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Do Buddy Rules Change at Midlife?

Why male friendships morph with age and tips for keeping them strong

By Bart Astor

My friend and neighbor, Tom Edgar, is an avid golfer. Weather permitting, he plays once a week with the same group of guys with whom he’s played for years. My brother, Peter, has a standing tennis game with several guys and a few of them also play golf together. Both Tom and Peter have gone on golf trips with their buddies.
Although I admit I’m a bit envious of these buddy-type relationships, it’s interesting that in both cases, these friendships never moved past the tennis court or golf course. The guys play their sports, sometimes have a drink or coffee afterwards, and go home to their separate lives. They talk about everything under the sun when they’re together, but don’t connect until they meet again on the court or course. Though all are married, none of the wives have met each other except in passing.
These types of friendships have been labeled “compartmentalized.”

(MORE: How to Stay Friends When Times Get Tough)
Recently, I talked with a man who is considerably younger than Tom and Peter (and me). Bruce is 43, married, with no children. He told me that he and his friends — male friends in particular — do lots of things together, including playing and watching sports. But they also socialize and their wives and partners all have met.
Noting the difference between the younger and older groups of guys, I thought about my life now compared with my life at 40-ish. Back then, it was much like Bruce’s, that is, there were a bunch of guys I played ball with and occasionally our families socialized. When the guys stopped playing ball together, the socializing trailed off to the point where we just occasionally saw each other at some party or gathering. We no longer watched the big games together or did things as a group, as we had done previously.
What happened and when did the rules of friendship change? And why? It wasn’t about having kids and being totally absorbed with family life — by the time we were in our 50s all the kids had grown and left the nest or were about to. It was something else and my theory is that it has something to do with who we are as men at 50+.
What Makes Men Bond?
Male friendship has been studied and written about for years. The writer Michael Chabon wrote, "For men to really become best friends there has to be an element of adventure. You have to set out to accomplish something and in the course of failing or succeeding you become friends." Perhaps that explains the trailing off of friendships once there were no more windmills to fight or teams to beat.

(MORE: When the Going Gets Tough, What Kind of Friend Are You?)
Geoffrey Greif, author of Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendships, coined the term, a "must friend," someone who is part of the inner circle whom you can confide in and rely on. He says there are three other types of male friendships:

  • "Trust friends," those with whom you confide but are not necessarily part of your inner circle
  • "Rust friends," those with whom you are friends mostly because you’ve known each other for a long time
  • "Just friends," the guys you currently hang out with, usually on a limited basis, but you don’t know them well or for a long time

Most of my friends I think fall into this third category and, I suspect, it’s likely the largest group for most of us who are 50+, even for my brother and Tom. But I don’t think it’s always been that way for most of us men. As kids we had our “pack.” It could have been because of geography (same street), shared activities (team member or school group) or as one of the growing circle when girls became a part of our lives. Something changed when we got older and the burning question is why?
Shifting Circumstances, Changing Roles
Jan Yager, Ph.D., a sociologist and author of Friendshifts, who also happened to be a schoolmate from my childhood — ironically, we were friends in junior high and “friend-shifted” when we both moved on from high school — discusses at length the importance of friendships.
There is no doubt, she says, about the benefits of having close friends, everything from better health, to increased hope in our futures, to longer lives. She points to studies showing that having a close friend outside of a family member or romantic partner can extend your life by as much as 10 years.
But how does Yager explain the change so many men experience from Greif’s “must friends” to “just friends?” For many men, she notes, friendships start out at work. The relationships flourish while the men work together and even extend beyond that. But retirements, relocations and health issues impact the friendships.
In addition, as we get older, many of us become more complacent about new friendships, accepting the reality of what is and relying upon our spouses for companionship and sharing. (This is my experience.)
Moving Closer
So if I want one of the new guys I meet to have a more meaningful part of my life, or to simply watch ballgames together, I either wait for time to make it happen, or I initiate in some way to move us closer.
Yager’s research indicates that actually, for many men, our older years are a time of strong male relationships. The children are grown and our spouses and significant others are less available as sounding boards, sometimes due to divorce or widowhood. We draw closer to other men.
“But unless men reach out, they won’t have anyone to share with,” Yager explains.
True, happenstance can also play a part, with a new friend being there at the right time, for instance, if your spouse gets sick and he helps you through that tough time. Then once that door is open, the relationship continues on a deeper level.
So for those of us who envy long-time golf buddies or want someone to hang out with, we need to be open to opportunities to get to know someone better; when one of our pals needs us, we jump at the chance to be there for him. Or we can get more involved in one of the activities we currently participate in that fosters teamwork.
(MORE: 6 Ways You Can Help a Friend Who is Sick)
Many problems come with not having friends, buddies or pals: loneliness, boredom, isolation, to name a few. If any of those feelings haunt you, then you surely don’t want to wait for chance to provide a spark. Instead, as one of my “rust friends” wrote in my yearbook many years ago, “Don’t wait for your ship to come in, row out and meet it.”
7 Tips on Friendships for Men who are 50+
These tips are adapted from Yager’s book, Friendshifts.
1. There are three basic kinds of friends: casual, close and best, each offering companionship and connection outside of family or romantic partners. Be open to each, and allow for the possibility that friendships can move from one to the others.
2. It takes, on average, three years to become tried-and-true friends. So give each new connection the time it needs to become a stronger and closer bond.
3. Get involved in activities that reflect not only your genuine interests but also your values, which is the best predictor of longevity in a friendship.
4. When befriending someone of the opposite sex, make sure your partner and your new friend’s partner are aware and supportive of the friendship.
5. Work-ships are best when the two of you are of equal status. Although they can end abruptly when one of you leaves the workplace, they can also become more meaningful and open with effort and persistence, despite the loss of daily contact and shared activities.
6. Although you generally want to be careful about sharing too much personal information and opinions with new, potential friends, meaningful sharing can quickly deepen the relationship.
7. Have fun! Friends offer an additional fun factor in our lives so gravitate toward those who add to your life because you enjoy getting together, communicating and exploring the world together.

Photograph of Bart Astor
Bart Astor, an expert in life transitions and elder care, is the author of the book AARP Roadmap for the Rest of Your Life: Smart Choices About Money, Health, Work, Lifestyle and Pursuing Your Dreams and Baby Boomer’s Guide to Caring for Aging Parents. His website is and he can be reached at [email protected]. Read More
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