You'd Be Happier Living Closer to Friends. Why Don't You?
A few theories why
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A recent article in The Atlantic made the case for doing something that a lot of us — particularly those in our 30s and 40s, especially those whose careers (or whose partners’ careers) have led us to live in places where we wouldn’t necessarily choose to live — spending a lot of time thinking and dreaming about. Specifically: moving closer to your close friends.
“Sometime during the pandemic lockdowns, I began to nurture a fantasy,” Adrienne Matei writes. “What if I were neighbors with all of my friends? Every day, as I took long walks through North Vancouver that were still nowhere near long enough to land me at a single pal’s doorstep, I would reflect on the potential joys of a physically closer network. Wouldn’t it be great to have someone who could join me on a stroll at a moment’s notice? Or to be able to drop by to cook dinner for a friend and her baby? How good would it be to have more spontaneous hangs instead of ones that had to be planned, scheduled, and most likely rescheduled weeks in advance?”
The solution, Matei argues, is pretty simple: we should try harder to live close to the people we love, but not just our family. She points to the ways in which queer people have been making chosen families for years, and highlights the example of a friend in Montreal who’d made a concerted effort to keep bringing friends into the same small neighborhood. (Any time someone moves out, the group then recruits other friends to move in).
It’s not dissimilar to a big house with lots of roommates, or even a college dorm — it’s just that the living areas are separated by a few blocks instead of a few feet. Matei cites a study that found that friends living within a mile of each other are 25 percent more likely to feel happy (I know I know, what is happiness, etc etc, but you get the point). You have all the convenience that comes with knowing your neighbors (borrowing spices, tools, limes, a pair of pull-ups, a roll of toilet paper, the list goes on); you get more adults to help with the kids and more kids to also help with the kids (kids distract kids). You can still live alone but have the benefits of not living alone. You get people who won’t blink an eye at checking in on your cat or taking you to a doctor’s appointment. No wonder people are happier! Turns out living close to friends is practical and lovely!
So for people in their 20s, 30s, 40s, in the thick of figuring out adulthood and family support systems and the set-ups that nurture them: why don’t we do this? The fetishization of the nuclear family, of course, as well as the building and zoning codes that facilitate that fetishization. If a society’s understanding of “success” is partnership, children, and home ownership, it makes sense that so many people’s quest for the last thing on the list sometimes brings them far from their friends, because that’s the only place they feel they can find the “right” house (size, price, school district, vibe, neighborhood that makes them feel “safe,” all those overt and covert markers of “right.”)
That’s a big part of it — particularly for people whose jobs allow them to stay in a given area after high school or college. (Or people who found jobs that allowed them to stay in a given area after high school or college). But I think a lot about the people whose career paths forced them to follow-the-jobs, often to places far away from anyone they’ve known. If you’re in academia, tech, specialized medicine, journalism, library science, the military, or another highly specialized field that forced you to live in a certain area of the country, you get it. You might have moved states several times (even a half-dozen!) before you reached your mid-30s.
These are the people who often want and need to move near friends most, because they’re not just far from the people they love, they’re hours or days from anything resembling a support system. Sure, you can make new friends — and many have and do, particularly if they have kids in school. But there’s something different about the intimacy and reliability of 1) your family (depending, of course, on your relationship with your family) and 2) the friends you’ve known so long they feel like family.
Last year, I talked to sociologist Jess Calarco about summer care scramble — and, more specifically, about the quandary people in these positions face when it comes to childcare (and summer child care in particular): because they don’t have close friends or family to help with interstitial care, or offer to take Friday afternoons, or have the sort of low-pressure kid swaps that seem to happen more or less organically when kids live very, very close to one another and the parents are friendly….they find themselves flailing or drowning.
In her answers, Calarco pointed out something that’s really stuck with me: the average adult in the US lives only 18 miles from their mother — and 80% of US adults live less than a two-hour drive away! If you have a college or graduate degree, however, you’re more likely to live farther away. “That’s even more true for dual-earner, elite professional couples—a lawyer and an academic, for example,” Calarco told me, “than for it is for more middle-class or working-class couples—like a high school teacher and a social worker, or a plumber and a nurse.”
