I’m writing to you because I’m a 30-year-old woman and I’m alone. I’m not in a relationship right now and haven’t been for a year and there’s nothing really on the horizon. This doesn’t bother me so much—of course I’d like to find love but my relationship with my ex was such an exhausting experience that I’m actually glad for the time off at this point. My problem is that I used to have friends, good ones. And now suddenly, they are all in relationships and I’m the single one. Even my two roommates are always over at their significant others’ apartments or closed off in their rooms here.
I’m lonely. I’m bored. Last week I finally synched up with one of my friends and we went to dinner and she was constantly checking her phone and stayed for one drink afterward and then said she was going to meet up with her boyfriend who was home from work. I’m so tired of being dropped.
Now that we are older, does friendship even exist anymore? The person who used to be my closest friend always talks about her boyfriend being her best friend. I get it—if you have a built-in companion you do everything with, who has use for friends? I’m not trying to sound bitter—I’m really trying to understand whether my expectations of having strong female friendships are realistic at this point.
Thanks in advance,
The Only Lonely
Dear Only Lonely,
My heart is totally with you. When I was younger, I ended a long-term relationship and found myself single for the first time in—gulp—over 10 years. Looking around, at that time, all my friends had paired off, seemingly all at once, and I found myself occupying a role I hadn’t before—the only single person in our group. I remember being out at a bar with friends having the best time . . . and suddenly, everyone seemed to check their phones at the same time and off they went to their waiting partners. We had reached the golden hour of couplehood, I guess, and while my night was only getting started (or so I had thought), apparently my friends had reached the threshold of allotted hangout time. It is a lonely feeling indeed, and I get it.
Female friendships are undeniably special. However, because of this, there can sometimes be a mythos surrounding them that fosters disappointment. When we are younger, there is the looming prototype of the sister-like best friend who you swap clothes and gossip with, tell your darkest secrets to, have sleepovers and secret languages with, and share a closeness that is untouchable by the outside world. Such friendships, of course, exist. But for those of us who never had this type of relationship, that narrative is awfully exclusive.
Adult female friendships are also mythologized. From the countless commercials where women with linked arms are shopping, laughing, exercising, and dining together (eating yogurt/salad/fruit cups and grinning, no less), to long-running shows like Sex and the City where no matter what, the four protagonists had brunch together every weekend. Same place, same time. I’m not saying these ideas aren’t lovely or should be looked at with mere cynicism—but they are absolutely privileged visions of friendship that don’t accurately reflect women’s lives, especially women with various jobs, professional obligations, significant others, and (sometimes) families.
So, let’s accept that, shall we? That not everyone in the world but you is having fun with their girl-team, spending all day in the park with huge iced coffees and their arms around each other. Okay?
But does female friendship exist in our 30s and beyond? Lonely, it definitely does. But there’s the issue of looking at our friendships and being realistic about what kind of relationships they actually are, and further, how we may have evolved to become people with different needs. You know how Alison Bechdel came up with a series of questions about films to determine whether female characters are anything more than fodder for typical male-centric storylines? Are there two women, do they talk to each other about something other than men? Swap out “men” to include “all types of romantic relationships” and sometimes our friendships also don’t pass this test. Our 20s are often a time of so much flailing and instability, and our friendships are often the balm—we meet up to compare notes, we talk to one another about our problems, our significant others or romantic interests. But then what?
I had a friend once who only called me to talk about her problems with boyfriends. Our conversations were not so much dialogue as they were an endless monologue of her latest experience. As time passed I realized that she knew nothing about what was going on in my life, and I knew nothing about what was going on in hers professionally, artistically, emotionally, even though she constantly referred to me as her best friend. I made an attempt to remedy this by making plans like road trips, movies, going to readings and museums together . . . and guess what? No-go. She flaked out, or was suddenly too busy, or cancelled at the last minute to hang out at a bar where a guy she liked miiiight be working. Yeah. That friendship, unfortunately, didn’t pass the Bechdel Test. But this situation doesn’t only apply to friendships that are one-sided. Any friendship built on spending time going out together with the idea of meeting love interests, or commiserating and wishing that life will change (when will I fall in love? When will I get the job I want? etc.), may fade once that need is met.
So, we cannot be selfish and expect others to morph at our will if we have grown to desire something deeper. The friend you went to bars and shows with may not be the person who is going to read your cover letter, hold your hand when your cat dies, or talk about your favorite Netflix series with you over mimosas. Let’s recognize the friendships we have for what they are, and have relative expectations.
You, Lonely, clearly prioritize friendship. You are aware that friendship is just as important as the job. Just as important as being in love. Or sometimes more important, even. That relationships with friends sustain and fulfill us. That in some cases, as we get older, our friends become our family. You say that these friends were good friends, and my response to that is that they are worth pursuing. So my advice to you, Lonely, is first to stop the cycle of bitterness as much as you can. If you have decided you are alone/dropped/unimportant and that friendship with your former besties is impossible, then every encounter you have with them will somehow perpetuate and solidify that fact. If you go out with a friend, wary of how long she’ll actually stay, your bitterness will be confirmed every time she glances at her phone.
Know what I think? I think it is your turn to embody the epitome of friendship you’d like to have by practicing a combination of radical generosity and forgiveness. Sound hokey? Before you roll your eyes, try the following: Call to meet up for that after-work drink, and be okay ahead of time with a happy hour hangout. Cherish all the face time you get. Arrange a regular Sunday afternoon coffee and be comfortable with the fact that not everyone can show up, every time. Be interested in your friends’ lives and stop thinking about your interactions as self-serving ways to fill your time or loneliness. Avoid third wheel situations if that bothers you, and opt for group hangouts (invite everyone for dinner at your house or arrange a group dinner out), but do get to know the special people in your friends’ lives and—here’s a novel idea—become friends with them, too.
The truth is, in my experience, people don’t typically drop their friends when they’re in relationships unless they’re 1) inexperienced and don’t know how to balance romantic relationships with the rest of their lives, or 2) right at the beginning of a new relationship and consumed with those new feelings, or 3) in a relationship that requires tons of attention because of trust issues, insecurity, a complicated crossroads, or fragility. And don’t all of these scenarios beg some compassion?
Forgive them their busy lives, their love fog, their faulty listening, their compulsive behavior. They will remember this. They will aim it back your way when something happens in your life that takes your focus away from being the best friend you can be. It will also allow your friends the freedom to be unburdened from expectations they are having difficulty meeting, and will probably result in a more open, honest, and evolved friendship. In the meantime, you will be surprised at how absolutely freeing and fantastic it feels to approach this stage of your life with a generous mindset. Trust me on this one. It’s a big shift and so worth it.
Now, well out of my 20s, the friendships I still have and cherish are those that have some commonality other than a shared instability or attempt to find love. My close friends and I all have very different romantic and life situations (and sometimes drop in and out of contact) but we have bonded over a shared love of art, an attempt to forward progressive and inclusive feminism, and . . . the desire for friendship. But we work at it. We schedule time to meet together and we respect—and recognize the happy decadence of!—that space and time. We actively engage with each others’ art. We offer support and care. We don’t always succeed. We are human. We are friends. It’s mythical, magical, and it totally exists. It will for you, too.
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