The Agony & the Ecstasy — Friendship in the District
As a kid, every time I visited the doctor’s office I used to read through the serialized relationship advice column in Ladies Home Journal (the only magazine, inexplicably, on offer in the waiting room at my pediatrician’s office along with one battered copy of Highlights. This is child abuse). Each column detailed the workaday problems of a featured couple in exhausting detail (and here I am paraphrasing): Jim, a vacuum salesman, has gambled away the couple’s life savings at the dog tracks. His wife, Sandy, a part time real estate agent, has taken up day-drinking to cope. We’re not exactly sure why, but Jim is now threatening a hunger strike. Sandy hasn’t noticed because she’s been embroiled in an emotional affair with her psychic, Edgar, for the past year. Every column concludes with some “expert” casting summary judgment (usually on the wife) and answering the question of the hour: “Can this marriage be saved?” God, I hope not.
What I couldn’t understand back then — or now, honestly — was the level of investment and panic over whether these dysfunctional couples would stay together. The column ran for nearly 60 years, which says a lot about where our cultural priorities lie. Although these kinds of advice columns are less in vogue now, it’s worth noting that platonic relationships rarely receive this kind of forensic examination.
For decades now, long before the pandemic, society has turned its back on fostering the platonic ties that, by all accounts, are essential to our happiness, our health, and our sanity. The stats on adult friendship in America are fairly alarming. After the age of 30, we lose about one friend per decade. There are far fewer institutions to keep adults rooted in their community now than in previous decades. Broader shifts in the way we live and relate to each other — urbanization, work schedules that leave little room for socializing, the erosion of public space — have also left us all more chronically lonely and disconnected than ever. I don’t mean to sound dramatic, but there is a war on friendship. So, what are we going to do about it?
Well, maybe we can start by dragging all of our messy, complicated feelings about friendship into the open. We asked our readers all about their friends: the ones they love, the ones they’ve lost, and all those they’re hoping to meet. Here are Parts 1 and 2 of our deep dive.
Part 1: Friendship in flux
A little bit about demographics: our survey respondents were on the younger side of the age range (70% were aged 25–34). Most are also not new arrivals and have lived in the city for at least a few years. And not to make too many facile generalizations about who in our society tends to prioritize friendship and relationship-building, but the fact that our survey respondents were overwhelmingly women does track.
Your friend circles also tend to be fairly homogenous — our (extremely) limited data analysis turned up no major age, class, or gender divides.
When we asked how people’s friendships had changed in the last few years, a few major themes emerged.
“More hikes, fewer dinner parties.” Living through what feels like a never-ending public health crisis has made socializing seem much more high stakes. Many of you have shifted your socializing outdoors in local parks or into the homes of trusted friends to minimize risk.
“All the obvious things about the pandemic aside, there’s just more *work* involved in planning time with friends, especially if you’re being COVID cautious. We have a toddler, so it’s hard to tell what’s the result of that vs. of COVID specifically sometimes, but generally, a lot more conditions have to be met to be able to hang out (works for kid, around people who have rapid-tested negative or outside, etc.), so it happens less often and less spontaneously. “
Inner circles only. Amidst time-consuming adult responsibilities, respondents are also being more selective about who they’re seeing; prioritizing existing friendships rather than seeking out new connections. The pandemic was an extinction event for our weaker ties; our gym buddies, fellow commuters, and coffee shop regulars. There are less serendipitous run-ins now, and every hang out takes some degree of intentionality and advance planning. And while there is a melancholia in the responses about the impact of the pandemic on our casual ties, most have genuinely found satisfaction in investing more deeply in their inner circles.
So, you say you want a group hang…There is a palpable sense of frustration in the responses that nobody seems to have the time and energy to actually hang out anymore. Respondents overwhelmingly prefer to socialize in small groups, but actually trying to coordinate time to hang out across many packed schedules can feel like an exercise in futility. I can relate — it once took nine months of email exchanges in one of my friend groups to coordinate a happy hour for five people. After the third round of scheduling talks broke down, I was truly at a loss.
