The friendship dance

The New York Times ran a series of articles last week on the topic of friendship, and one of them has hit close to home.

The article, “Friends of a Certain Age,” talks about some challenges that face those of us who are over 30 and trying to establish new friendships.

Confession: I’ve actually wanted to blog about this topic for a while, but nothing screams “fail” like a blog entry complaining that you have no friends. It’s some comfort to me that others have had the same experience.

I do have several really wonderful, strong friendships with people I’ve known for 20 years or more. They’re more like family to me at this point.

But, like most of my family, these friends live a time zone or two away. Two of my closest friends, who I’ve known for a decade, will be moving away from Chicago at weeks’ end and will not be returning.

We forge our friendship foundations when we’re younger. High school and college years are great incubators for friendships; you’re in an existing community and can make connections. Those intense life events that bond people together – the good, the bad, the lifechanging – are all in plentiful supply in those years, and are fuel for friendships.

Once we reach our thirties and forties, it’s not impossible to make new friends and sustain those relationships, but it definitely takes more work and more precise effort.

And in terms of growing my friendship garden, I have to confess that I don’t have a green thumb. And I take ownership for most of that. In the last 10 years I’ve lived in three different cities and have worked for four different employers. I left all of that behind a year ago to return to college, where I’m surrounded by students that have parents my age.

There are other quirks, too, that probably play a role. For example? I don’t drink. No, I don’t have an addiction issue, and I don’t have a moral objection to it. I just don’t like the taste of it, or the effect (depressed and sleepy) it had on me, and I haven’t had more than a half glass of wine in over a decade. It doesn’t mean I can’t hit happy hour or be at those networking events – but asking for bottled water when everyone else is having a belt is a bit unusual!

And here in Chicago, friendship is often strengthened by neighborhood ties – or to be more blunt, dictated by whether you’re within walking distance. We all fight traffic to and from work – and understandably, few people want to fight it just to hang out with a buddy.

My partner and I knew several wonderful, kind people who lived in LGBT enclaves like Andersonville, Boystown and Rogers Park. We made a choice to live significantly closer to the city and lost many connections as a result. Logically we’re right near the Loop, but to our north side acquaintances, we may as well be in Indiana.

Chicago is also a place where all of us are chasing careers, and that has to be priority numero uno. Few of us have free time during the day, and for many of us, the end of our day can be 9 p.m. or even later. That doesn’t leave much time for socializing.

If I wanted to be brutally honest, I’d also confess that I’m a wary person and though I can be friendly – and very generous and loving to the people I know and trust – I am more cautious in my initial dealings with people. It’s the reporter’s gut, telling me to check my sources and get a better sense of someone before I proceed. [EDITED TO ADD: that might come across as aloofness or unapproachability.]

I’m a pretty unconventional (read: oddball) guy and though that’s been a source of pride and a professional strength, it’s also been a roadblock to building community and a potential professional pothole.

My life has taken an unconventional path – and I have to say, I’m very happy about the journey so far. I’m in a great place and am working towards some really important goals in my life. And I’ll keep working towards building and growing the community that my partner and I have here in Chicago.

But I wish, sometimes, that some of my more established friends were in much closer proximity. That established history makes for a rich experience.

Friendship can be wonderful in its simplicity and strength once it’s been created and forged. But the art of meeting and making friends is not so different from dating – location, chemistry and what you have in common can play a big role in whether you become true friends or distant acquaintances with someone.

If you’ve experienced challenges making friends after 30, or you’ve had some success building your community, please share in the comments! 


  1. Well, I am sorry to be a contrary, but I have had the completely opposite experience. I understand your hesitance when first meeting people, but I think it was the hardships of my adult situations: raising kids and returning to college, that have actually gotten me more friends than I can handle. Crazy, right? For one thing, all the gals (mostly) that I met in college and I, we share a same bootcamp-hell like experience which has bonded us, in addition to the fact that we have similar brain structures, all appreciating the same things and being able to “think outside the box”. College, far and away, has provided me a lot of friends, and they want to meet with me often (so that I leave my husband and family home alone a lot).

    Secondly, I just stopped caring so much what other people think of me– I don’t know if that was me, or living in California where people are way less judgmental– but I just don’t get a lot of negative feedback when I “be myself” and therefore I just assume everything is going swimmingly. If people don’t like me they rarely show it; and even if they did, I shrug and say “meh, who needs em”. I genuinely like the people that don’t show resistance to me, and people enjoy that I will treat them with friendship and respect and sharing in my happiness.
    All that said, I have more friends than I am used to, and I miss the old friends the most. I am a bit too scattered. I’m cutting back a bit on making new friends, because I don’t have time to keep up with them, and how close can you really be then?

    Anyway, I hope you’ll get into the situation where friends come more easily. College definitely provides you that opportunity. Other than that, it helps to “let it flow”. Hugs, Patrick, I know FB has brought me closer to you and many other kinda-sorta-friends! Grateful for that!

    Thanks for your comment, Carol! I agree that when you have shared experiences it becomes easier. I’m sure raising kids is one of those shared connectors and school is another. My challenge with college thus far is finding very few people with similar experience sets. I respect (for the most part) younger students but we’re simply at different stages of life. Hopefully my new school will provide more opportunities there.

    I’m not so concerned with what others think at this stage….more like trying to assess the situation before I jump in, so to speak. But people sometimes see that as aloofness or coldness, so I’ve tried to work on that, or at least how I communicate in those initial moments.

  2. I saw the NYT article and was going to mention it to you — I remember having these very same conversations with you when I first moved to Madison.

    I’m a very social person, and it’s constant, difficult work when you’re past your 20’s to try to meet and surround yourself with quality people. And even when you can, the flavor of those friendships is different.

    I was very lucky to have formed some incredibly close bonds with a group of friends that I love dearly, and miss being able to get together fairly often like we used to. I am constantly comparing new friendships to old and constantly disappointed that the new isn’t quite like the old — for example, that I expect a level of trust and when that is violated, it’s kind of a shock.

    Hi Jim – I have to say, when we lived in Madison I never understood why you’d visit your friends back East as frequently as you did……but now I do in a much clearer way. It’s a balancing act to sustain those older friendships and try to cultivate new ones. And that shorthand we’re so familiar with just isn’t there. Thanks for your comment!

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