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In a few weeks time I shall be hitting a rather significant milestone. Yes – I will be celebrating my 21st birthday for the second time – or as some people will insist on describing it, my 30th.

In the final year of my 20s, I have experienced a couple of significant events – the loss of a loved one, severe illness of a friend, two house moves, a change in city and a change in job.

As such, I have been reflecting on how life, and more pertinently, relationships and friendships are different as I approach my second 21st birthday, as opposed to when I approached my first. So this is a blog about friendship and your thirties, if you will.

There’s a couple of things I’ve noticed about friendships as you get older. (Disclaimer – I am a woman, single, no kids, White British – and a Christian – so if you are none of these things, quite potentially a lot of these things won’t apply to you!)

Making new friends seems to be more attractive to the young

When we are in our early 20s we are still figuring out who we are and our place in the world. On a very practical level, if you are less than 25 years old, then you have only lived a few years of adulthood.  Unless your parents moved in lots of different social circles or travelled a lot with you as a child, you just won’t have had the opportunity to meet as many different types of people as you will have done by the time you reach 40.

So in our early and mid twenties, we are less quick to make our minds up about people and more curious to meet new people – as new people bring with them possibilities and experiences that we’ve never come across before. I remember going to many a house party at university with stoned Scandanvian guys philosophising about alternative lifestyles at 1am in the morning – and actually listening to what they had to say. Those were good times – spent having trolley races through town, smashing the piñata with a rolling pin and my living room morphing into a club dance floor (shout out to the IDD class!)

As we get older though we move from self discovery to self knowledge – so in blunt terms, we become pickier about whom we choose to spend time with once we are surer of our values and what we like and dislike. Also, on a practical level, most of us have jobs to go to in the morning – so listening to Scandanavian guy’s weed fuelled philosophising becomes less appealing when you know your alarm is going off in less than 6 hours time!

Proximity, unplanned interaction and letting your guard down are key

Apparently there are three things which are crucial to making good friends – proximity, unplanned interactions and a setting which encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other. Being in school or college every day or being at university and living with housemates or dorm-mates are pretty conducive conditions for these three things – which would explain why most people’s strongest friendships are with people they met when they were teenagers – or when they were in their early 20s. Having recently moved cities, I know that the first two conditions in particular are really important – generally through my own crappness at keeping in touch with friends I now only see every couple of months!

I tend to think though that the way that the way society is set up in the Western world is not really facilitative of these three conditions. In the Western world, people who are single often choose to live alone as they get into their late 20s, very few people just “drop-in” to see a friend unannounced – usually you have to schedule a couple of days in advance – or we feel like we have to schedule a couple of days in advance so we just don’t bring ourselves to do it out of fear of imposing. We even have to schedule when we’re going to talk to people on the phone.

I recently met somebody who bucks that trend – suggesting going to gigs two hours before they start, texting photos of the outrageous numbers of cups in her new house (just for the hell of it) but also being open and vulnerable about the shit that’s going on in her life. But I tend to find she’s the exception, rather than the rule. (Although perhaps in many ways these are very middle class problems – I’ve recently moved to a working class area and have two brothers and their families as neighbours – and people seem to talk to their neighbours a lot more than the polite nods I would get in more middle class areas. Agree? Disagree?)

Making new friends becomes harder as you get older

A couple of years ago I again moved to a new city (not the current one) and started work within a large company. I only knew one person in the area – so I was pretty much starting from scratch. In the course of my work, I met a lady who I got on really well with – so I asked if she wanted to meet for lunch one day. She turned up to my desk – complete with pen and notepad. I’m not sure who was more embarrassed, her or I, when I explained that the lunch was purely social and I wasn’t really intending on talking about work!

As people get older, unless they are put in a situation where they HAVE to reach out to people otherwise they’ll be completely socially isolated, most people quite simply don’t bother. If you already have a set of friends – and you have moved beyond the self-discovery stage, and now have the added responsibility of a career and financial responsibilities to think about – why would you?

Making new friends with members of the opposite sex as you get older becomes nigh on impossible!

