Why is Maintaining Adult Friendships So Difficult?
Kristin van Ogtrop on the Ones That Get Away
“You know what really drives me crazy?” Silvia was saying. “‘One hundred percent.’ No one says ‘Yes’ anymore, or ‘I agree with you,’ or ‘I understand.’ Everyone just says, ‘One hundred percent!’” She rolled her eyes. “Who started that?”
We were at book group and dinner was in full swing and we had gotten the perfunctory discussion of our most recent reading assignment out of the way as well as all of the necessary, base-touching current events— whose kid had a new job, who just got back from vacation—and the conversation had entered its freestyle phase, always the best part. Just nine middle-aged women gathered around a table, wineglasses empty, muffin tops spilling over their waistbands, cry-laughing about some ridiculous aspect of contemporary life. Really, is there anything better?
I met a man the other day who told me he had a comedy routine called “Book Group.” He was young, clever, and wearing interesting pants, and he said he performed the show with a friend in Brooklyn. I asked, “Are you making fun of people like me?”
“Oh no!” he quickly replied. “Definitely not.” Which I didn’t believe. But I also didn’t care. Book group may be a cliché to him now, but in 25 years he may understand. He may understand why nothing gets in the way of my devotion to book group, my buffer against the modern world and the understanding that I am slowly becoming irrelevant in it.
Until you reach a certain stage of life, friends are 100 percent, and by 100 percent, I don’t mean I’m agreeing with you. I mean you are all in. In childhood, friendship is just about all that matters (sorry, Mom and Dad) and making a new friend is a kind of falling in love: intoxicating, nearly all-consuming. Oh, sure, there’s math homework and part-time jobs and parents who require you to take out the garbage and make your bed, but really, most of your time is spent thinking about friends. You seek out friends who fill in the missing parts of yourself. Or at least that’s what you did if you were me.
My first best friend was Deidre. Deidre was a marvel. She had a big, ready laugh and a fluffy gray cat named Spike and flawless olive skin. She could do a perfect reverse pike off the diving board at the local pool, where we spent countless summer afternoons, and was a very good dancer, not to mention extremely flexible. Deidre could do so many things I couldn’t and was superior to me in ways I could never articulate. She was the life of the party, always doing something that bordered on daredevil-ish, with an impulse to make every day more memorable than the one before. When she got married, she walked down the aisle to “The Girl from Ipanema,” for reasons that made sense only to her.
Because Deidre and I met when we were in middle school, it didn’t take her long to learn my backstory; there wasn’t much to tell. My backstory was a novella, at most, and she could easily absorb it. We remained close friends until we were in our thirties, when the distance between the life she led in Maine and the one I led in New York became more than a few lines of latitude on a map.
I didn’t meet Hope until I was 25, and part of what made her spectacular was that she wanted to know my backstory, even though by then it was closer to a Jane Austen novel (not in its wisdom or subtlety but in its length). We met in the bathroom of a New York City fundraiser when she accosted me because she liked my earrings. Hope grew up in Manhattan, in an apartment; her childhood, to me, was a combination of Corduroy and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. She too was superior in ways I couldn’t articulate. She knew about the Hamptons and art galleries and the media. She had thick, curly hair that seemed to have a mind of its own, the kind of hair I’d longed for all my life. Hope introduced me to the most charming little park in New York, the one at Fifth Avenue and 105th Street, which called to mind my favorite book from childhood, The Secret Garden. Hope would cut out recipes from Gourmet and human-interest stories from People magazine and send them to me in the mail with clever annotations; I still have some of them tucked in a file. The best part of Hope was that she saw absurdity everywhere she looked, and she made me see it too. She had a family friend named Harry Buttrick and we had lots of fun with that (My, you’ve got a hairy butt, Rick!). Oh, Hope was just perfect: sophisticated and juvenile at the same time, the most wonderful friend combination there is. And then I moved to Brooklyn and she moved to Princeton, our families and responsibilities grew, and that was the end of that.
There are friends you lose touch with and friends you break up with, and, if enough years pass, sometimes you don’t remember the difference. After Deidre and Hope, I did not fall obsessively in love in the same way with any new friend. I had a husband, and I had children, and that was as much obsession as my tender heart could bear. Now my friendships with Deidre and Hope are like big pieces of costume jewelry that have been passed down to me: Too meaningful to throw out, too outdated to wear. So they sit in a box on a high shelf in my bedroom closet. I rarely look at them, but I always know they’re there.
