Shame and loneliness – my feelings through the lack of friends

The dilemma I’m 40 and a full-time working mother of two teenagers. I have zero friends and few acquaintances. Spending time with my husband and children used to quell any feelings of loneliness, but that’s no longer enough. My lack of friendships is making me feel inadequate. I want a group of girlfriends I can confide in and connect with – even a single friend would mean so much. I get tearful when I see groups of friends out and about. I had a lot of good friends in school, but I let them fall by the wayside as I felt I didn’t deserve them. I didn’t have good self-esteem and for the most part, still don’t. My husband always comments on my lack of friendships, which makes me feel worse. I’m terrified of being ‘outed’ to my colleagues and relatives as friendless – and I don’t keep any social media accounts because of this fear. Please help me before I’m too old to go out and make friends.

Mariella replies First, congratulations are in order. You’ve negotiated your way through some of the trickiest stages of adult life without back up. To have maintained your marriage all these years without friends to offload your frustrations on; to have raised teenagers without mates to empathise, sympathise and offer counselling, and to be a full-time worker without pals to moan to over a bottle of wine means you should be feeling very proud. My instinct is that “zero friends and few acquaintances” could be more of a skewed perception of your situation than the harsh reality. It may be that the terrain you’re occupying isn’t quite as bleak as you imagine it to be, but let’s come to that a little later.

In a society in which for many of us friends are in pole position and who at times are valued even more highly than spouses is, as you identify, certainly something to mourn. I don’t want to make you feel worse, but when I consider the low points of my life to date, without the kindness, care and devotion of a small cluster of female friends to give me ballast, I wonder if I would have survived without seriously falling apart.

If you’ve managed all of the above, you are certainly a survivor and an extremely capable person with much to offer those who manage to get close to you. It begs the question of why you are keeping others at arm’s length. At some point it has to have been a conscious decision to hunker down and go nuclear in terms of family life. Husband , two kids and a closed shop is what you seem to have constricted yourself to and I can’t help speculating about whether there’s more to this than your short letter describes.

Self-esteem is not something a pithy response from me will alleviate and if it’s at such low levels that it’s impacting on your ability to interact with your contemporaries then professional help should be taken. A visit to your GP is a good first step. Also consider cognitive behavioural therapy, which has been proved to have a beneficial effect on everything from menopause to stress. You’ll find a practitioner with the help of your GP.

I’m surprised that your husband, who of all people must be well aware of how much the issue causes you concern, would think it productive to raise it as a criticism. I don’t want to pour oil on troubled waters, but it could be seen as slightly bullying and I just want to point it out in case his behaviour is exacerbating the situation. I’m sure he’s a great guy and all is well, but if you’re feeling isolated and the person you live with seems to rejoice in pointing it out there’s something wrong.

You are clearly capable of making friends, as your school experience illustrates. Having let them go I wonder if part of the problem has been that you’ve failed to recognise their value until recently. I wasn’t exaggerating when I expressed my awe at your ability to survive without mates; now I’d like to see you do something about it. Making new friends does, for some reason, become harder as we grow older, perhaps because we don’t wander far from the boundaries of our daily lives.

Like dating, making friends involves kissing some frogs and you need to be ready to make mistakes and display vulnerabilities. You have nothing to be ashamed of and everything to gain by stepping out of your domestic life to scout for buddies. Whether you try a book group or a gym class, a drink with a colleague who catches your eye, or make a rendezvous as an act of kindness with someone who looks like they need a shoulder to cry on, proactive behaviour will eventually earn you the results you’re after. The world is full of people hoping and praying for connection with others, not just likes on social media.

It’s as if you’ve neglected your own needs and over-inflated the dependency of your family. You have a job, kids and a husband, all of whom offer you an open door to making friends. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain, so stop letting your erroneous sense of shame prevent you from reaching out for that loveliest of blessings, someone who gets you. I’d say good luck but it’s determination you need and the desire to change your situation, both of which I’d credit you with along with so much more.