Freedom in Friendships
How do people become friends? Is it simply finding common interests, going to the same school, growing up together, or something much stronger? You may answer “all of the above,” and you would be correct, but what friendship truly boils down to starts with an individual - like attracts like, so who you are as a person will attract similar people.
This is comforting, considering many of us have anxiety about whether or not we’re successes, good people, and generally doing well in life. But think about how great your friends are - that is a reflection on who you are. According to Psychology Today, our friendship choice is often based on how well our friends support us and accept us for who we are.
The moment we “self-disclose” to another person, is the moment we go from being polite acquaintances to actual besties. Think about the first time you said to one of your current closest friends, “Can I tell you something?” Whether you realized it or not, according to psychologists, that was a defining moment of your relationship with that person! The more you begin to open up and share with your friends, the more likely it is that you will maintain a lasting friendship. Opening up is risky - it means you trust another individual with the darkest parts of yourself. Friendships continue to last because of intimacy; however, friends know what lines are drawn in the sand and shouldn’t be crossed.
In an article for The Atlantic, Julie Beck writes “friendships are unique relationships because unlike family relationships, we choose to enter into them. And unlike other voluntary bonds, like marriages and romantic relationships, they lack a formal structure. You wouldn’t go months without speaking to or seeing your significant other (hopefully), but you might go that long without contacting a friend.” Friendships are cemented through fluidity, intimacy, bonding, and acceptance.
Beck also writes of William Rawlins, the Stocker Professor of Interpersonal Communication of Ohio University, who says "I’ve listened to someone as young as 14 and someone as old as 100 talk about their close friends, and [there are] three expectations of a close friend that I hear people describing and valuing across the entire life course: somebody to talk to, someone to depend on, and someone to enjoy. These expectations remain the same, but the circumstances under which they’re accomplished change."
Given people of all ages desire and benefit from close friendships, it’s interesting how people consider and choose friends.
Friendships arise from shared interests, beliefs, histories, and experiences. We feel safest around people who look like us, talk like us, and share similar beliefs systems so it’s no wonder when people seek out friendships, they look to people going through similar life experiences. A thirteen-year-old will feel most comfortable disclosing her secrets to another thirteen-year-old she feels similar to. Similarly, a thirty-five-year-old mom might feel more comfortable sharing her experiences of motherhood with another like-minded mother, than with someone who has never experience motherhood.
But here's the thing:
Without us realizing it, our friendship selection is impacted by forces far beyond what we may initially imagine. In our contemporary Western culture, we are socially organized to go to school from ages 3 to 18, encouraged to attend higher education in college or vocational schools from 18 to 21, seek internships, jobs, and begin building our lives around 25. We are then taught to find partners, get jobs, work, save, and continue to build upon a nuclear-family ideal. People 65 and older are set aside, told to retire, and get out of the way.
In all of these instances, each experience is highly segregated and codified by age. For instance, when kids go to school, they are going to school with other kids their age - it is only the teachers that are older than them. When young adults attend high school and college or get jobs, they are likely to be surrounded by other people their age. These experiences condition us to believe we should be around people our age, because we can seemingly identify more with them.
While true in some ways, this disallows us to see the potential of friendships unbound by age. What if middle school students had more opportunities to interact with people in their 40s, 50s, and 60s other than their teachers and parents? What if high school students had the opportunity to meet people in their 80s other than their grandparents on a regular basis?
People are living longer than ever before and with that experience comes with an accumulation and wealth of knowledge. While an 80-year-old may not necessarily have a Tindr account (but who knows, your grandma could be getting more matches than you!), she likely has been through heartbreak over a former lover, and can relate to your crush not texting you back. A 70-year-old may prefer other music over EDM music, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t frequented a club or two in his time, and has a great love for how powerful music can be.
Here at Ageless interAction, we give way for people to find these similarities. When young people come out to an AI event, they may not think that they can connect with an Elder; however, they typically leave AI with a lifelong friend, someone they previously thought they had nothing in common with but they find connection through simple acts of conversation.
Our work changes the notion and idea of friendship. No matter what our age, we desire to connect. There is real power in the experience of going through life. We are all always growing. No one escapes from the human experience so long as we are alive, so why not connect with people we think we could never connect with? What happens next may surprise all of us!