One of my coaching clients is newly single after an unexpected and bitter divorce. Wisely, she has discharged most of the anger but now she has a new problem: her social circle has revealed its weaknesses since it turns out to have consisted almost entirely of superficial relationships with colleagues or else deeper ones with longstanding couples, all of whom have felt forced to choose between the former partners. When she does spend time with the twosomes who appear to have chosen her as the survivor of the friendship, there is an unspoken awkwardness. Three is not a comfortable number. Someone often feels left out. This is even more noticeable with those couples so entwined that their every sentence seems to begin ‘We’, along with total unawareness of how excluding this can seem to whose world no longer contains a ‘we’ or an ‘us’.
My client comments that she is terrified of loneliness and daunted by the prospect of making new friends. ‘How do I do it?’ she asks, ‘I can’t remember – and I’ve lost whatever knack I once had’.
When I explore this with the many clients who raise it as a concern, almost all will describe friendships that began at school, university, or as young parents with other young parents. Sometimes such friendships began as colleagues, especially in first jobs. These friendships were easy to make as they developed from daily proximity, shared problems and a consciousness that connection was a necessity, so time went into it effortlessly. Often the client has not seen how many of the relationships have become notional, reduced to a Christmas card exchange.
Here is some of the collective wisdom of my clients on finding solutions:
- If you can see the problem coming, for instance that divorce is inevitable or that your partner’s health makes it likely that they will die before you then take action sooner rather than later. Make it a project to build a life which does not depend on being one of a couple
- Fear of rejection is what holds us back, but so what if you are rejected, it’s not the end of the world. Don’t be afraid of making the first move and a small first move is fine: suggesting a drink, going to a movie, phone number swap, offering to lend a book or magazine. The world is full of other single people and even if it is not a romantic relationship you seek, other singles may be more open to friendship overtures than those who are securely one of a pair
- Map your network and identify the people you like and with whom you have lost contact. LinkedIn, email and text make it easy to contact them again and the friendship may be revived comparatively easily without all the effort that a totally new friendship requires
- Accept every invitation you are given, even if you feel squeamish about doing it. You may meet someone you like and this will keep your friendship skills going and your confidence up
- Ask your friends to help you: tell them openly that you need to meet new people. The more choice you have, the more likely you are to meet people where there is mutual liking
- You are most likely to find real friends among those who share your interests and values, so consider becoming a volunteer for a good cause or joining a society or club, slogging your way through the initial discomfort of being an outsider. Offering to undertake unpopular responsibilities is the quickest and simplest way to become an insider. Activity holidays may cater specifically for singletons. A book club may be another good choice. A conference offers special opportunities to spot like-minded people
- Create your own social events: for instance, a party with some notionally celebratory theme where you can expand your network at low risk, inviting new people whom you might like to get to know and with no face to lose on either side if it doesn’t work out
- Stay in touch with the friends of your adult children – this prevents the awful trap of discovering that all your friends are of exactly the same generation as you and will also keep challenging your prejudices and assumptions
- Get or borrow a dog. I am a cat person myself, but I notice when out with a doggy friend and his owner that it is the easiest thing in the world to start up a conversation with a total stranger
- Accept that it takes at least a year to make a real friend, so keep at it. First feelings of liking may be based on hopeful assumptions and some disillusion on both sides is inevitable and healthy.