So the vast majority of Americans actually live pretty close to their parents — either because the kids haven’t moved far from home, or because parents have moved closer to their kids, either because they need more support, or because they want to be close to their grandkids and provide support. Not being within driving distance of your parents is largely a problem of the highly-educated dual-professional family.
But you know what? Parents aren’t the same as friends. And while many people couldn’t conceive of how they’d handle or pay for childcare without them, there are many reasons why parents might not be able (or willing, or the right choice) to provide that sort of support. Parental proximity is not a guaranteed safety net (in many cases, it might mean that you’re providing sandwich-generation care for your kids and your parents).
It’s also not the same as the friends-proximity situation described by Matei in her piece, the one I hear invoked by so many as their adult ideal: people they love and trust so physically close that things like “play dates” and “drinks dates” and “girls weekends” are replaced by or de-formalized with “hanging out with each other spontaneously and joyously,” all of it with very little pretense.
So again: for people who crave this, who may be close to their parents or even a whole lot of their family members but really wish they could be close to their friends — and not just the parent friends they’ve made, or the casual work friends they’ve made, but their best friends — why isn’t it happening? What is keeping us from the quasi-communes of our dreams?
A few theories:
1.) We’re Not Socialized to Prioritize Friendship
Not over career, not over partners, especially not over parenting — even though proximity to intimate friendship can make all of those things a whole lot easier. As Rhaina Cohen points out, “many of those who place a friendship at the center of their life find that their most significant relationship is incomprehensible to others.” (If you haven’t read Cohen’s piece on putting friendship at the center of life, it’s a must). This is the big one, I think — nothing in our lives, not our parents or mentors or even our other friends validate prioritizing friendship to the extent of an actual move, let alone something as seemingly radical as buying a house together.
Some people might look at the question of “Why don’t you move closer to your friends?” and answer: “I don’t know if I have any who actually merit moving closer.” Friendships fade or never get off the ground, not because someone’s an unlikeable person, but because no one (not you, not your friends, and especially not dudes) is encouraged past, oh, age 21 to put in the work to sustain this sort of friendship.
2.) The Friends, They’re Scattered
Let’s say you had a friend group from college or an internship or an early job. You were thick-as-thieves in all the best and worst ways: loving, weird, tons of inside jokes, incestuous (aka everyone dated each other and it was messy). Depending on the group and how you all arrived there, there might be a single city where most people are still generally located. For my friend group, it’s Seattle — in part because that’s where a lot of them grew up, but also because it was the closest major city to where we went to college. Throughout our 20s, people (myself included) moved away, got jobs and went to school elsewhere, and then, over the course of our late 20s and 30s, a whole bunch of people moved back. Seattle was the home base.
But that’s not always the case. Maybe the friend group is all over the country or the world. You could move closer to one of those friends, and that would be cool, but maybe not enough — or, as a few people have told me, maybe you’re scared you’d move there and it’d be a lot of pressure on your friend, or maybe they don’t envision the same sort of intimacy as you do, or maybe you want to be the informal Aunt or Uncle or Relative to their kid and that’s not in their plans. No home base, no strategy, so instead you just send around Zillow links of weird sprawling properties where you could all move together (but don’t).
3.) It’s the Housing Market, Stupid
As of 2017, US millennials had the lowest level of geographical mobility in fifty years. The stat is particularly striking given that millennials are getting married less, buying houses less, and having fewer children — all things that generally keep you tethered to a place. But millennials also have less economic stability, less of the sort of savings/wealth that would allow them to enter the housing market — and if they can, they often have very little control over where that house will be. (You can be super picky when house-hunting or have a limited purchasing budget but you can’t be both).
The same principle holds for rentals, particularly in places with extremely high costs (hello, broker fees) tacked onto the price of moving. (And if you say oh what about the pandemic, didn’t more people move then? Nope, absolutely not). High-density urban neighborhoods would theoretically be the best place to build a super-close-proximity-intimate-friend-situation, but it’s so expensive and cumbersome to move (and if you have rent control, forget it, you’re never leaving) that it just doesn’t happen. You can’t move closer to your friends because having control over where you can move is, itself, a fantasy.
