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Why We Lose Friends in Midlife

6 situations that make us 'break up' with our one-time BFFs

By Deborah Quilter

By the time you reach 50, chances are you've made — and lost — your share of friends. Some of these losses are a casualty of divorce or relocation.

But there are other less talked-about reasons why friendships go awry in later years. And some of these situations present uncomfortable dilemmas to which there are no good solutions. People are loath to drop friends, probably because they don't want to be dropped themselves. And yet, it happens.

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Dorree Lynn, a psychotherapist who divides her time between Washington, D.C. and Florida, says once people reach the age of 50 and older, they reconsider their relationships. "There's a reevaluation of identity. It's a developmental stage of life," Lynn says.

And friendships are part of that evaluation: Are they helping you be your best you and adding joy, support and love to your life? If not, the sense that time is short can spur a break.

"When people are 20 or 30 they can bounce back (from negative relationships) because they've got 50 years of future ahead of them," Lynn says. "This is not true when you're 50 or 60."

Common situations that can impact friendship in people over 50 include:

1. Falling out of friendship: Folks want to "fire" their friends, Lynn observes. As we change, our friends change, as do the things that bonded us.

"Maybe their kids went to the same school, but now they don't have that in common," she says. Or perhaps they lose interest in the things they used to do together. Usually there's no definitive parting of the ways.

"Generally, people just drift apart," Lynn says. "It's the rare individual who sits down and says 'Please understand I'll always value you but I don't have the time I used to have to spend with you.'"

2. Health vs. sickness: "One of the things that separate people is the amount of illness they experience," Lynn explains. "People wind up ill themselves or become caregivers for someone else. And they become isolated from those who are going to the gym and are active."

Lynn, author of When the Man You Love is Ill: Doing the Best for Your Partner Without Losing Yourself, notes the intricacy of addressing poor health: "Friends frequently want to help, but don't know what to do, so they stay away. There's a delicate balance between feeling intrusive and feeling like you're letting someone down because you're not saying something about an obvious situation."

This was the case with Carly, who worried about her friend Joanie's mental competency. Joanie, who was in her early 70s, made some very bad decisions regarding her hip surgery. Her husband was disabled, so Joanie wasn't in a position to care for her husband the way she usually did. "She didn't plan for his care while she was away. She should've hired someone to take care of both of them," Carly says.

Joanie didn't plan for food, a cleaning service or extended care service, and then didn't follow her postoperative care plan. Sure enough, Joanie didn't heal well.

Not only that, she got angry at Carly for stepping in to help. "She yelled at me because I talked to the other girlfriends about it," Carly says. Then Joanie started texting Carly frequently, and Carly began to piece together a bigger problem. "There's something wrong with her that's not the hip," Carly concluded.

Joanie's friends decided that despite this dire situation there was nothing they could do legally. "You suddenly realize the boundaries of friendship," Carly says. "It's hard to watch someone struggle."

Friends can also develop long-term, incapacitating illnesses that can dramatically change the dynamic of the relationship.

3. People change: Sometimes people find that their friends are not as interesting — or as interested — as they used to be. Perhaps your pal has become quite depressed. Or maybe they're stuck in the past while you are pursuing new interests. Perhaps they've developed eccentricities.

As Carly considered her relationship with Joanie, she recalled, "When I think back to three years ago, it was an effort to see her because it was more of an obligation than fun. How much is 'friends have grown apart' versus how much is due to an active friend having cognitive decline?"

4. Children and grown-up friendship: Jennifer, who lived in a large urban area, no longer wanted to see her friend Bob because his 21-year-old son was a heroin addict.

"I started to see how his son was abusing him. His son lied to him and constantly asked for money. The last straw was Father's Day — Bob was so excited, it was all he talked about," she says.

Bob planned a nice dinner and then his son didn't show up. Jennifer felt that her friend was being spineless with his son and is seriously considering ending the friendship because it's painful for her to watch him be mistreated.

"It makes me wonder how I can proceed unless I see that he's getting some support for himself. It's very hard to be friends with someone like that. Bob is a special soul, and he adds a lot to my life," Jennifer says, so ending the friendship is not something she would do lightly. "But at the end of the day, are you being a friend to yourself by standing by someone in this predicament?"


5. Financial disparity: "If someone has money and purpose and they're traveling, they can become bored with people who aren't doing the same thing," notes Lynn.

It could become awkward if you and your friends can't afford the same travel arrangements, restaurants and other entertainments.

6. Energy levels:  Although fatigue will not necessarily cause a friendship to rupture, getting together with people socially requires effort, and some people are so tired from work they really don't feel like going out.

"If someone asks me to see a show on a Thursday night, I might suggest brunch over the weekend," my friend Michael Termini confessed. But happily, there are fixes for that.

Termini paused for a second. "Or maybe we should just Skype."

Deborah Quilter is an ergonomics expert, a certified Feldenkrais practitioner, a yoga therapist and the founder of the Balance Project at the Martha Stewart Center for Living at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. She is also the author of Repetitive Strain Injury: A Computer User's Guide and The Repetitive Strain Injury Recovery Book. Read More
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