Why Does Friendship Get So Much Harder When We’re Older?

Illustrated by Jasmin Valcourt.
By Kelsey Hopson-Shiller

My friend Rebecca called me last week. Among other things, she was calling to talk about friendship, and how, recently, she’s been feeling like it gets harder as we get older. Not only does it get harder to make friends, but relationships with existing friends get more challenging as well. I couldn’t agree with her more. As we get older, get partnered, and some of us become parents, one of our most important support systems — our friends — become complicated, as does building any sort of community.

We get so many messages about the kinds of communities we should be trying to build. There is pressure to “find our tribe,” and usually, that tribe is defined as people who are just like us. It’s like the world is one big Meetup group where we’re all expected to fit within certain parameters — thirtyish, likes dogs and cake, does not like running, no kids (yet). But, when I consider the people who bring the most to my life, while some commonalities may have brought us together, it’s the ways we’re different that keep things interesting (and enriching). 

Friendship By Conveniently Placed Crosswalk
Rebecca and I met in college and eventually lived across the street from one another in two houses connected by a conveniently-placed crosswalk. Our friendship flourished when it started ten years ago, in part because we had ample amounts of two things that are in shorter supply once we get older, begin working, and start families: free time and intimacy. We saw each other almost every day. Sometimes, we’d make plans for a structured activity, but more often she’d be at my house to share whatever someone was making for dinner, or I’d be watching Grey’s Anatomy at hers. Our lives, our experiences, our priorities — and our schedules — were in complementary sync. After we graduated, we had to renegotiate the terms of our relationship, going from our frivolity-soaked student lives to somewhat responsible adulthood.

As I get chronologically further from my early twenties, these non-familial, non-romantic relationships get harder to manage. There is the question of distance — most of my best friends are spread around. Rebecca and I discussed this last week as well, from Vancouver and Denver, respectively. Unlike moving to be closer to family or for a romantic relationship, or for a job opportunity for yourself or a spouse, moving to be closer to good friends is something that is societally encouraged, or even really considered. Now that I’m a responsible married adult (ha), I don’t see any of my friends every day. And, that’s okay; they’ve got their commitments, and I’ve got mine. However, the lack of that casual, daily contact does change the relationships I have with them, and I miss the closeness that that time together used to engender.

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Illustrated by Jasmin Valcourt.
Friendship By Witty Status Update
And, then there is Facebook. Which seems like it should help the situation, but — and this has been widely documented —  seems to do the opposite. There is pressure to polish the image we share on social media, which is in stark contrast to the rewards of IRL friendship: people who love us, warts and all. It also creates the illusion that we are connected to each other all the time, which can lead to some complacency in actually making time for real connection.

I met this stunningly awesome girl when I was in grad school — she’s smart, profane, and funny as all get out. I’d love to be friends. And yet, I’ve never hung out with her socially. I get my fix of her with Facebook updates that showcase her brilliance, and then I’m tongue-tied when I meet up with her randomly and professionally. Because what can I say? “I know so much about your life…and I don’t actually know you at all?" Which is a shame, and I can’t help feeling like I would have made more of an effort if the only access I had to her was face to face.

Our Over-Scheduled Lives 
I also have less free time overall, and that which I do have is divided differently. Occasionally, I want a little time to myself. My time for other people is then primarily dedicated to my family, since my wife likes me and wants to spend time with me. Because it’s rare, friend time is often dedicated to activities and not to casually sharing each others’ lives like when we were younger. And, since time is precious, sometimes it’s a challenge to make the effort to schedule a friend date with a new colleague or another couple we met at a dinner party — even though they’re fabulous — because it’s too early to tell if these new people are going to be worth the investment. 

One fantastic repercussion of age is that I’ve had some of my close friends for twenty years now, and it’s hard to compare delightful new friends to the comfort of someone who’s loved me for my whole life. The culture we currently inhabit, at least here in the urban sections of the United States, has dropped a lot of the emphasis we once had on community for community’s sake. Maybe it’s because we do have that sense of ever-present connection via our screens that makes it feel like part of “unplugging” is a full disconnection from everyone outside of our homes when we do get some downtime.

And, compared to a few of my friends, I have one less time consuming responsibility: I am not a parent yet. An increasing proportion of my friends are. While all of them experience it differently, they all say that parenthood has impacted their friendships profoundly — both with fellow parenting and child-free friends. My friend Maggie talked about the availability constraints. She said, “We, frankly, don’t see our friends nearly enough anymore. We see our friends who have kids more often than those who don’t. Friends without kids are liable to suggest doing things that — innocently and unbeknownst to them — make me cringe at the thought of doing with my kids… I pretty much always end up wishing I’d just invited people over to my house.”

Which then, makes her feel guilty: “There’s definitely a guilt around asking people who want, say, a fun night on the town to sit around at my house and cater to the needs of me and my kids.” Although logistics seem to be easier when parents make plans with other parent friends, there are still pitfalls. My pal, Jeanette, put it this way: “You plan mom’s night out to get away from said kids, but end up talking about them the whole time. Or you only see them at functions that exist because of the kids.”

Illustrated by Jasmin Valcourt.
Let's Start By Talking (And Talking, And Talking) 
Once I started thinking about friendship, I couldn’t stop talking to other people about it. I was surprised how many of them mentioned feeling lonely in their friendships these days, for some or all of the reasons above. For me, it’s more a sense of melancholy. The change has not been a sudden one; it’s been subtle and gradual, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t leave a void. I wouldn’t trade my life now, and being able to make my friends my first priority again would involve some rewinding. But, there is depth and reward in the current incarnation of those relationships as well. For one, the scarcity makes time spent with friends even more valuable — a treat I write delightedly into my calendar in hot pink pen so that it stands out among the staffings and the errands. I also enjoy the way the friendships I have hung onto have deepened and changed over time, whether it’s planning trips to visit far-flung loved ones or upping my snail mail game.

I love meeting my friends’ children and watching friends become parents. I am grateful to them for sharing that with me, for letting me bounce their babies in airports, and teach their little ones Go Fish. It’s a different kind of fun, for a different kind of friendship, and just like Rebecca’s and my standing date to watch Meredith and McDreamy, it won’t last forever.

So, we adapt. And, since nothing stays the same, it’s entirely possible that in another ten years, the babies will be older, the marriages will mature, and our friendships will be better nurtured by the increased time and energy we have to give them. Until then, we live in the age of FaceTime, after- work happy hours, and playing peek-a-boo in backyards while talking over the head of a little shrouded breastfeeder. And, Rebecca and I will continue to shoe shop over picture texts and make imaginary lunch dates until we’re lucky enough to meet in person again.
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