The loneliest decades are not what you think they are
Oh man, I struggled with friendships all through my teen years and 20s! I would have said I had fewer than 3 close friends at any point during those decades. I couldn't say why that was -- some combination of being socially awkward, a late bloomer, whatever -- but high school, undergrad, and graduate school were not halcyon days of friendship for me, heh.
I had a brief "golden age" of friendships in my early thirties, newly out of grad school and into a professional job, in a happy relationship. I organized a number of well-attended weekly and monthly and seasonal gatherings with friends, and it all felt so wonderful... until almost all of those friends started having kids and stopped prioritizing these gatherings, and I entered the long, dark years of infertility. But what emerged from that was a concerted attempt at cultivating friendship with people who could meet me where I was AND who became my role models for how I want to live with the cards I've been dealt. A few of my parent friends became that, but so did many, many new friends -- most of them older, and/or queer, and/or out of step with the "usual" life trajectories and expectations in some way.
This resonates so much: "You’re either a person with time and energy for friends and community or you’re not. You’re a person with a somewhat malleable schedule or you’re not. You’re a person who has so many priorities in front of friends or you’re not." To that, I'd add, you're either a person who can be comfortable with the emotional vulnerability and risk of building and maintaining close friendships, or you're not. There have been times in my life when I didn't have that capacity, and times when I did.
Building and maintaining friendships is such a confluence of luck, prioritizing, skill (which I did NOT have in high school or in my 20s, not really), and what I'd call emotional availability, and it's amazing to me that I have as many friends as I do! I have more, and deeper, friendships now in my 40s than I ever have before.
Infrastructure is an under-appreciated factor here. danah boyd’s research with teens emphasized how loneliness starts to get built in when friendships are conducted online (when not in school) not out of choice but because kids can’t walk or bike to meet with friends and are dependent on their parents for rides. How much friendship-building and -maintaining skill gets lost in those years simply due to a physically isolating world?
Friendship dip over here due to several layered factors over the last 7 years… at 30 I quit drinking, and the social calendar I was used to practically disappeared. Then we moved out of state, then six months later the pandemic hit. I joined Bumble BFF a couple years ago, and while it’s been a mixed bag, it has helped me think about what exactly I am looking for. Also, the place we moved to has a lot more community small talk style socializing, so I find myself feeling less generally lonely if I get out there and participate in it (mostly at grocery stores, restaurants, and retail stores). However, my most rewarding tactic is to sign up for classes and workshops and lessons. In the last few years, it’s been ceramics, rollerskating, crochet, wreath making, knitting, and weaving. I can keep it to the learning environment, or I can make the push to say “wanna get together over coffee and practice?” And finally, my current community-building practice is my new business: a makerspace and social club for creatives, born out of the realization that I wanna make cool shit with cool people. So that’s my business plan 😂
I'm an outlier - I have no biological family in this country, having emigrated on my own when I was 22 (I'm now 51). As a result, my friends are (quite literally) everything to me. My mother has commented more than once with wonder at how many friendships I maintain, but it was never about being a dilettante, and always about creating roots out of thin air. Many of my friends function as other people's families do, and I think because I am conscious that there is no intrinsically familial habit connecting us that I'm intentional about devoting attention to those relationships. It's not a chore - it's a delight! - but I never, ever take it for granted.
I think I'm coming out of a long Friendship Dip; I'm in my late 40s and I live in NYC. SO MANY of my friends moved away when they got married and had kids, it makes me teary when I think about it. Another friend, so close we called each other Sister, has drifted since I got married, even though she and I both still live in the area. I also went from working part-time and working as a professional actor whenever I could, to having a full-time job and still looking for acting work that has become ever-harder to get. I just don't have the freedom to go out whenever like I used to; and I don't get invited to many parties. I love my husband, but he is very introverted and if I want to do things, a lot of times I do them without him.
Finally, I decided to stop beating myself up and just start asking other people to do stuff, to see if we clicked, and it seems to be working!
I moved to a new city about two years ago, and I have had the great fortune to meet many new friends. In my old city, I realized that I suddenly didn’t have many, and the ones I did have just were not very fulfilling for the most part, or with people so introverted in their coupledom that I rarely saw them. When I moved to the new city, I went to events. I read in bars. I posted on Twitter and showed up. I’ve had the great luck to meet people who also prioritize friendships even with kids and work and whatnot. The friends with kids bring their kids to everything: not just the events for kids, but protests and my birthday party and whatever. Americans’ individualism also means that we think our friendships should be about two people and how we CONNECT or whatever. For me, they must also be about the city or broader world around us. I just think many Americans are either not that interested or lack confidence/skill in being interested in their community, broadly speaking, and that means friendships are either incredibly deep/close (a kind of equivalent to a romantic relationship; deep, but “separate” from the rest of the world - my ride or die, etc) or kinda based on shallow/happenstance circumstances. I will always go back to this, but the built environment in America is a huge, huge part of this issue, and until we change our land use (as well as our approach to work, but they are connected- you must work a lot because houses are expensive and cars are expensive too) we are going to struggle with this.
I think one of the most painful (and perhaps naively) unexpected parts of entering my 30s has been losing friends to children. I don’t blame them in the slightest, but it doesn’t make it hurt any less.
I watched my mother and my godmother isolate themselves to the point where not only did they lack close friends, but they became suspicious of everyone around them. Because I didn't want that for myself, I joined a local progressive church in my 40s. This particular church was appealing because of the work it does in the community. Now at 60, I'm feeling so lucky to have a wide range of friendships. Not all of them close, but there are definitely walking friends, volunteering friends, and friends to drink wine with. I'm not a natural extrovert, so it's been good for me in many ways.
