for nurturing connections. Open communication and shared experiences form the bedrock of these relationships, signifying care and trust," he says.
Time is undoubtedly a crucial factor, dedicating moments to meet, call, or even exchange texts becomes crucial for nurturing connections. Open communication and shared experiences form the bedrock of these relationships, signifying care and trust
Guzman adds that a 'simple outreach', whether a call or a message, conveys that we truly care. It encompasses support, shared joy, and being a constant through life's ups and downs. In friendships, reciprocity is key; both parties must genuinely invest in one another.
• Respect their personal space. On the other hand, if they are unable to set aside time for you, it’s time to move on.
• Look at your schedule and see how you can schedule your time with friends, and when you can make free time for them.
• Choose your circle well. You don’t have all the time to devote energy to a large circle of friends, so focus on those who make your life meaningful. Be with those who help you, or make you feel comfortable and give you constructive feedback. Regardless, be open and honest with your friends, and build a healthy communication system between you and them.
• Work on the little things and gestures. Grand gestures in adulthood don’t hold so much importance, but it’s the small things that do, like checking on them, offering to babysit their children to help out if needed, or calling once in a while.