This is a tricky field to navigate. I have a really good male friend who I can talk to for hours and whom I’ve been on holiday with. But I’ve known him since I was 22.  And his fioncee has known me for ages too. As I’ve gotten older, it would appear that if you try to make friends with single men, they either think you are hitting on them – or you are actually hitting on them!

Neither of these conditions is conducive to forming a healthy friendship! It’s almost as if you need to have a disclaimer conversation – something along the lines of “it would be really good to get to know you better – but I don’t want to date you!

Or, “I would like to go on a date with you, but I can see you don’t want to go on a date with me – however, I would still like to be your friend because I’m sure I’ll get over the fact that you don’t want to go on a date with me fairly quickly and I value the prospect of having you as a friend more than the clinging to the vain hope of having you as a boyfriend!”

In practice you’ll be relieved to hear I don’t lead conversations with these disclaimers ( I do have some level of social awareness…) But often I wish I could as I think it’s really important to have friends who are men. They bring a different perspective, they are often less emotionally intense (generalisation I know but I found it to be true in my own experience) and if I’m going to be completely superficial they like things that a lot of girls don’t like but I do – like good action films (I discovered ‘The Raid” after being forced to watch it by three men) and watching football!


 

I read a couple of articles on this topic and I found some of their conclusions to be pretty depressing. One article about making friends in a new city advised me to search for friends who meet specific needs and to establish guidelines so that if somebody doesn’t look like a good friendship prospect, to not waste my time! (I think the most vomit wrenching line had to be the final one which said “Don’t be hard on yourself. Give it time. You know you’re an awesome person. Eventually, your new friends will know that too.”

Needless to say, I won’t be following this sage advice – however, I’m sure there are some conclusions that can be drawn as I look forward to the next 30 years of meeting new people. There are some obvious conclusions – one being to move countries – to move outside West Europe.  I have a friend who spent quite a bit of time in South America recently and observed that the way people live in rural Argentina, is very different to the individualistic way of life in Western Europe. Life is simpler, people are less bothered about material stuff and have more of a connection to the land they live off – the way of life is naturally more communal, is configured in a way which makes many of the above problems irrelevant. Moving is quite tempting – having lived in Kenya for a few years, I know that there are very different ways of living to the way things are set up in England. And maybe that will happen one day. But for now, I’m here – and need to make sense of what is around me.

So, firstly, my early and mid-20s and even late twenties were fantastic – but I don’t want to relive them. I’m not the same person that I was at 22 (which in many ways is a good thing) and I don’t think racing around the city centre in a shopping trolley is my idea of fun anymore. Much as I loved it at the time.

Secondly, although I’ve become more discerning about my own values and what I believe, I need to always seek out people who would challenge me and provoke me to think more deeply about those values and beliefs. As a Christian, it’s really important for me to be able to work through questions and experiences around faith, God and Jesus with people who share the same passion – I feel like I’m stagnating when I don’t do this. But it’s also good to connect with people who see things differently, both Christians and people outside the faith – so that I can wrestle with these questions of life, wrestle with them – and hopefully add something to each others’ lives. It’s important to make time to listen to different voices – older people, people from different countries and religions, people who lead different lives to me – and have a different way of thinking and personality to me.

Thirdly, I need to stop feeling the need to conform to the individualistic hegemony of middle-class Britain. Most people actually quite like it when you drop in unexpectedly or send them random text messages – if they’re busy or not in the mood to socialise and you have a modicum of social understanding, you’ll soon find out!

Fourthly, I need to beware of the consumerist attitude towards relationships that seems to permeate western society today. Relationships are all about what you can get out of the other person, how you can satisfy your needs, your desires. It is so easy to slip into that mentality – especially if you are feeling lonely. But it’s so dangerous as you end up with expectations of people that they can never fulfil. It’s also not the way that Jesus treats me in the relationship that I have with him – he wants to know me and loves me, even though I frequently ignore him, don’t involve him in decisions, try to get him to fit into my idea of what he should be and do things that hurt him. The relationship that God has with me is based on a promise that he will love me, regardless of anything that I do. And that love is extremely costly for him because ultimately it required a sacrifice, found on a cross. If I’m not going to subscribe to that consumerist rhetoric when it comes to friendships, I need to go into them with an attitude of sacrifice, service and unconditional love – relying on God to supply the energy for that.

 

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