I read the whole essay and then did a control+f to see if I missed any mentions of the pandemic or COVID - got zero results. It’s amazing how your worldview and 2020s-era experience is so different from mine. The pandemic has completely changed and derailed my life, including my friendships.
Ah, I am actually super happy with how my friendships are now, mid 40s. I know myself better and that includes who I want around me. I think the quality of my friendships has improved or maybe got more layered and richer because I'm more honest and open. And partly because I've come through the weird spot with younger kids where you have less choice in who you spend your time with.
As you pointed out, crises in your life of that of your friends do crystallise who your people are. But they can also help to shine a light on the people who are thinking of you that you didn't realise cared. We're having a family emergency right now and feeling a wide tangle of love for us is truly uplifting - and of course, if the roles were reversed I'd do the same.
What a great question! I'm 72. I'm also just putting a name to what I now realize I've always been, which is neurodivergent. I grew up in England, attending all boys schools for the next generation of imperial overlords. Think Lord of the Flies. I learned the hard way not to trust male friendships. The experience left me generally preferring the company of women.
Nevertheless, I've had close male friends, never more than one or two at a time with a lot of loss caused by relocations, and long gaps in between.
My first childhood friends emigrated to Canada. I learned to let go. I let go of my high school friends when I went to college; my college friends when I started work; again when I moved to Holland; again when I moved to New Jersey. There, the 24 hour carreer culture and long commute left me no time to make friends outside of work. Looking for friendship in all the wrong places, I torpedoed my first marriage.
After leaving corporate life, I was able to meet people outside of work. I remarried and we had a solid friend group, but they never quite felt like close friends. With retirement, most moved, including us to our island in the PNW.
Here, on this island of misfit toys, we have thriving communities that I enjoy and enjoy writing about. And I and a couple of other neurodivergents have found each other. This could be the start of a beautiful friendship. It's about time.
I have always thought of friendships in concentric circles. The inner ring is the people you see and/or text/email regularly if you don’t live nearby. The people with whom you immediately share news. The second ring is co-workers or former co-workers, people from your life, people you keep in moderate touch with. You may or may not socialize with them, but you are pretty up to speed on what they are doing. The third ring is the big group of people you know to say hello to (my mother’s expression) and whom you might chat with if you ran into them. My inner ring is never greater than about five or six people. My second ring is bigger and the third ring is fairly large. As far as making friends goes, I think you have to decide, “I want to be friends with _____” and cultivate the friendship. Show up for their events, buy their book, contribute to their fundraisers, congratulate them on their achievements, and when it feels comfortable, invite them to lunch or coffee. Conversely, express sympathy for their losses or find out what concerns them about the world.
The Internet has created two types of friendship for me, both frustrating in their own way: friends in my community I hang out with because proximity and we fit ‘enough’ versus friends online who I fit brilliantly with, but rarely get to hang out with in person. And of course I want that venn diagram to be smooshed into one, single circle. As a single person who is bad at planning and introverted, I would also like either a partner/bestie who is extroverted so social stuff happens, or to live in a cohousing with lots of friends and shared kitchen/garden so I can be my single, introverted self but also have community right there when I poke my nose out of my study door. I think a lot of people share that dream.
I’m 28, and the best thing I did for my loneliness was stay tenacious. I was planning to move out of an apartment with a work friend who was traveling most months of the year and move in with two high school friends, but I kept thinking, couldn’t we all stay together?
after much searching and a stroke of luck, I found an affordable house to rent in Los Angeles and had these two groups of people (who had never met!) move in together: we’ve now coined it the “real family” house. Visitors and parties are frequent, there’s always someone to go to yoga or grocery shop with, and we’ve picked winter activities to do as a house when the seasonal depression is high. A roommate’s girlfriend is staying for a while and brought her cat and dog. We put up Christmas lights and have a shared calendar and they sent my mom flowers after surgery and and and…
I’m also amazed at how, once you’ve got a couple friends around, it’s so easy to acquire more. With this foundation, community seems to be coalescing naturally - sooooo effortless compared to how I’d reach out and set plans when i lived alone.
I feel more mature and able to be a better friend at this age, more aware of my actions and better at communicating my intentions. I’m sure that has helped. Whatever it is, I am grateful.
I’m 27, and I feel like I’m emerging from a Friendship Dip. Several reasons- I’m single, my college friends spread out after college all over the country, I didn’t land in one of those lovely group houses post college, and by the time COVID happened, any semblance of the social life I’d built out over my 2 years post college kind of exploded.
It took me a long time to reckon with this, especially when lockdown ended and I was looking for somewhere to move - there wasn’t anywhere that felt like home. A few things have helped: 1) Maintaining Long distance friendships (I visit friends regularly, I have a monthly video call with some friends) and 2) I moved to the city with the greatest amount of friends and have been doing ALL THE THINGS- hosting parties! Reconnecting with acquaintances! Taking classes!
I don’t feel like it’s perfect, and it’s still hard, but after a lot of work, I have a solid network. I am very jealous of my sister in grad school’s social life tho 😝
Last month I shared a meme with my trans/non-binary older sibling saying “nobody talks about Jesus’ real miracle: having twelve friends at age thirty” which I thought was funny and relatable, and they laughed and then said it might be mostly relatable for straight people. Typical friendship dip timelines perhaps very different in queer communities. And it made me think, How can I (a cis, hetero woman with two small kids) learn from my sibling’s cultivation of chosen family? I’m relatively new to culture studies and maybe there is a past essay or interview about this topic. If so, I’d love to read it or hear of resources / reading by queer and trans authors on gender-expansive community building and friendships.