Vox First Person: Why 30 is the decade friends disappear — and what to do about it

Next month, I turn 30. There’s a good chance I’ll spend my birthday at home with my husband and dog, eating Betty Crocker chocolate cupcakes I made myself.

To plenty of people, that sounds like a perfect way to celebrate — a night in with family I love. Instead, I worry that it’s a glimpse into a lonelier future. Our 30s are the decade when friends disappear.

The ratio of times I hear, "We should hang out!" to actual hangouts is about 10 to 1. I can’t tell if I gravitate to people whose social calendars are already full, if they’re not as eager to get together as I am, or if it’s a combination of both. I somehow still feel like a newcomer in the place I’ve lived for almost two years.

I’ve moved five times across four states since graduating college, so I know the drill. First come acquaintances, people I can recognize and say hi to at yoga class, cookouts, church, that kind of thing. Then I start to connect with some casual friends, people I can do coffee dates and see movies with. Once we reach a point where we don’t have to make plans in advance — where we’re comfortable enough to do nothing together and I can just text that I’m on my way — that’s when I’ve made a close friend.

Last December, the only local friend I had ended up moving a few states over. I used to stop by while her boys were napping to catch up over Jason’s Deli salads or leftovers. I didn’t expect it, but I cried after she left. A military brat turned military wife, I had always been the one who moved away.

Once she joined my far-flung network of long-distance friends, I was on the lookout for new friends again. It gets harder every time.

Psychologists and sociologists position our peak friend-making period in our younger years, when we’re flush with time and opportunity. New research recently found that starting at age 25, we lose more friends than we make each year.

On the other side of the 30, we keep adding casual friends, but most of us won’t gain close friends like before; no more best friends. The 30s are a time for settling in to friendly acquaintances and hanging on to faraway friends over texts and Facebook.

"There's a certain kind of poignancy in young adulthood, when we've come to develop a mature regard for friends at the very same time that somehow they've started slipping away," said William Rawlins, an Ohio University professor who has been researching friendship for nearly 40 years. "It seems out of our control."

In college, we regularly interact with people in our age group and have formalized settings for friendships, like clubs and Greek life. After graduation, we continue to fill our social calendars. Our friends surround us during the exciting and hopeful time when we consider the direction of careers and relationships.

They’re the ones who knew us back when: the sorority sisters who taught me how to cook and live on my own, the grad school roommate who cheered on my first writing gigs, the pals from my early 20s who celebrated my engagement.

The lull that hits around our 30s stands in stark contrast to all the friend-making we do in our 20s — in part, because of it. "The irony is at the end of this period, and as a result of the decisions our friends have helped us make, there's a lot less time for friends," said Rawlins, the friendship researcher.

Once we become the boss, the spouse, the parent — life changes that often happen right around our late 20s and early 30s — it’s harder for us to do the role of friend justice. Husbands and wives may allow their partners to fill the role of best friend, letting other relationships fall by the wayside (something I’ve tried to actively resist).

Additionally, college-educated millennials are constantly on the move. "About a million cross state lines each year, and these so-called young and the restless don’t tend to settle down until their mid-30s," the New York Times reported. Even though we still need companionship through this new batch of transitions, our shifting schedules and ongoing moves force friends to back away.

But we still tend to idolize our childhood and early adulthood buddies. Besides knowing us longer, they’re associated with special moments in our lives. This psychological phenomenon edges them to a place of significance in our minds and solidifies their position as best friends.

"We tend to remember things that were first, so we remember the people we were with at that time," said Margarita Azmitia, psychology professor at the University of California Santa Cruz.

I’m as guilty of this as anyone. I’m obsessed with the friends I’ve made over the years, and whenever I’m around new people I’ll show them pictures of my BFF’s toddler or tell them a story about my sorority sister’s new job. (I can’t tell if this is endearing or annoying; I do it instinctually.) My close friends and I text and FaceTime nearly every week, and I dedicate most of my vacation days to trips from Georgia to Maryland, Virginia, and Texas to see them a couple of times a year.

Now that I’m at the edge of 30, I’m entering uncharted territory and feel like I need life advice, affirmation, and direction more than ever. Should I be saving more for retirement? Should I do the Paleo diet to lose these last 10 pounds? Can I keep putting off having kids? I know I can always turn my old friends, but I also need people who know me now — in my current place and context — to walk through it with me in day-to-day life.

For those of us who roll deep with long-distance besties, any potential new friend is up against a pretty high bar. It’s easy to convince ourselves it isn’t worth the effort to put ourselves out there.

"We can get stuck in a rut of maintaining old or long-distance friendships digitally, but at the end of the day you need friends to see in person," said Olivia Poole, an entrepreneur in San Francisco.

Poole co-founded a startup that’s essentially Tinder for female friends. Hey VINA is a matchmaking app for all the ladies who have uttered the ubiquitous line, "It’s so hard to make friends after college" (or at least the ones in San Francisco and New York, where Hey VINA has initially launched).

I’m not surprised to see services like Poole’s popping up. If you thought your dating anxiety would be gone once you got married, just wait until you end up looking for friends. It took six months of living in a new city before I got a girl’s phone number. We hung out a few times at church events and had a lunch date at Panera. I was so giddy that I immediately texted my old friends to say I finally had some prospects.

