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Great Britain

Adult friendships can be effortful and elastic – that's what makes them special

“I never had friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?”

The final line of Stand By Me, the classic film about four boys who share everything one summer in the 1950s, comes from the main character as man in his late 30s.

We see Gordy hunched in his home study over his computer, with thinning hair and a swelling paunch, ruminating on a time when his days were filled by his three best friends and their endless, circular conversations, excoriating humour and life-and-death adventures. Grown-up Gordy isn’t shown talking to anyone outside his family any more.

The movie is one of my all-time favourites, first watched on VHS as a 12-year-old at a sleepover surrounded by my own inseparable group of girlfriends in the late 90s.

That last line always stuck with me, as a coda to the story but also as a warning.

What it said was that deep, fortifying, true friendship is for the young. Getting older, especially crossing into your 30s and beyond, means forgoing all that intimacy and connection, at least with people outside your family or your marriage.

Nostalgia for the close friendships of our youth is very real. Studies show the number of close friends we have begins to drop from the age of 25 as work and relationships take hold, people move cities and countries, and the cliques that once sustained us fall apart. The disrupted modern job market and the way our cities are increasingly designed makes maintaining close human relationships difficult.

Friendship in adulthood for older millennials like myself has become a source of black humour (“Nobody talks about Jesus’ miracle of having 12 close friends in his 30s”) and true frustration. Last week Johanna Leggatt wrote in the Guardian about technology turbocharging its decline, making it easy to cancel plans and disengage. “As our lives became busier, Silicon Valley technology promised to make it easier, more expedient, to connect,” she wrote. “Instead communication devolved into a truncated, paradoxical form of disconnected connection ...”

I’ve felt these shifts and exasperations in my life, and yet I also think the pessimism of my youth was misplaced.

I haven’t seen most of the girls at that sleepover since the summer after our HSC when the group splintered as the thing holding us together – high school – came to an abrupt end.

But I held on to one, my best friend, with whom I’ve shared a home at different times, innumerable heartaches, family dramas, hospital trips, arguments, beach days, texts, drinks and long periods of time apart.

Nevertheless, in different forms, the relationship endures.

There is no tight clique any more. In my experience the adult posses of Sex and the City and Friends are as unrealistic as the giant New York apartments. Instead there’s a shifting medley of people – some in clusters, some as individuals who orbit my life, coming into view only once or twice a year – who I nonetheless value enormously.

There is a lot of elasticity in these relationships. They can stretch, occasionally go slack, sadly, but often they snap back better than you might think.

Those bonds seem to naturally strengthen depending on the other forces in your life. My sister tells me she has gravitated towards a couple of her oldest friends after nearly a decade when they all had their first babies. “We are so sympathetic to our shared experiences,” she says. Likewise, by the time you’re in your 30s, not having children, and exploring what adulthood might look like without them, can be just as bonding.

My sleepover friends all had surnames that started with the letter T, V or W – classes in year seven were organised alphabetically so something as random as your surname largely dictated who you became friends with. My childhood best friend lived around the corner.

Adult friendships outside the workplace or your kids’ school pick-ups, at least, can rarely rely on incidental interactions. That makes them hard. They require conscious effort – but that deliberateness can make them feel more special.

In my experience technology has aided friendships at this age more than it has diminished them.

Group chats at their best are filled with casual intimacies and in-jokes, bearing witness to each others’ lives in small ways, hanging out, even when we’re busy.

I’ve made real friends online too. Having some guy slide into your DMs when it’s sleazy and unwelcome is the bane of many women’s lives. But a slide from a woman you think is cool, who wants to get coffee? That makes all the hellacious interactions worthwhile (almost).

And while texting and commenting on each others’ posts can be flippant, it also keeps bonds simmering as the opportunities to spend time together diminish.

While living overseas for three years, I found even the smallest interactions through social media and messaging apps kept us in each others’ lives, allowing many of the relationships to spring back to life more easily on my return.

“Friendship is a relationship with no strings attached except the ones you choose to tie, one that’s just about being there, as best as you can,” wrote Julie Beck in the Atlantic in 2015, in an essay charting shifting friendships through adulthood.

I never had friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12 – but now they’re all people I truly chose, and who I keep choosing to share my life with, however we can.

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