As it turns out, there are many reasons why people have less time to hang out (spoiler: most of them are work-related), but I was gratified to see that despite the challenges, most are still making time for their friends semi-regularly. More than half of our respondents manage to spend time with their friends weekly or even daily. I would bet that these friend groups are running off the convening talents of one or two people. Those with the most robust social lives — with an enviable mix of both strong and weak ties — are frequently the connectors willing to start a group text or email chain, or just fall on the grenade and send out a Doodle poll to get people together.
This is the end, my friend
When I took stock of why old friendships, some that had once been very dear to me, had ended, I realized I had racked up quite the body count. Some friend break-ups were foreseeable: one person moving far away, long periods of benign neglect on both sides, an incident, or maybe a series of incidents, that contributed to the demise. But just as often the cause of death is less obvious; there is no precipitating event, just an uneasy feeling that you’ve drifted away from someone. You’re not even sure why you’re not in touch anymore.
With the exception of the 6% of respondents who have apparently kept all of their friendships intact (from birth?…how?), most of us are actively fighting friendship attrition on multiple fronts. When we asked readers what was driving their friendship breakups, the open responses yielded a gigantic unwieldy bar chart listing everything from “personality changes” to “betrayal” (intrigue!).
Each of these could easily spawn their own essays, but for now we’ll focus on the most common themes that turned up.
Friends on the move. Many of our readers have felt the loss of friends who have moved out of DC for jobs, better housing, more space, or to follow a partner or be closer to family. These friends are largely not being replaced (our friends are not fungible!). Distance and proximity still matter greatly in the likelihood of both forging and maintaining a friendship, and while many of you do make the effort to stay in touch, it’s just not the same.
“The older I get, the more folks move away and start families. Since my partner and I are on a different path, this definitely changes the friendship. Fewer friends in the city, for sure.”
“All of my close friends have left the DC area.”
“DC is such a double-edged sword; the transient nature makes it easier to make new friends, since fewer people have established networks, but people generally have fewer ties to the area, so you’re constantly worried none of your friend groups are sustainable.”
Forget it, friends. It’s Couple Town.
It can be hard to predict just how our friends will be affected by the gravitational pull of serious partnership. In the responses, many recount the age old story of a cherished friend pairing up and exiting stage left, never to be heard from again. Someone I knew who used to complain endlessly about being left out of activities by couple friends eventually met someone and then, in short order, disappeared fully into the couple form. Sunrise, sunset.
“Everyone is married with kids and doesn’t want to hang out as much anymore.”
“one of my best friends for more than 12 years just outright walked out of my life when he met a new girl. didn’t even know he got engaged until i heard it from the grapevine. no explanation why he just decided to abruptly end friendship.”
“I’m starting to get a little anxious in my late 20s as all my friends partner off and I am still very single and it’s been harder and harder to get time with many of them.”
The insular tendencies of couples are well-documented; entering a marriage or serious romantic partnership often leaves less time for civic engagement, hobbies, and usually much less time for friends. This de facto prioritization of our romantic relationships is often rooted in our society’s deeply ingrained beliefs that support, care, and companionship can only reliably come from one’s family or partner. A 2021 national survey on the state of friendship found that fewer Americans relied on friends for personal support than in the past: “.. more than half (53%) of Americans say that the first person they talk to when they have a personal problem is their spouse or partner..”
“For me the hardest part of friendships is always being the “single friend.” Sometimes it can start to feel that you’re only valuable to your friends when they’re in-between relationships, having relationship problems, or when their partner is away and they’re lonely. There’s been more than one occasion where a friend reached out to hang, but said expressly it was because their partner was away. I do really enjoy being single, but when you rely a little more on friendships for support, it can hurt to feel like you’re always your friends’ second-best option.”
What I found interesting (and truthfully, somewhat tragic) was that while singles in our survey were quite vocal over losing their coupled friends, there was mostly silence and a kind of “well, we can’t fight city hall” resignation in the responses from our partnered respondents. I wonder just how happy any of us are with the status quo.
