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Family & Relationships

Heads Up! Friendships Change

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The first time your friendships took a hit was probably when you became a parent. Literally overnight, there was no time (or energy) for lazy Sunday brunches, pick-up basketball games or last-minute movie invitations.

Maybe your social network even came to be defined by any friends who happened to live within a five-mile perimeter and/or a 15-minute drive. The demands of raising a family (and probably getting a career off the ground) simply had to take priority.

Now that you're getting older—and perhaps leaving the work world behind, or maybe just not so focused on your job as you once were—you may find yourself having to re-create your social circle. It could be, too, that you've let go of some once-close pals over the years, for any number of reasons. The upshot can mean that you've reached middle age feeling a little like, hey, where did all my friends go? If this scenario sounds familiar, you're definitely not alone. A 2013 survey by Lifeboat, a movement to help people rediscover the power of great friendships, found that many Americans are in what the group termed a "mid-life friendship slump." Just 18% of people 35 to 49 surveyed said they were extremely satisfied with their friendships, compared to 35% of seniors and nearly 30% of Millennial.

But make no mistake: Healthy friendships are an important part of life, one that bolsters both physical and mental health. According to the same Lifeboat survey, "the more close friends you have, the greater sense of personal happiness, meaning and purpose in life, and the more empathy you feel towards others." Here's how to find and nurture your relationships with buddies past and present so you reap those benefits:

Pick up a new interest. Especially if you've seen your network of support get whittled down over the years, you may need to actively seek out new friends — and that means making the time and effort to move into new settings and situations where you can find like-minded people. It could be signing up for a digital photography class, a series of French lessons, a Web design course or a regular fitness boot camp at which you'll see many of the same faces a few times a week. Basically, you're looking for any scenario where you'll have a chance to get to know someone a bit better and see if they're someone you might want to hang out with.

Remind yourself what makes a good friend — then be that. Maybe you've gotten a little rusty when it comes to finding new friends, or you've let your good-friend skills lapse, especially with long-time compadres. (Are you taking them for granted a bit? It happens.) So ask yourself: Am I a good listener—or am I a little too quick to offer advice, even when it's not asked for? (We've all done it.) Are you showing through eye contact, body language, and your responses that you're paying attention to what the other person is saying? According to the Lifeboat survey, the traits people say they value most in a close friend are loyalty; that the person is decent and good; that he/she will be there for you in a crisis; that he/she likes you; and that he/she is fun to be with.

Pay attention to who boosts you (and who bums you out). Everyone knows someone who's just, well, draining. They may be unrelentingly negative, boring, or simply a "frenemy" who doesn't really have your best interests at heart. It can be hard to recognize this, especially in someone who's been part of your life for ages. But as you're taking stock of friendships, it can be worth shedding these vampire types for people who give you energy, make you laugh, and who simply make you feel good about yourself. Honesty, caring, trustworthiness, understanding, listening skills, and a sense of humor—these were the most important traits survey participants wanted in a new friend, found the Lifeboat survey.

Lastly, it's important to recognize that friendships, like any kind of relationship, will shift over time. Some will fade away (or end more dramatically), but other, new alliances can form — perhaps with people you enjoy more, even if you don't have a long history together or even a lot in common. What matters most, after all, isn't collecting a bunch of names on your Facebook page, but rather the few, true friends you enjoy the most and who've got your back.

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