4.) Job Lock
In industries where jobs are scarce, mobility is a privilege. In industries where jobs are hyper-scarce, it’s outright impossible. You take what you get and the expected posture is gratitude. The pandemic has made remote options more viable but only slightly so. You might be the person whose job provides health insurance for your family, or your partner might be that person and their job is locked. Some people feel that they can’t move for any reason, let alone to be closer to friends.
Of course, there are certain jobs people pursue because they can, at least theoretically, find work anywhere. Nurses, teachers, construction, etc. But that understanding elides very real differences on a state to state level when it comes to pay and union protections (usually the former is higher because of the latter). There are a whole lot of reasons to take a pay cut for better quality of life — but sometimes that pay cut would be extreme bordering on untenable.
5.) Many States Aren’t Safe — For So Many Reasons
I’m not talking about crime, don’t be ridiculous. I am talking about states that have criminalized or significantly curtailed gender-affirming care and body autonomy. Places where you can’t get an abortion or life-saving care if you need a DNC; places where you couldn’t feel confident that your kids could be who they are; places that are super oppressively white. When we talk about limited mobility, we have to talk about states that are actively and legislatively hostile to marginalized people.
6.) You Actually Do Kind of Have This, But It’s Still Slightly Out of Reach
Two of my best friends live about a half mile from each other. We all went to college together; their husbands went to college with us; everyone’s friends (and their kids are very close in age, but they go to different schools). They love each other so much! They also see each other once a month.
Maybe you’re in a similar situation: you do live close to your friends, and you still can’t live up to that ideal. Part of it is that you’re not on the same street, which is how so many people actually make it work, but part of it, too, is the way that living in the city makes it easy to set out on entirely different orbits: in schools, in after school activities, in kids’ sports teams that determine the trajectory of your weekend. Over-scheduled calendar culture dooms us. When you live in the city or a suburb, it’s not enough to live kinda close, you’ve got to live SUPER CLOSE.
7.) We Seek Solutions Within the Family Unit — Not Outside of It
This is an echo of our general reticence to prioritize friendship, but it’s worth repeating. Families can be great. Families can provide so much support. And families are not enough. Not your immediate family and not your extended family. Your partner is not enough. Your kids are not enough. Your parents and your cousins, even cousins you love like friends, I dunno, I still think it’s true: not enough. And yet, when things are hard, when getting through the day is a task that never gets less overwhelming, when the adult labor in your household is simply insufficient for the needs of that household, whether that household is one person or seven…..the first strategy is almost always to recruit familial assistance.
And I get it: we have normalized family accountability. It is generally recognized as shitty to not help a family member in need. But part of the reason we don’t rely on our intimate friends is because we haven’t stress-tested those relationships past their initial parameters. In other words, it’s okay to rely on friends for a certain period of “appropriate” time, but after that, you “graduate” into dependence on partners — with the backstop of family. But again, not enough! We need friends as emergency contacts, as people we feel comfortable asking to do small favors for us (and for whom we do small favors in return), friends as primary knots in our interwoven safety nets.
People estranged from their families — because of abuse, bigotry, leaving a religion, life choices, whatever — get this. This is not new knowledge. But if you’ve abided by those norms, been taught those norms, and internalized those norms for your entire life — the realization that you need abundant support apart from your immediate family can be difficult to process.
What I’ve listed above are the primary roadblocks to moving closer to our friends — I’m sure there are more, and complications and elaborations to what I’ve described above, and I’d love to see us talk more about them in the comments.
But I also hope we can acknowledge that doing things that make our lives radically better often require courage, and difficult conversations, and a lot of planning and intention — and while I would never, ever suggest that someone move to a place where they thought they or their kids would be unsafe, I also think it’s worth thinking about the stories we tell ourselves, the excuses we embroider, when it comes to not doing the things we’d really like to do.
And so, a prompt for discussion: What would have to change, for you to move closer to the people who nourish you, who support you, who make your life better and easier in so many ways? Why does it still feel weird to buy a house together, or even just look for separate apartments close by? If you feel utterly immovable, why? What’s holding you back, and what conversations do you have with yourself about when and whether that will change?
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