When we’re young, friendships are romantic, intense, intimate. We see our friends nearly every day. Usually, they’re are at most a few blocks (if not a few doors) away. Because our most pressing responsibility is turning in our term paper by 5 o’ clock on Friday, we have plenty of time to see each other. Weekends overflow with mimosa brunches, spontaneous day trips, Saturdays in wine country. In our twenties, our pals are there to help us weather life’s catastrophes and crises.
In our thirties, things change: people get married, have children, move several cities (or states) away. Rather than see each other every day, we see each other only occasionally. Burdened with the responsibility of working a full-time job and raising a family, we might only see our closest confidante once every few months instead of nearly every day.
In her poignant interview “The Beauty of Vulnerability in Friendship,” one of many profound pieces from Natasha Lunn’s Conversations on Love, millennial memoirist Dolly Alderton explores this at times heart-wrenchingly painful change. In an insightful moment, Alderton explains why it becomes harder to be honest in friendship:
“…you spend your twenties figuring out who you are, and so by the time you’ve carved out an identity you share less with each other, because the stakes are higher. I think that’s true, you do spend your twenties trying to work out what your job is, what your politics are, what part of the world you want to live in; and you do that with a band of brothers and sisters. You create an identity patchwork in a group, as well as on your own. Then when you get to your thirties, you have to declare who you are in a permanent way. It’s either, ‘I’m someone who is going to live in the suburbs’ or ‘I want to be a stay-at-home mother’ or ‘I want to retrain and start a new career.’ Your identity hardens. You have to defend this edifice of who you are, because it’s too late in the game to change it. One you declare that, it can feel more dangerous to say, ‘I don’t know if I should have married that man’ or ‘I don’t know if my job makes me happy.’ To admit that in an authentic, vulnerable connection with someone close to you is scary in a way that it’s not in your twenties, when everything is in flux. For all those reasons, letting people in and allowing yourself to be unsure or vulnerable becomes harder. It’s more of a potential threat.”
In our thirties, lives diverge in several different directions: many buy houses, settle down, have kids. If our friends choose one path and we choose another, it’s hard not to feel abandoned. Why isn’t our married pal making more of an effort to stay connected? Sure, she just had a baby, but she can’t spare 5 fucking minutes to return our call? Is she really so preoccupied with the all-so-important, all-so-consuming task of changing diapers that she can’t reach out?
It’s heartbreaking when we see our close friends, who were once starring characters in the story of our lives, fade into the background. Rather than play one of the lead roles, they become minor characters who show up every few episodes.
In college, our best friend knew everything about us: they understood the dance move that signaled we were blacked out drunk; they could decipher the hidden meaning behind our text messages (ellipses meant we were upset about something/”I’m fine” translated to mean “I’m verging on a mental breakdown…come over with Cruel Intentions and some Haagen Dazs”).
10 years later and our best friends no longer know the most basic facts about us. When we do reconnect, we have to tell them what’s going on in our lives— they’re not there to witness them themselves.
At first, this shift in our relationships is devastating. As she transitioned to her thirties, Alderton found herself missing her friends, who were once her surrogate family. She yearned for the simpler days when she could spontaneously call one of the gals and meet up for martinis. Now her former partners in crime were too busy juggling mortgage payments and engagement rings. If she wanted to hang out, they had to make plans months in advance. She missed their former intimacy. Though her twenties was a turbulent period in her life, her friendships were marked by an effortlessness and ease. Then her life was manicures and margaritas; now it was unanswered text messages and the blaring silence of the phone not ringing.
Though Alderton initially struggled to cope with the shifting topography of her friendships, she eventually learned to navigate the terrain. Part of growing older, she realized, is coming to terms with how friendships change. Yes, her and her friends might not see each other as often and yes, many of her friends with spouses and children might occasionally forget to return a text message, but that didn’t mean their bond was any less significant:
“…because your twenties are a fraught time, you spend a decade adjusting to the fact that you’re parentless. I spent those years creating a surrogate family within my friendships, and that meant that I could go out and have a wild, risky and exciting time, both creatively and romantically, because I always had that unit to return to.
Now I’m more relaxed about how often friends and I speak or meet up, or how much time they spend with their partner as opposed to me. I’ve sunk into the safe, precious solidness of their love for me, and I know that, although it will take work, it is also a love that will be there forever. True friendship is about taking it easy on each other, knowing that life has tides that take you to various places, and that you’ll find a way back to each other at different points.”
Alain de Botton once said our lives are defined by two great love stories: the quest for romantic love and the quest for love from the world. I’d argue our lives our defined by yet another story: the quest for friendship, what the ancient Greeks called philia and regarded as the highest form of love. Though our culture glorifies romantic love, in many ways, the love between platonic pals is more long-lasting and far less fraught. Lovers come and go— lifelong friends take up permanent residence in our hearts. So though our friends might momentarily sail out to sea and stray far from shore, if they’re true friends, they’ll always return to port.