The Challenge of Friendship

Via Kottke, an excellent article about friendship as you get older over at The Atlantic, by Jennifer Senior: “It’s Your Friends Who Break Your Heart“. It’s a fairly long read, and there’s a lot of good observations, so honestly just go read it. That said, a few bits that really struck a chord (or hit a nerve):

According to Laura Carstensen, the director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, I’ve aged out of the friendship-collecting business, which tends to peak in the tumbleweed stage of life, when you’re still young enough to spend Saturday evenings with random strangers and Sunday mornings nursing hangovers at brunch. Instead, I should be in the friendship-enjoying business, luxuriating in the relationships that survived as I put down roots.

Jennifer Senior

Yet it’s precisely because of the atomized, customized nature of our lives that we rely on our friends so very much. We are recruiting them into the roles of people who once simply coexisted with us—parents, aunts and uncles, cousins, fellow parishioners, fellow union members, fellow Rotarians.

It’s not wholly natural, this business of making our own tribes. And it hardly seems conducive to human thriving. The percentage of Americans who say they don’t have a single close friend has quadrupled since 1990, according to the Survey Center on American Life.

One could argue that modern life conspires against friendship, even as it requires the bonds of friendship all the more.

Jennifer Senior

Most of my withered friendships can be chalked up to this terrible tendency of mine not to reach out. I have pals in Washington, D.C., where I started my professional life, whom I haven’t seen in years, and friends from college I haven’t seen since practically graduation—people I once adored, shared my life with, couldn’t have imagined living for two seconds without.

And yet I do. I have.

This is, mind you, how most friendships die, according to the social psychologist Beverley Fehr: not in pyrotechnics, but a quiet, gray dissolve. It’s not that anything happens to either of you; it’s just that things stop happening between you. And so you drift.

Jennifer Senior

Back in the 1980s, the Oxford psychologists Michael Argyle and Monika Henderson wrote a seminal paper titled “The Rules of Friendship.” Its six takeaways are obvious, but what the hell, they’re worth restating: In the most stable friendships, people tend to stand up for each other in each other’s absence; trust and confide in each other; support each other emotionally; offer help if it’s required; try to make each other happy; and keep each other up-to-date on positive life developments.

It’s that last one where I’m always falling down. Keeping up contact, ideally embodied contact, though even semi-embodied contact—by voice, over the phone—would probably suffice.

Jennifer Senior

It is amazing how the death of someone you love exposes this lie you tell yourself, that there’ll always be time. You can go months or even years without speaking to a dear old friend and feel fine about it, blundering along, living your life. But discover that this same friend is dead, and it’s devastating, even though your day-to-day life hasn’t changed one iota. You’re rudely reminded that this is a capricious, disordered cosmos we live in, one that suddenly has a friend-size hole in it, the air now puckered where this person used to be.

Jennifer Senior

A lot of this hits pretty close to home. I think a lot about friendship, and my friends, but am often pretty bad at keeping in touch. Things often end up lopsided, where either I’m slow to respond when someone reaches out to me, or I try reaching out and get silence or slow responses myself. Or, regardless of who reaches out, the conversation ends up feeling stalled out and halting, awkward while we both sort of fumble to connect and share something more than small talk. This shit is hard. But worth continuing to work on.