“I love my partner and consider him among my dearest friends, but I find having other people in my life really important. It’s also a lot of pressure on one person to fill so many roles!”
Sometimes a couple serves as a stable conduit to a much wider circle of friends and acquaintances; any disturbance in the force can have far-reaching effects. There are some friends I’ve only ever known in the context of a couple; when a dissolution happens — on your side or theirs, you just know: Well, I’m never seeing those people again.
“I didn’t realize how much leaving my marriage would change my friendships — not only the ones that I had made through my ex, who now were pretending to not know me, but also those that I had before. People have a lot of feelings about romance and how to do things.”
The drift. The word that kept coming up in the responses to explain friendships that had fallen by the wayside was “drift.” Determinations about which friends to set adrift, more often than not, heavily favor those whose life paths most closely resemble our own. Writer Tim Kreider attributes this divergence to the anxieties that emerge in midlife and often strain longstanding friendships, what he calls “The Referendum:”
“…people, increasingly aware of the finiteness of their time in the world, the limitations placed on them by their choices so far, and the narrowing options remaining to them, start judging their peers’ differing choices with reactions ranging from envy to contempt.”
As we age and get busier this kind of self-sorting is also partly driven by practicality: “…new friends people might make in middle age are likely to be grafted onto other kinds of relationships — as with co-workers, or parents of their children’s friends — because it’s easier for time-strapped adults to make friends when they already have an excuse to spend time together.“ Determinations on which friendships are worth fighting for and which are quietly released into the ether often reflect our current priorities and who can keep up with both our evolving emotional needs and competing demands on our time.
“Yes, I’ve become closer to those who also have kids, and drifted from those without whose lifestyles are vastly different than my current reality”
“I don’t want to only be friends with my kids’ friends’ parents! But how does a 40 something busy, full-time working mom make friends these days?! I barely have time to shower.”
Though it’s completely understandable that tired, overstretched adults would employ a ruthlessly pragmatic approach to socializing, many readers — parents and child-free alike — pushed back against the idea that such stratification is inevitable. It may take extra effort, but we can choose to adapt to friends in different life stages and still find creative ways to be in each other’s lives.
“The nuclear family is a crock. I really wish that as a society, we deprioritized the nuclear family because I think it would lead to happier single/child-free folks (ie, their lives don’t begin to separate from their friends with kids) and happier married folks/folks with kids (they would have a more robust support system and friends that are thoroughly integrated into their families).
“Now in my 30s, my friends’ kids are becoming my ‘friends’. They are so cool and fun. Friends that your friends made are the coolest friends.”
Great expectations. Over half of our respondents cited a lack of reciprocity as the primary reason their friendships ended. The longevity of a friendship is a function of how invested both people feel and an imbalance in investment, affection, or dedication can spell the end. The research bears this out: ”… people need to feel like they are getting as much out of the friendship as they are putting in, and equity can predict a friendship’s continued success.”
“My biggest pet peeves is laziness in a friendship. I hate being the only one who puts unabashed effort into it. Like, it’s not “cool” to not try, people!”
The sting of an unreciprocated friendship can be extremely painful, but searching for perfect parity in a friendship is a tricky business. For one thing, friendships, like all relationships, are rarely perfectly equal in effort, affection, or commitment. Some bleak research suggests that only about half of our friendships are actually mutual (ie. those we consider friends, also consider us friends.) One person’s best friend could just as easily be the other person’s passing ship in the night. Or the dynamics in a close friendship have shifted over the years and one person has happily repopulated their lives with newer connections while the other is set adrift.
“My friend got a new job, partner, roommate and new best friend and eventually stopped reaching out and would let a few days and eventually weeks pass before responding to texts. We talked about our communication and friendship a few times but it was difficult to revive the friendship. We are still in contact and we are not, not-friends, just not close anymore. “
Expectations for what makes a good friend have stayed the same over the years — “somebody to talk to, someone to depend on, and someone to enjoy” — but the special thing about friendship, the freedom to lean in or out, is also what can make it inherently unstable.
