Social isolation contributes to a shorter life span. This kind of friend can be the antidote.
An accepted pillar of healthy aging involves fostering nurturing affiliations with others. The late Beatle John Lennon counseled, “Count your age by friends, not years.”
One of the ruthless risks of aging is social isolation. Career contacts disappear. Older family members pass away. Nearby friends retire elsewhere. Children relocate to pursue blossoming careers. Some friends die too soon.
A “third age” without rewarding friendships can make us sicker faster and even contribute to an early demise. A recent article in Nature reported on the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which concluded that “limited contact with family, friends and community groups predicts illness and earlier death, regardless of whether it is accompanied by feelings of loneliness.”
Feeling lonely may be an existential fact of living that we can survive; being socially isolated, however, may be a death sentence. It follows that one key to healthy aging comes from real male companionship.
Yet, some friendships gathered over a lifetime, we learn, are not real. Those friends become frustrating and exhausting. They don’t have time or desire to burden themselves with our problems. Some want social activities to be all fun, all the time and others need friendships to be all about them.
Now that I’m moving into the “third age” of life, I recognize the necessity to abandon unhealthy friendships and nurture those who are committed to the joys and responsibilities that true closeness can bring. I have learned to think more critically about quality of friendships, not merely quantity.
Many friendships germinate because of circumstances. Research from the field of social psychology validates that physical proximity is the most significant factor contributing to relationships of substance. The proximity principle suggests that we form close relationships with those who are geographically near us. People who encounter each other frequently develop stronger bonds.
Thus, we pick up convenient friendships as we travel through life: childhood neighbors, school classmates, people we work with early in our careers, and associates we meet through professional and civic organizations.
And while convenience friendships can be miracles in our lives, knitting together decades of shared experiences, sometimes these relationships survive only as old habits growing tattered. Friendships based on convenience can fall out of balance, even growth restricting.
I learned about the shortcomings of a convenient friendship early in life. One boy from the neighborhood was a year older, taller, and became the alpha male in our relationship. We spent a lot of time together, inseparable.
Whatever was on his agenda became a priority for me. He found a job delivering newspapers to earn spending money; I scrambled to do the same. He began smoking cigarettes; I took up the habit. He became rebellious toward authority as a teenager; I too became a budding iconoclast.
As we grew older, I eventually realized that the power in the relationship was skewed toward him. He sometimes could be psychologically menacing. He taunted me for being smaller and less athletic. He teased me about my clothes as he became hyper-conscious of rigid adolescent fashions. He sometimes dismissed me when other friends his age came to visit.
I eventually realized that this boyhood relationship, while convenient, did not offer me much fulfillment. I grew weary of his dominant personality and unwillingness to give me credit for having unique value. So when he moved away to start his career after college, I let him go his own way and haven’t been in touch for over forty years. He has never reached out to me either, so I guess he also realized that when proximity ended, so did impetus for us to stay in touch.
Earlier in my career I was responsible for managing significant advertising budgets. I was popular with media sales representatives, and one of them charmed me with his wit. He became a fun friend, and we would often meet for cocktails after work. He escorted me to the ski slopes and helped me become a proficient downhill skier, a personal triumph, much appreciated. My fondness for him grew, and he seemed genuine in his positive regard for me.
Eventually I left the job with oversight of substantial ad budgets that benefited this friend, who worked as a sales rep for a radio station. He soon became scarce and unavailable. And finally an insight came to me: He was not my friend because of positive feelings for me; he acted as my friend because I could benefit him financially and status-wise within a cloistered media community.
Most men have had cosmetic friends similar to my example. Our job status made them feel more important while providing access to our social networks. We could help them achieve a goal, financial or otherwise. When our status changed, they abandoned the friendship. Gone and forgotten.
Interdependent relationships are the healthiest. Both parties contribute and receive. Both are available to share the benefits of closeness and help shoulder the burdens that appear as we age. They are committed to mutual growth and positive adaptation along the uncharted journey through life.
One of my closest friends, whom I met during college, was this kind of person. Sometimes our contacts would be infrequent because of geographical distance, but we would periodically reach out to each other and be available for support as needed. I helped him through a divorce as a sympathetic advisor, and he helped me embrace a wellness lifestyle that eluded me when I was a cigarette smoker.
Many years later I helped him manage the injustices of cancer, reminding him of his innate strengths and wisdom. I helped convince him to accept hospice care when it became clear that further heroic medicine would not extend his life. He showed me how to die with grace.
As I’ve grown older and wiser, I’ve become more aware that not all male friendships are created equal. Convenience friendships may benefit from shared history, but sometimes these attachments were never appropriate in the first place.
Cosmetic friendships are usually fleeting: when our status or value to the other man diminishes, they can depart without even saying goodbye.
Interdependent friendships can be one gift of maturity: the few extraordinary friends we can count on when we become distraught or disillusioned. They are the guys who lift our spirits and in return welcome a sympathetic shoulder during their tough times.
As I reflect upon my friendships through life, I accept that I have not always been above self-centeredness and pretense that can inspire convenient or cosmetic friendships. Maturity compels me to accept and correct my own relationship deficiencies so that I can become a better friend. Aging has taught me that less can be more as I aim for interdependent friendships, solid and sustainable.
Charles Caleb Colton, a popular nineteenth century English cleric, advised, “Books, like friends, should be few and well chosen.”