"Basically it’s just like dating," said Aminatou Sow on the podcast Call Your Girlfriend, which she hosts with her best friend Ann Friedman. "Put all your best qualities forward. What do you bring to the table? Don’t be your asshole self."

Sow and Friedman dish out friendship-dating advice to grown-up lady listeners who know that when it comes to making friends after 30, as the saying goes, "the struggle is real." They advocate a dual strategy of in-person hangouts and online follow-ups. After you meet someone you like, friend them on Facebook so you’re connected instantly, or send an email with links to things you talked about. There’s no time for pretending to be too cool to reach out.

Lest you assume friend dating is a female phenomenon, This American Life dedicated a recent segment to a producer setting up two dudes he knows in Austin. Within the past year, the Atlantic, the Wall Street Journal, and all sorts of publications have explored the adult friendship dilemma.

(The advice from the Toast may be my favorite: "Straight up, say, ‘I’ve decided you are my new best friend, and you get no say in the matter.’ People respond to directness!")

The lists about how to make friends as an adult have mostly fallen flat in my experience. It can be intimidating to start a new hobby solo. When I looked up local sports leagues and trivia nights, all of them expected you to organize your own team. I searched for meetups for me and my French bulldog — the only friend loyal enough to stick with me through the past three moves — but the closest one was an hour away.

It has become harder to make friends after each move and each passing year, and my expectations have shifted. I’m no longer waiting for someone who loves reality TV and Twitter as much as I do or has the same warm personality as one of my old friends. I’m down to the important things: someone who lives close enough, responds to my texts, and is willing to hang out.

This all-takers philosophy was mostly born out of the desperation when my Army husband deployed, leaving me in a place where I knew nobody. Even though I didn’t like kids, I began dropping by young moms’ houses after bedtime. I watched B-movies and listened to them talk about a life I knew nothing about.

People grow on you, but you have to put in the time. That’s something we struggle to do as we get older and busier. I kept thinking about how different these women were from me, in almost every way — until one day those thoughts stopped, and we were just friends. It took more than a year.

It’s crucial that we keep at it. Making new friends keeps us engaged in our own identity. We understand ourselves in relation to others: I befriend, therefore I am. Without getting to know other people, it’s harder for us to know ourselves. "Old friendships can limit who you can be based on who you've always been, but with new friendships, you can focus on who you are now and who you want to become," Poole said.

I’m not sure who I’m destined to become in the years ahead. Turning 30 doesn’t signal what it used to. As psychologist Meg Jay notes in a popular TED talk, the traditional milestones have been pushed back: "Work happened later, marriage happened later, kids happened later, even death happened later." It’s easy for this generation to assume that 30s are the new 20s and move on without giving the new decade a second thought.

As I near the big 3-0, I have resisted the typical getting-older fears. I trained myself to ignore the wrinkles creasing around my freckled temples. I don’t feel my biological clock ticking for babies. I’m not even that concerned about my career in the unpredictable journalism industry. But I am worried about making friends.

For all the things happening later in our lives, our close friendships are still happening earlier. As we age, we often overlook the drop-off in our social lives or accept it as inevitable. And yet we know more than ever about how our friends can help ease stress, lift our moods, endure trauma, give us a sense of purpose, and live longer.

I prodded the researchers and relationship experts for the key to avoiding the awkward struggle of adult friendship. Azmitia, who studies relationships in adolescence and childhood, told it to me straight: "It’s always difficult to make friends."

She’s right. I flashed back to a long-ago birthday. At 5 years old, I’m grinning in front of a Minnie Mouse cake, next to a handful of kids. The picture seems like a happy memory. Then my mom explains that we’d only moved to town a couple days before, and she went door to door inviting strangers to come to my party so I didn’t have to celebrate alone. (It was rough to be a military brat with a summer birthday.)

We don’t grow out of our need for friends just because we’re out of school, or have moved away, or have a family of our own. I’m turning 30, and I still want people around to sing me "Happy Birthday."

Rawlins, the communications professor, interviewed people from ages 14 to 100 about their friends. "At every moment in life, people had the same expectations of a close friend: somebody to talk to, somebody to depend on, and somebody to enjoy," he said. "We need that across our lives."

Over the past couple of years, I talked myself out of making friends so many times. I stopped myself from chatting with the lady who waves at me when I’m on a walk. I looked up local concerts and comedy shows, only to wimp out when I couldn’t find someone to go with me. I composed and then deleted text messages to acquaintances, assuming it’s probably too late to follow up on one of those, "We should hang out!" remarks. I meet people and tell myself they probably wouldn’t like me anyway.

I am my own worst frenemy.

In the final years of my 20s, I learned how easy, and how lonely, it can be to keep to yourself. As I turn 30, no more self-sabotage. I’ve resolved to say shut up to the insecure inner voice, and hello to strangers.

I’m going to introduce myself to more people — even the ones whose names I should know by now. I hope to go to more events, text more invites, and trust myself more. These are habits I want to start now, before I resign myself to my own routines and consider the whole endeavor hopeless.

The same mantra applies to keeping up with my beloved out-of-state friends as to making new ones nearby. Friendship is always difficult, but it’s always worth it.

Kate Shellnutt is a journalist covering faith, women, and pop culture. She works as an editor at Christianity Today magazine. Find her on Twitter @kateshellnutt.


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