This is a post about friendship and what it means and how it’s been changing in my mid-thirties and ways in which that is currently weirding me out. I currently feel quite fragile about my friendships, almost all of them, and my place in other people’s worlds: this article and this friends-only discussion (you’ll only be able to see it if we’re facebook friends and you’re on that particular filter) outline some of the contexts for this particular ramble.
So. Right now I should be either a) planning a wedding; b) applying for jobs for after my current post ends; c) filling in my German citizenship form; or d) cleaning the flat. But actually, it looks like I will be writing this blogpost, which is a bit tricky because I haven’t written anything non-academic (or academic, come to that) for ages and have forgotten how it works. A lot of this stuff has been simmering around at the bottom of my brain for a while, and the current round of wedding planning (six weeks, fucking hell) has thrown it into sharp relief. Most weddings, and certainly ours (although more power to you if you chose differently) are social events, with things like guest lists and playlists and bridal parties and best men and ushers and needing to rely on people to do things for you out of the good of their hearts and/or the strength of your friendship. All this becomes an extra layer of, well, stressful and mildly upsetting if you’re also well aware of ways in which your social world has destabilised over the last couple of years.
Now, the ‘last couple of years’ includes the period where I moved from London to Sheffield and all the physical and emotional dislocation that resulted. So at least some of what I’m experiencing is simply the aftershock of uprooting myself from the city that’d been home for my entire adult life and the centre of all my social networks and trying to maintain connections over much greater distance and much less opportunity for shared space. In some cases this has worked fine, or at least well enough – the internet is a godsend, may all those articles about how it’s ruining our ability to bond socially burn in the glare of a thousand smartphone screens – but it’s certainly made a lot of things more difficult, in particular the sense of shared understanding and situation that’s underscored many of my friendships in some sense. I’ve lamented the impact of moving before, and it’s certainly been getting easier as it goes along – I have a whole ten or so friends up here now, and despite being basically terrible at organising social things or even answering messages and still feeling a bit unsure where to socialise in Sheffield , I seem to be managing to See People and sometimes even Go Out. But that said, I can’t begin to pretend I don’t miss London, either its familiar geography or the sense of social interconnectedness and possibility that descends whenever I’m within its bounds.
Part of this is that I had, in London, both a not-insignificant number of really close friends I saw semi-regularly *and* an occasionally-overlapping-but-frequently-distinct wider group of geeky age-diverse friends who still socialise frequently in groups rather than having sort of separated out into couples with children. Now I’m up here – and no longer able to get to very many social events even when I’m invited, and usually even less able to follow up on tentative new friendships with actual quality time – maintaining any sense of involvement has been difficult, and a source of more anxiety than succour. (This is in no way a criticism of anyone – it’s just the impact of my geographical situation, not the – usually welcoming and supportive – behaviour of those down south.)
Thing is, I mostly if not exclusively build connections on a one-to-one basis, with communities or wider social groups growing out of that if I’m lucky. Maybe many people do. There’s usually a lot of in-depth emotional and sociocultural discussion (because I totally know how to have a good time…) before the silly jokes kick in, and a) this isn’t a mode of functioning that works with more than 3 people present and b) it isn’t really transferrable. It means that I do develop what feels like fairly strong bonds with some people fairly quickly, but I don’t really have (and never have had, I don’t think) a single, multiply interconnected, core group of close friends ( although I sort of belong to several groups); and I’m usually profoundly uncomfortable with large groups of people I don’t know unless there are at least two good friends around.
Which creates two issues when planning social events like a wedding (which I hate doing at the best of times). A) how does that work? I want to invite ‘everyone’, but without putting pressure on people who aren’t really friend-friends; b) there are people I think of (or used to think of) as good friends who I haven’t really spoken to much recently, or in some extreme cases who haven’t actually initiated contact for actual years. My inclination is to assume they don’t want to be friends anymore – borne out in a couple of cases where I messaged and heard nothing back, which was a massively uncomfortable experience (and possibly the downside of Facebook, giving the false impression of people still being in your life), but undermined by a couple of instances where person A was surprised person B wasn’t coming because ‘I thought you guys were really tight’. So you have on the one hand highlighting of ongoing social circle disintegration and on the other hand immense amounts of awkwardness/anxiety trying to mitigate/navigate that. Fun!
That said, I think what’s actually disquieting me is a perfect storm of several different/interconnecting factors. There are changes in many of my existing friendships because of distance, weathered better in some cases than others. There are changes in existing friendships due to life stage, most notably the fact that several of my close friends have acquired children and that changes things on a practical and emotional level, magnified in some cases by the distance between us. There’s the actual physical difficulty in maintaining friendships in terms of time and attention at the same time as partnership and multiple jobs, in being there for people in a different city (I missed the goodbye party of a friend who’s emigrating recently, which seems to epitomise both the difficulty factor and the life change factor). There’s the cultural shift in being up north, where it seems people in my age group are more likely to be parents and living slightly different lives and priorities. There’s the difficulty in making more friends due to life stage – I’m not a student anymore, not even slightly, and it all works differently now. (No accident that many of my new friends – with the exception of recent work colleagues – are or have been academics, either students or ECRs).
