New life stages sometimes require new friends. Alex Holder explores how to make mates as a grown-up...
You know those friends who seemingly only exist as a couple? The kind who call a casual Tuesday night pizza a 'double date'. Well, the problem with 'couple-friends' is that they don't really know what to do with you when you become single.
When, at age 28, my relationship of five years ended, the only thing I wanted to do was party and meet new boys. I'd drag said couple-friends out and, while I chatted to someone I'd met, they would linger in the doorway bored, like they were standing outside a changing room waiting for me to try an outfit on. Our friendship just didn't quite work outside of gastro pubs or marshalled events.
Luckily, I made a new friend during one of those outings. Greg, who was also recently single, was happy to trawl parties in the early hours and call a bowl of chips eaten outside a bar 'dinner'.
"Major life events such as ending a relationship or giving birth can limit our ability to focus on much beyond that," says Suzanne Degges-White, a psychologist specialising in friendship.
"Old friends still have value to us, but when we're deep in the throes of a significant life event, we really want to hear from those who've walked the same path or are there on the path with us at that moment."
It's not easy to make new friends as an adult, though. Once you leave the security of school and university, only the workplace throws you together with like-minded people – and you don't always want to take office friendships home. That is perhaps part of the reason why friendship-finding apps are on the rise. Bumble, originally a dating app, introduced the option to seek out a friend two years ago.
"Women were asking for a friendship-finding app," Louise Troen, vice president at Bumble told me. "In today's world, it's almost easier to find a date than it is to find a friend."
It's true that premeditated friend-making as an adult is every bit as excruciating as dating; something I discovered when I got pregnant three years ago. I was the first person in my friendship group to become pregnant, so I knew I needed some mum friends. I wanted to be able to casually drop lactation into conversation with people who weren't hungover. NCT seemed like the obvious first step. But turns out passing laminated photos of placentas around a church hall wasn't a short cut to lasting friendship – I never got past the stage of swapping a few WhatsApp chats with the people I met on the course. They might have been mums-to-be who lived two minutes down the road, but the spark wasn't there.
And yet I knew I needed to persevere if I was going to survive maternity leave with my sanity in check. (As someone who has spent all day every day with a non-verbal baby, I can understand why the Jo Cox Loneliness commission recently found that 52 per cent of parents have had a problem with loneliness.)
So I did something I felt pretty awkward about – I emailed a friend of a friend who I'd heard was also pregnant. Moss was someone I'd only ever bumped into post-midnight. I'd compliment her on her shoes and then not see her for months. And yet I found myself rewording a 'witty' email suggesting we meet. Moss didn't reply for a week. I spent that week wondering if my email was too much.
Eventually, for the first time in daylight, we met and chatted. Unlike colleagues where a friendship can emerge from hours spent in a meeting room together, we had to sit through those early awkward moments where you're not quite sure what to say next. But through months of sober dates we got there. Moss invited me over for dinner. We had lunch in Nando's. By the time our babies arrived, we were real, proper friends.
Post-giving birth, it's a depressing truth that wine helped ease the early awkward small talk that greets all new friendships. I found Alannah and Katie at the back of a postnatal exercise class. Alannah invited us back to hers for coffee but instead only poured white wine. We sat around her kitchen table, with a breastfeeding baby in one hand and a glass of Picpoul in the other, with zero judgements.
("You just need to find your tribe," says Michelle Kennedy, who founded Peanut, an app that works like Tinder but for mums.)
We swapped numbers and I realised again that making friends really is like dating – should I ask them out or do I wait until they suggest meeting? Should I put an 'x' at the end of a text?
And yet I soon came to realise that all the angst I experienced over making new friends was worth it. I have a kid and I'm engaged, so the plan is to never experience that first flush of new love again, but with new friends I can. These are women I dress up for; I turn up to lunch smelling nice and wearing a new pressed shirt. I love seeing myself through their fresh eyes – and that I get to hear their best stories, the ones they've honed over years, for the first time. I'm equally grateful they didn't know me when I couldn't pronounce 'specifically' or during the years I wore the wrong foundation. They've never had to hold my hair back while I threw up in a train toilet. Instead, they met a matured, educated woman with a baby, a job and a great Isabel Marant coat.
Making new adult friends keeps me open-minded. I used to write off all posh people or anyone who worked in finance – too immature to see past superficial elements. Film and literature often fetishises tight- knit, ever-lasting friendship groups, yet I've come to realise that if I had remained in a group with only my schoolfriends, I'd have lived in a very closed bubble.
Suzanne puts it like this: "We are dynamic organisms – we are always changing and so are our needs and desires."
That certainly rings true for me. I've accepted that friendships ebb and flow rather than fighting for them all to remain constant. I've realised it's okay for friends to drift out of my life for a time – I know we will gravitate towards each other when it feels right. And I also know that new friends don't replace old friends – they just provide something different. Something that makes the awkwardness of sending a 'Want to be my friend text?' worth it.