My Story: From Grief to Hope
By taking time to grieve, to reset, to rediscover, to renew - I was able to find hope.
This story was written by Christine Byrne for Everyday Health. Published on July 25, 2023.
Theresa Polley has plenty of experience with friendship, for better and for worse.
In early adulthood the task of making friends didn’t seem so burdensome, says now 60-year-old, Dallas-based Polley, who owns a women’s retreat center.
She lived in a family-friendly suburban neighborhood, and it was easy to connect with other moms whose children were the same age as hers. They organized babysitting co-ops (taking turns watching each other’s kids when needed, instead of paying for babysitters) and cooking co-ops (taking turns cooking huge meals once per week, so that no one had to make dinner every day), and had plenty in common.
“When you have young children you really need friends who are in the same spot, because it’s hell on wheels,” Polley says. There was one woman in particular who Polley grew extremely close to and considered her best friend.
Things changed drastically when Polley and her husband got a divorce six years later. “I would call my best friend and get no response. I’d set up a time to do stuff and she wouldn’t show. To this day I don’t know what happened, but in today’s terminology, she ghosted me,” Polley says.
She was devastated, and it’s a tender point for her even now, more than 20 years later.
She rebuilt her life post-divorce without her best friend, going back to work at a job she loved and raising her three daughters as a single mom. But a few years later, her mom died around the same time that she got laid off from her job. “It was such a traumatic year, and the worst part was that although I had friends, I didn’t have a close friend anymore to talk about it with,” Polley says. She ended up turning to her ex-husband for support, because she didn’t feel like she had anyone else to go to. (Later, the two remarried and eventually redivorced.)
Irene S. Levine, PhD, a psychologist based in Westchester County, New York, and co-producer of the Friendship Rules newsletter, says that it’s common for adults to struggle making friends. “As we get older, it’s more challenging to make friends because our lives become more disparate with less time for discretionary friendships,” she says.
And despite the fact that friendships are actually crucial for overall health — the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which has been running for over 80 years, repeatedly finds that social connection is one of the biggest drivers of happiness and longevity — adults who juggle work, caregiving, and other responsibilities often consider it indulgent to spend with friends, Levine says.
Despite her lack of close friendships, Polley got through the difficult year. In part, she credits yoga, which until this point she hadn’t tried. “It really brought me a lot of peace and started me on the path to healing,” Polley says. Around this time, she also worked as a fitness instructor and went to teach classes at a fitness retreat.
She says she remembers thinking: “This is not a retreat. There are no treats!” Polley says she doesn’t remember seeing a dessert the whole time she was there, and they didn’t serve coffee or alcohol. There was no time for attendees to connect with each other because everything was so tightly scheduled that it was almost stressful.
Soon after, in 2004, Polley founded Retreat In the Pines as an alternative to the uptight, super-scheduled retreats that dominated at the time. “I liked the idea of a yoga retreat but I didn’t want to be doing yoga all day,” she says. “I was also coming out of a period of crushing loneliness that had just been so hard, and I realized, I know I can’t be the only one who’s lonely and needs a friend. I wanted to create time and space for guests to connect with each other, talk, and feel comfortable being vulnerable.”
So she started hosting retreats with plenty of free time (plus wine, chocolate, and delicious food).
The idea of bringing like minded women together is a good one. “The best way to find kindred spirits is to follow your own passions,” Levine says. “Joining a club, civic organization, church, or class also allows you to see the same people repeatedly.”
Over the years, Polley was able to create genuine connections with women who came to the retreat, liked what they found there, and kept coming back. At a 2010 retreat, she met a woman named Michelle. Polley and Michelle instantly connected, and Michelle came to the retreat many times over the years. When Polley started expanding the retreat and needed to bring on other yoga instructors, Michelle was one of her first hires. But because Michelle lived in Tulsa and Polley lived in Dallas (a five-hour drive), the two never pursued a deeper friendship outside of the retreats.
That changed at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Polley was home alone, raising her then 2-year-old grandson, and she and Michelle started connecting regularly over Zoom. They would start by talking about the retreat (which hosted yoga sessions and casual gatherings over Zoom in 2020), and then they’d just keep talking for hours. “She was my lifeline during that time,” Polley says.
This kind of friendship escalation isn’t uncommon, Levine says. “It’s easier to turn acquaintances into close friends than to initiate friendships with total strangers.”
The two women also have plenty of things in common, which Levine says is crucial when you’re making friends at an older age and don’t have the benefit of being enmeshed by day-to-day things the way you are in school or at work. They’re both yoga teachers, and they both had the experience earlier in life of marrying young — “way too young,” Polley says of her own experience — and then going through a divorce and living as single moms for a time.
They’re also about the same age, so their pop cultural references and touchpoints are the same. “Sometimes when we talk about our pasts, it feels like we were living similar lives in different places,” Polley says.
One thing they don’t share are their political views, which are completely opposite. That could have ended their friendship before it had the chance to deepen, Levine points out. “Having vastly different values can create an insurmountable wedge between friends,” she says.
But it didn’t for Polley and Michelle. Although Polley had previously considered this a deal breaker in close relationships, this friendship made her reconsider. “She was raised a certain way and has reasons for why she believes what she believes. I realized that sometimes we just have to put things aside, so I made that choice, because life is too short,” Polley says.
Now, Polley can’t imagine her life without Michelle in it. She’s so grateful that the pandemic pushed her to be open to a long-distance friendship with someone who sees the world differently than she does, despite the two of them not pursuing a close friendship right away.
The fact that the two women knew each other for so long before becoming close probably worked in their favor. “Sometimes it’s a mistake to allow oneself to be too vulnerable or intimate at the onset of a new friendship,” Levine says. “Typically, friendships develop over time, and two people need to slowly peel back the layers of the onion and learn to trust one another, slowly revealing their ‘real selves’ to each other.” (Case in point: Polley knew Michelle for 10 years before considering her a very close friend.)
Polley continues to make new friends in adulthood, and she attributes this to the fact that she’s always trying to open herself up to connection.
She tries to stay off of her phone when she’s out in public, because she finds that it keeps her from making what she calls “mini connections” with strangers, like small talk in line at the coffee shop. When she’s not at the retreat, she regularly goes to workout classes at her local YMCA, and she makes a point to talk to the other attendees. “I love those little mini connections. I think they’re part of the reason why I always feel great after I get home from a workout class.”
Levine co-signs Polley’s approach to these everyday interactions. “Making new friends requires taking some risks and putting yourself out there,” she says. “Be friendly, be the first to reach out and say hello.” Get off of your smartphone and take off your headphones. Yes, creating a true friendship is hard and takes time, but the first step is to make yourself open to connection and simply show an interest in other people.