Friday, August 3, 2012

Friendships after 30 -- not so challenging, at least around here

I thought this recent feature from the New York Times about how it’s more difficult to make friends after age 30 or so was interesting, and I enjoyed hearing the author of the article discuss the same topic on NPR’s Talk of the Nation a few days later, but the more I mull it over, the more I realize my experience is the opposite of his. I had wonderful friends in high school and college, but I have a lot more friends now, and the whole friendship thing seems easier somehow.

The New York Times staffer who wrote the story, Alex Williams, highlights two reasons he believes people over 30 make fewer friends. First of all, he says, there’s the time factor: he met a guy he got along with beautifully (a meeting that was apparently the inspiration for the article), but in the four years that followed, they managed to get together only four more times. It’s really hard to find time to cultivate friendships, in his eyes.

Also, he says that there are so many more players involved in developing a friendship at his age. He meets a guy whom he is certain he would have hung out with if they were in college together, but to spend time developing a friendship as over-30’s, the two men would have to determine that their wives and children all get along as well.

Though his explanations are well articulated and plausible, I’m glad that’s not the case for me. I feel like I have a much wider range of friends now than I did in my 20’s, and I think the primary reason is simply that our lives are more settled and everyone isn’t going off in so many different directions at once. When I was younger, it seemed that everyone I knew was developing a career, fitting in as much exotic travel as they could before the commitments of parenthood hit, and even devoting their non-travel leisure time to a rigorous schedule of small-scale adventures like training for a marathon, writing a screenplay, or applying to graduate school.

The fact is that now we’re all a little more boring. We’re all okay with beer and hamburgers on a Saturday afternoon rather than organizing a whitewater rafting excursion, and we’re all happy to stay close to home, so an invitation to a backyard barbeque from friends across town is suddenly more appealing than a weekend in New York City.

But it’s not just that we’re lazy or sedentary. Whereas Alex Williams feels that being a parent makes it more challenging to develop friendships, this is another aspect in which my experience has been the opposite of his. My children’s friends offer a wealth of social opportunities to my husband and me, and again, it’s about trading adventure for contentedness. If our kids get along with their kids, we’re perfectly happy to get together for pizza with another family even if the other couple might have found us too provincial or we might have found them too politically conservative back when we were all younger. Having children who play happily together is a major form of currency in our friendship circles these days.

Still, I don’t want to make it sound like this is about bonding with other parents merely out of playground boredom. Lots of the friends I’ve made in the past five years or so aren’t connected to me through my kids at all. One recent friendship was formed because a neighbor and I discovered we both walked to the post office at the same time most days. Other friends have come from church, volunteer groups or the poetry section at the library. What makes the most difference, it seems to me, is that we live in a small town. Once you’ve decided you like someone, it’s easy to run into them all the time.

Unfortunately, the converse seems to be true as well: I’ve made so many new friends by virtue of proximity, whether we meet up at Little League games, local campaign drives or our town’s Farmers Market, and yet as these friendships strengthen, I realize how difficult it is to maintain friendships long-distance. Some of my best friends from high school seem simply too far away to stay in touch with regularly. Even the casual friendship of our twenties, whereby it seemed sustainable to see another couple two or three times a year and to always drive a half-hour or more to get together, have pretty much fallen by the wayside.

I hope Alex Williams finds this to be true eventually as well. I’m guessing he’ll make plenty of friends in the upcoming years. Spend enough time watching the same kids frolic in the same ball pit at the same birthday parties and suddenly these people seem like your bosom buddies. And as for my high school friends, I’m just hoping some of them will move here eventually as well.

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