The Hard Facts: Getting Better With Age

It’s Research Wednesday! Where I share the latest, or most fascinating, in the science of friendship.


“Older adults report better marriages, more supportive friendships and less conflict with children and siblings. … While physical and cognitive abilities decline with age, relationships improve. So what is so special about old age? We found that the perception of limited time, willingness to forgive, aging stereotypes and attitudes of respect all play a part. But it’s more than just about how younger people treat an older person, it’s about how people interact.” (Current Directions in Psychological Science,  “It Takes Two to Tango: Why Older People Have the Best Relationships” June 2010)

I’ve often wondered about intergenerational friendships—whether or not I could be real friends with a woman who had about two decades on me, or if I would be too ancient for a post-grad. And while I still don’t have answers to those questions (not for lack of trying—I emailed my older cooking friend from a while back but still haven’t gotten a response), this study provides interesting insight into the effect age does have on friendship.

Basically, friendships improve with age because we’re less confrontational and get less worked up (“people get better at regulating their emotions when something upsets them”) as we get up there, but when there is a negative interaction, the younger folk are more forgiving of the older generation’s behavior.

This makes me wonder about the friends I’m making now and whether we’ll still be buddies in old age. Once we have kids, put them through college, and send them off into the world, will we be sitting on our front porches (which will obvi be next door to each other), perhaps with declining physical and cognitive abilities, laughing at the young’uns who bicker and overreact about nothing? And, on the off chance we behave poorly ourselves, will we be forgiven because, come on, we’re old? ‘Cause that would be awesome.

The other reason friendships improve as we age, so says the study’s author, is that “people are going to be more pleasant if they perceive that there is little time left in a relationship.” It sounds kind of morbid, but I don’t think it’s necessarily an “oh, you’re going to drop dead tomorrow so I better be nice to you now” thing. When I was a teenager I, like so many 16-year-olds before me, was sometimes (oftentimes?) mean to my mom. I lived in such a me-centric world that there was no consideration of any limit to how long she’d be around.  Today, it’s not that my mother’s going anywhere anytime soon (she’s just a kid!), but I’m more aware of the fact that we don’t have forever. I’m nicer, thus our relationship is vastly different. Better.

The limited time thing doesn’t just apply to the old folks.  It goes for everybody, “even young people who may not see each other because of life changes such as moving out of state or serving in the military.” So, if you’re soon going to be like me—in a new city on a search for a BFF—at least take solace in the knowledge that things between you and your buddies will be peachy keen until you leave. Just love me some silver lining.

What do you think of this study? Make sense? Is this why The Golden Girls were such great friends, and got away with so much? Do you anticipate your friendships will improve with age?


Filed under The Hard Facts

9 responses to “The Hard Facts: Getting Better With Age

  1. Karen A.

    No Doubt on this one, I think all relationships improve with age. As you come to know yourself better, you understand what is important and what is not. I think as you grow older one is willing to divest themselves of “toxic” relationships. So the friendships that you nurture and focus on are the ones that are truly mutually beneficial.

  2. I laughed at the line about being nice to someone because they don’t have much time left. LOL.

    I think as we age, we know ourselves better, so know what kind of people we want to be around or that we click with. So the relationships formed are with people we are more compatible with. So it doesn’t surprise me that they are longer lasting and have more longevity.

  3. This is so exciting to me! I can’t wait to be a kooky old woman and have other kooky old woman friends. I feel like there should be odd hats involved.

    • gail

      being a kooky old woman with kooky old woman friends i am here to tell you that it’s the best! i’m considering the hat thing.

  4. I really hope they do! I agree that as we get older, we shake off a lot of our drama (which probably peaked in adolescence!) and (hopefully) become more laid back. I also think as we develop our own lives and careers and families, we become more accepting of everyone’s ‘busy-ness’. I’d love to think friendship gets better over time, like wine perhaps!

    Thanks so much Rachel for your kind and supportive comments on my blog redesign. It’s true, how interesting the journey of these blogs are over time!


  5. Jezebel wrote an article today about making friends post-college that I thought you might like. They should have linked to you!

  6. I’ve always had friends who are 10-20 years older than me (and also quite a few friends who are about 10 years younger than me – I don’t discriminate based on age). Anyway, I think I always gravitated towards the older crowd because they seem to have their shit together. Little things don’t get them cranked up the way the same things do for younger people. They live a more balanced life. They’ve seen enough friendships fall to the wayside to really appreciate the good friendships that don’t … they show that appreciation and act on it, too. Seems they take less for granted. And those are things I’ve always valued in life and relationships. So, I do think the study has a point, though I might have come to the conclusion from a slightly different angle.

  7. katieleigh

    I agree with Lenore that our drama lessens as we get older – at least for some of us. And I think we gain a greater appreciation for the friends who’ve been with us through thick and thin, so to speak.

    Rachel, you always dig up the most fascinating research. And Julie, I will totally be a kooky old lady and wear odd hats with you.

  8. Margaret

    I adopted a pseudonym for this post so I could be completely honest. Do friendships get better as we age? Well… I’m now 54 and just this year dumped my best friend of 32 years and my lover of 10. The reason? I am no longer willing to put up with relationships that don’t give back as much as I put into them. Not every middle-aged and older person ages gracefully, so not every relationship improves over time. The key, I think, is to be honest with yourself… I know that I, with a little of my hard-earned wisdom, will be seeking out those people who treat me as well as I treat them. For me, this wisdom came with aging…for others, maybe they were born a little wiser than I and already knew this!

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