Maintaining Friendships As We Age
You might think that making friends and maintaining friendships should get easier as we age. After all, we know ourselves better, and we've had lots of time to "practice" being friends. Some evidence, however, suggests that cultivating friendships after age 30 is perhaps more difficult — for both singles and marrieds.
Personally, I've found this to be true. By the time I get done taking care of my family's most basic needs and discharging my full-time work responsibilities, there's often not much time left to invest in friendships. I had chalked it up to the intense realities of this season, but it seems I'm not the only one who's struggled to maintain friendships in my 30s and 40s.
Wesley Hill, who serves as an assistant professor of biblical studies at the evangelical Anglican seminary Trinity School for Ministry, recently reflected in the Catholic journal, First Things, on some reasons why maintaining friendships as we get older is more difficult, as well as offering some down-to-earth suggestions for how singles and marrieds might form and sustain meaningful, life-giving connections.
Hill was responding to an article written in The New York Times last summer titled Friends of a Certain Age: Why Is It Hard to Make Friends Over 30? In it, author Alex Williams writes (and Hill quotes):
“In studies of peer groups, Laura L. Carstensen, a psychology professor who is the director of the Stanford Center on Longevity in California, observed that people tended to interact with fewer people as they moved toward midlife, but that they grew closer to the friends they already had. Basically, she suggests, this is because people have an internal alarm clock that goes off at big life events, like turning 30. It reminds them that time horizons are shrinking, so it is a point to pull back on exploration and concentrate on the here and now. …As external conditions change, it becomes tougher to meet the three conditions that sociologists, since the 1950s, have considered crucial to making close friends: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other.”
Hill says that there may still be seasons in which those three conditions for friendships flourish (such as in academic settings, for instance). But when they don't, what do we do?
First, I appreciate the fact that Hill, who's single, doesn't automatically accept the accidental demographic division that often separates singles and marrieds into relational ghettos. Instead, he talks about how he's intentionally sought to cultivate relationships with married people:
My post-college friendships with married people have each involved frequent planned interactions. I think of the middle-aged couple with teenage children at my church in Minnesota with whom I had lunch (that stretched into dinner) every Sunday afternoon. I think of the couple my age that lived next door to me in England. We attended the same church, and we had a standing Wednesday dinner appointment. Throughout the week, there would be other spontaneous times of seeing one another, but we always knew that on Wednesday at least, we’d be together. ...Being able to count on these interactions, rather than having to expend the energy each week to schedule time together with friends, gave me a great deal of emotional security.
Second, and this is what I found most intriguing (actually, my wife found it intriguing, and she pointed me toward this article), Hill talks about marrieds and singles treating each other almost as family in certain specific cases:
The 'after 30' friendships that I’ve made with married people have all depended in large measure on my married friends’ treating me not as a frequent guest but like an uncle to their children. While in Durham [England], two of my close couple friends asked me to be a godfather to their children. Being a godparent doesn't necessarily (or even often, in our culture, I guess) guarantee frequent interaction, but in my case, it meant that I was with these two couples so much that it began to seem natural for me to go on family outings with them, to read books to their children before bedtime, even to share in household chores. I suspect many single Christians feel out of place in churches that place such a premium on programming for families in part because many families are not prepared to welcome single people as permanent members of their circle. But in my case, in Durham at least, I didn't feel that dichotomy — between couples (or singles) with children and (childless) single people — as sharply as I might have because my close parent friends made clear to me that they considered me part of their family.
I like the vision for integrating singles and marrieds in the church that Hill has outlined here. It's not rocket science. Then again, what he's suggested does require commitment and intentionality, thoughtfulness and effort — as well as challenging the de facto status quo that so easily isolates singles and marrieds, as we get older.