Why does it get harder to make friends as we grow older? Perhaps it’s because we can’t hear each other the way we could when we were young. When you’re young, there is very little competing background noise. As you get older, other voices begin to chime in—partners, kids, bosses, electricians, plumbers, PTA presidents—and soon there is clamor all around you.
If you make a new friend, she must join a very noisy chorus. She will never be the soloist.
And eventually your backstory just gets so long. It becomes the Encyclopedia Britannica, for those of you who get that reference. While you would never require a new friend to read the whole thing, the fact that she can’t means that she may never fully know you. Which is sad. But that’s life. You don’t have time to read anyone else’s encyclopedia either.
I like to think I am good at friendship. I will listen patiently and will try—and even occasionally succeed—to ask permission before I offer advice. I am never embarrassed or freaked out by crying. I will bring a side dish and laugh at your jokes. I am not cheap when it comes to flowers or wine. I will happily lend you my cupcake tin, my car, my guest room, my child to take in your mail when you are on vacation, provided you pay him a little something. I will do the driving if you don’t want to. I will eat wherever you want, really, I don’t care, just as long as there’s something besides okra. I will make myself available for a walk, as a good friend does.
There are people in this world, however, who are great at friendship. And I am not one of them.
Not long ago I read an interview with Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney in which he said, “The way you do anything is the way you do everything.” Dabo Swinney seems to be not only super-successful but also a super-nice guy, the kind of person just about anybody would want for a friend. However, I don’t agree with his sentiment. The way I feed my dogs, for example, is not the way I feed my friendships. I feed my dogs with vigilance, frequency, and a firm sense of duty. Plus—except during the brief moments when I wonder whether I should be making them homemade meals in my food processor—I believe that I am good at it. In contrast, I feed my friendships with… well…
Unless you are a lunatic/perfect pet owner, feeding a dog takes three minutes, twice a day. Feeding a friendship—oh, I get tired just thinking about it.
And yet friendship makes us human! It’s what sustains us! You’ve seen all of those studies about social networks, how people with strong human ties are happier, yes, but they are also healthier and less likely to be depressed, to have high blood pressure, or to die tomorrow. Friendship, the feeling of generosity and love for your fellow man, the drive to connect with people, is a force that runs through your life like an underground stream. You can’t hear the water burble but it’s the reason the grass is so green. Until you reach a certain age when perhaps other things demand your attention—such as your two dogs, who probably should be eating homemade food containing kelp powder, which you must order from obscure websites—and friendship seems just so, well, time-consuming that you wander away from that green patch of grass and eventually find yourself in a brown field where it’s clear there has not been any water flowing in a very long time.
And then you become sadder and lonelier, unloved and lost, and eventually you won’t have anyone to come to your funeral. Even your dogs will be long gone, especially if you never got around to ordering the kelp powder that some website promised would help them live to the age of twenty.
When I was first married I lived in Brooklyn and had one phone, a rotary-dial that sat on a bureau beside an uncomfortable chair in the living room. I had a particular friend, whom I adored then and still adore today, who really, really loved to talk on the phone. And just talk, without a clear purpose, at a rambling pace that made me feel like I had ants crawling all over my body. He called frequently, not to confirm a fact or make plans or thank me for dinner the night before, which was what we all did before texting. He called just to talk. As an expression of friendship. I love this man—he is generous and interesting and has an open-minded way of approaching nearly every aspect of life.
He is a voracious reader with a voice full of laughter, and he remembers parts of my backstory that even I have forgotten. Still, when he called and I answered on the rotary phone, I was stuck there, as if someone had shackled me to the chair with a pair of leg irons. It was excruciating. I began to dread his calls, which I couldn’t avoid because caller ID had not been invented yet, and what if it was my parents phoning to say that someone had gotten engaged or fallen off a ladder? And then my husband, ever clever in the gift department, gave me a cordless phone for Christmas. Now when this friend called, I could do something productive while we talked, like water the plants or sort the laundry, and all was right with the world again.
I do not actually believe this is how life should be lived, with productivity as the number-one goal and friendship barely making it into the top five. But it’s how I am wired. There has never been a time in my life when I wanted to just sit and talk on the phone. My parents and sisters are exactly the same way, which is why we get along so well. Technology has only made matters worse. I have an old New Yorker cartoon tacked up beside my desk that features two guys sitting at a bar and one is saying to the other, “I used to call people, then I got into e-mailing, then texting, and now I just ignore everyone.” Exactly.
Excerpted from Did I Say That Out Loud? by Kristin van Ogtrop. Copyright © 2021. Available from Little, Brown Spark, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.