What do we do when we’re ready to let go of a friendship? While a few readers admitted to going for the nuclear option (abruptly cutting off contact), the vast majority (81%) opted to employ the “slow fade” method of gradually and passively withdrawing from a friendship until it withered from neglect.
I imagine if a similar proportion of people used the “slow fade” to kill off their romantic or familial relationships, there’d probably be some social uproar. Even the relationships we have to our employers and coworkers are more closely scrutinized (if the recent spate of trend pieces on “quiet quitting” aka “doing your job” are any indication). So why do we sanction such behavior with our (former) friends? I have some theories.
First, there are no formal rules of engagement between friends, and therefore no commonly accepted rejection scripts in friendship that wouldn’t sound sociopathic if actually vocalized. Given the stunning variety of reasons driving friendship breakdowns in our survey — especially when they fall into categories as vague as “not feeling it anymore” — I wonder how helpful it is to elucidate the exact cause for disengaging. Show me a person who says they want to know exactly how far they’ve fallen in a cherished friend’s esteem, and I’ll show you a liar.
And then there’s the most mundane reason of all: most people are just generally poor with confrontation. When once close friendships start to unravel we yearn to understand why we’ve been cast aside, but when the shoe’s on the other foot, we can’t get far enough away from the source of all that earnest pleading.
“Most of my friendships ended either because I made the decision or because they outlived their usefulness (sounds harsh, but I’m a believer that sometimes people are meant to be in your life for a brief phase. They are essential for that time, but if they drift out of your life, that’s ok too.)”
Or maybe we’re all just letting ourselves off the hook. Many friendships do need to end and some degree of friendship churn is a natural part of life, but how many of our friendships could have kept going with a little care and open communication before they reached the necrotic phase?
“I wish I would’ve spoken up sooner about our dynamic changing. I had someone who I mutually considered a best friend end up completely ghosting without any conflict leading up to it. I really wish I had the guts to ask them why when it first happened, but instead took it at face value and eventually stopped trying to reach out. It’s the worst rejection I’ve ever gone through, especially without knowing what changed.”
“friendship break ups are really, really hard to go through and it’s not like people are coming over and bringing you ice cream like they would if it was a romantic relationship. and as a queer woman, it’s so hard to tell what’s platonic vs romantic, so friendships can burn out like a relationship without it being acknowledges as “something.”
Perhaps there’s solace in knowing that, with enough time, most of us will likely be on both sides of this. Here’s Kreider again:
“Defriending isn’t just unrecognized by some social oversight; it’s protected by its own protocol, a code of silence. Demanding an explanation wouldn’t just be undignified; it would violate the whole tacit contract on which friendship is founded. The same thing that makes friendship so valuable is what makes it so tenuous: it is purely voluntary. You enter into it freely, without the imperatives of biology or the agenda of desire. Officially, you owe each other nothing.”
We need our friends at every stage of our lives, but we’re often completely unprepared for the many forces pulling us apart. Maybe accepting that friendship takes effort and imagination to sustain as we grow older can help us extend a little grace and appreciate the funny, inspiring, and (sometimes) strange ways our friends brighten our lives:
“I have a friend who texts me when she knows it’s going to rain because I notoriously always get poured on when I walk home. It’s both thoughtful and funny.”
“My oldest friend is from high school and through everything — college, moving to new states, breakups, bad depressive episodes — he’s always called me every two weeks to check in. Even when I don’t pick up for months at a time. I don’t know where he gets the energy to keep up with me like that, but I’m so grateful.”
“My best friend texted me at like 8, 830am that the day was looking beautiful and I should take off work to bike out to Hyattsville and go kayaking. It was one of the most relaxing things I’ve done in years.”
Adult friendship is an art form that few have mastered. We feel like we don’t have enough friends, that there’s not enough time to dedicate to our current friends let alone seek out new connections, though we may desperately want to. Almost no one feels like they’re getting friendship exactly right. But luckily, friendship doesn’t require perfection — only a willingness to show up.
Editor’s note: We’ll cover that in the next article in this series from Nina.