Is all this general? Is it just a 30s thing? I don’t know. Certainly many of my wider friendship circle in London are older than 30s and still seeing their friends regularly/ having that friends-as-chosen-family thing in a way I haven’t personally witnessed or experienced up here. I’m not sure how much difference it makes that those friends are often in relationships but rarely monogamous, so that sense of peeling off into couples (which I am perhaps contributing to by, y’know, the whole moving-up-north-to-be-with-partner, getting married thing) and only socialising on that basis. I don’t want to play that game (apart from anything else, I am marrying a hermit, someone with very different social needs; if we only socialised as a couple, I would have no friends at all, or at least maybe 3 or 4 whom I saw twice a year) but I recognise that by having a ready source of succour and love and company and entertainment at home I have fundamentally changed the pattern of my life I’d maintained throughout my 20s where I saw a friend most nights and every weekend day (and/or lived with some). Also very few of those friends have children, so there isn’t the need to redraw the social boundaries to accommodate the needs of people with bedtime/bathtime/mealtime/early rising requirements.
(Side note: as a step-parent, I often feel caught between these stools. I lose count of the number of parties I have left early, or had a meltdown in the middle of, because we’ve had stepdaughter so I’ve been up since very early and can’t keep my eyes open past midnight, whilst I’m with friends who got out of bed at 1pm – or had a disco nap whilst I drove for 5 hours – because they knew they’d be going out. It’s a bugger.)
So. Some of it is simply not having access to my network of excellent people who’ve made similar life choices because of the shift in location (and my current city has fewer members of that demographic, and I wouldn’t know how to meet them). Some of it is changes to existing friendships because of the divergence in our life choices (I always hesitate before asking friends with children to do things, because I don’t want to put pressure on them and I know it’s all more difficult, and this makes the problem worse.) Some of it is a sense of loss because I miss that sense of community, that feeling of being young and urban and busy together, like we were all in the same boat, hustling our hustles, struggling with the same kinds of financial misadventure/relationship drama/cultural preoccupations/life choice malarkey and figuring out who we are/what we wanted for ourselves. I like having figured that stuff out, but also, if I can’t offer endless detailed emotional analyses, what CAN I offer my friends? (This is a serious question. I am a pony with limited tricks). It doesn’t help that the vast majority of my contemporaries are well launched on proper careers while I’m still a struggling ECR (with all the financial constraints that brings). Which is a choice I own, and don’t regret in the slightest, but does have an impact on the kinds of social engagement I can suggest. (My one burlesque class a week sort of wipes me out for paying to do stuff.)
I also recognise that coupling up changes the dynamic, and I’ve done it, so I don’t really get to complain. Not that it’s necessarily a bad thing: I socialise with close friends in couples a lot more, with and without my partner, and that’s often really nice. But there’s also a sense in which I recognise that being in a monogamous couple often means you have less to give to friends, mostly in terms of time but also in terms of emotional energy and flexibility. I can’t just drop everything and rush to a friend in trouble all the time anymore. I wouldn’t expect my friends to do that for me in the same way they have in the past. And I am genuinely anxious about what I have to give to friends these days, when my standard contribution of long overthinky emotional conversations about Stuff (often relationshippy stuff) and/or Being There is much less needed and therefore a lot of emotional change (like that of parenthood) remains mostly inaccessible.
(Poly people – it is my impression that all this happens a lot less if you’re poly, that it’s much easier to maintain a shifting network of friends and alliances and intimacies into your thirties and forties if you remove monogamy from the equation. This may be just me. But I have so much time and respect for the relationship anarchy thing of not necessarily prioritising your sexual and romantic relationships – friendships are good and amazing and deep and an entirely valid source of love and sustenance – but with one notable exception (and that’s a group of friends in their late twenties, so not yet at the same point) I haven’t really encountered it up here much among monogamous people, certainly not in an examined way. I guess also if you have kids between three or four people there is much more opportunity for one or two people to do childcare while the others see friends.)
There is a personal dimension to this, too. Having been various kinds of poly for a while, I’m well aware that the withdrawal of any sexual dimension, be it in terms of potential or sexual tension or understanding or history, from most of my friendships has changed the way I connect with people and express myself. (I feel pretty bad about the impact this has had on some individual friendships, but that’s another story for another time). Not so much the withdrawal of permission but the withdrawal of desire and awareness – for years, even after I stopped acting on it, I navigated by it to some extent. I was aware of levels of tension and desire and attraction that just aren’t there for me now at all, and that’s changed both how I bond with new people and the tone (hah) of existing connections. At first just not having sexual awareness in most interactions was weird in terms of my sense of myself, and then it was weird in terms of my social relationships, and then it just became…normal. This is an old shift – years, probably, with aftershocks – but it’s another reason why my networks have shifted and why I’m not sure where, if anywhere, I fit in anymore.
To be clear, I’m not anguished about all this, exactly. I love my friends and many of them are amazing and very loyal and supportive and I spent the morning talking to people, so I must have actual friends, right? I’m just aware that the bedrock of my life and my emotional support system is changing, and at my advanced age – having just, in the last decade if not half-decade, felt like I’d got it sorted* – that is somewhat destabilising. It has occurred to me that this whole insanely long post could potentially be summed up in ‘I’m not living like I’m 25 anymore, wah’, but actually, maybe, that in itself is a change worth discussing?
*I slit my wrists in August 2012, went through a shitty breakup in September that also involved moving house, and I was pretty much fine by December. Like, finished a PhD type fine. That is basically down to the fact that my friends were loving and supportive beyond any reasonable measure. I think at that point I realised that my friends were legitimately the best.