Remember that girl on the playground, the one you fearlessly went up to at the age of three and asked to be your best friend? Remember how you starred in the elementary school play together, called each other after your first dates, consoled each other after the relationships ended two weeks later and wrote “KIT best friends forever!” in each other’s high school yearbooks? She friended you on Facebook last year and you had no idea she had kids. Welcome to the world of adult friendship.
“Generally, when people go through different situational changes in their lives and their life circumstances change it can create upheaval in their friendships,” said Irene S. Levine, a professor of psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine and founder of thefriendshipblog.com.
Think graduation, marriage, divorce, children and moving. A study published in 2007 that followed pairs of best friends from a small Midwestern college for 19 years found that people moved an average of 5.8 times during that span, and research led by Robin Dunbar, head of the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University, showed that men and women were equally likely to lose an average of two close friends each when they start a new romantic relationship.
“People start to have less time when you’re getting settled into your work life and relationship,” explained Joanne Davila, a relationship expert and psychology professor at Stony Brook University.
It’s a stark change from those carefree and frequent playground trips with your better half, which at the time was your best platonic friend.
“When you’re in grade school and even into high school, your friendships are based more on immediate gratification,” said Dr. Joe Ross, associate professor of communication studies at St. Joseph’s College. “I like baseball, you like baseball. I like Britney Spears, you like Britney spears. We hang out.”
Then comes college and young adulthood, the golden age of friendships. The college lifestyle, with all its offerings of extracurricular activities, unique classes such as “Philosophy and Star Trek” (an actual course offered by Georgetown University), internships and a focus on a promising future creates an environment ripe for curiosity and open-mindedness that spills into friendships. Add that to the fact that college students are thrown together in dormitories and apartments and it should come as no surprise that a 2014 American Time Use Survey found that people between the ages of 20 and 24 years old spent the most time per day socializing and communicating on average than any other age group.
“We’re generalizing, but [people ages 20-24] typically don’t have a family yet and if they have jobs they probably aren’t 60 hours a week with pressures of a mortgage. Both in college and outside of college logistically it’s just an easier time to have these kinds of things,” Ross said.
The responsibilities of marriage, children and mortgages don’t set in the moment those tassels turn—the average age for a first marriage for women was 27 and 29 for men up from 23 for women and 26 for men in 1990 according to US Census data—but when they do it changes more than just the time people have for socialization. When there’s a choice to be made between attending your daughter’s concert versus meeting a friend for happy hour, it’s not really a choice.
“Our values change, our priorities change,” Ross said. “You may have had a best friend when you were 16 and she may have the same values and priorities and yours may have changed. When you have a young family, it really should be all about your kids.”
Of course, not everyone is choosing to settle down with partners and children in their mid-20s, 30s and 40s even if their friends are. As someone without children herself, Davila knows this can put a strain on adult friendships.
“[There were] times when I was on the phone with my friends and they’re half talking to me and half talking to their kids and that’s just the reality of their lives,” she said.
Between the lack of time and change in values, social media becomes something of a friendship life support. It’s an easy way to feel like you’re keeping in touch. Wish your high school best friend a happy birthday on Facebook instead of calling when she’s probably out to dinner with her husband and kids, add in a line about hanging out soon with no real plans to follow up and you’ve done your due diligence.
The problem is, it’s probably not making you that happy. A 2012 AARP survey of 4,000 Americans ages 35 to 80 showed that connecting with friends and family on social media ranked 37th out of 38 activities important to happiness.
“Social media is great because it lets you stay in touch with people who might be across the country or globe but it’s not a substitute for being physically present in real life with your friends to be able to chat, share quiet time, experience things together and to spend longer periods of time together,” Levine said.
In that AARP survey, friends and family mattered most. Study after study has shown similar findings. Friendship remains a bigger factor in people’s happiness than the money your 60-hour per week job is paying you.
“When people are lonely, it’s very detrimental to mental and physical health,” Davila said. “There are all sorts of positive health benefits from having people in our lives who can be there for us, support us, help us through hard times and be excited for us in good times. We want to surround ourselves with friendships that make us feel good and increase our satisfaction and well being.”
That’s not to say you should pick up and leave your job, or feel like you’re doing something wrong when you have to cancel on a friend last-minute to tend to a sick child, but if you want to have a positive circle of friends you do need to do more than click the brand-new heart button on someone’s Facebook photo.
“It just comes down to effort and communication,” Ross said. ” [Your partner] is supposed to be your best friend and that’s OK, but when you really care about another person you make sure that other person has time for his or her other friends. There are nights when there’s a recital, but there are nights when there’s not so you can sneak out for two hours and have a drink.”
When you’re busy, take a minute to communicate that to a friend in a non-hostile way.
“There are times when the best thing to do is to send a text and say, ‘I know I haven’t been in touch and I’m going to be busy for three more weeks but then I’m going to reach out’ because then it tells the person you don’t have time to talk but you’re still thinking of them,” Ross said.
Just as you might want a good friend to accept your roller coaster of a schedule, it’s a two-way street.
“Be more flexible, overlook minor annoyances like testiness and a last-minute cancellation,” Levine said. “If it’s something chronic, work it out instead of letting it build up.”
Sometimes, as sad as it sounds, friendships just fizzle out. It’s not a failure, nor does it mean the friendship wasn’t worth it.
“It’s important for people to realize that not all friendships are supposed to last forever,” Ross said. “People meet certain needs at certain points in our lives. Recognize that at that moment, you were the right friends for each other.”
Remember the good times, appreciate what you learned from the friendship and understand that you’re not that girl on the playground or giggly pre-teen anymore, and that’s OK.