The Secret to Staying Friends in Your 30s

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This week the Cut explores the messy, loving, spiteful, supportive, competitive, joyful, and funny sides of friendship.

Blood soaked through two Band-Aids as I rode the subway to see my friend Jessica for drinks. I’d just slammed my thumb in my building’s front door trying to hold it open for a neighbor. I detoured into a deli to get some ice for the swelling and continued on, reapplying bandages as the G train rattled from Williamsburg to Carroll Gardens. When I arrived, Jessica was sitting at the bar, not wearing her usual heels — a result, she explained, of having recently broken her toe. Hobbled, we drank wine and snacked and talked, having made one whole hour of gossiping a priority not only over putting our kids to bed, watching TV with our husbands, and getting work done, but even over nursing physical injuries.

Twentysomething friendships involve long, late nights, all-day walks, and hours-long phone conversations. But having friends in your 30s is functionally impossible. There is no good time to see people, no friend equivalent of the candlelit dinner and rose-strewn canopy bed. To stay friends is to make do with the social equivalent of a taco truck and bathroom quickie. As the opposite of a sensualist, I actually prefer this. There’s something both efficient and exciting about having friends woven into the texture of daily life. It feels almost illicit when we manage to steal time together, like we are cheating on our grown-up lives.

“I am definitely guilty of rejoicing when someone cancels,” says Jessica about the effort involved in keeping friendships at this stage of life. “I have so little time for myself — when I'm alone, not with a husband or a kid — that even an extra hour feels like a weight off. That said, when plans are kept and carried through, I'm always glad that they were. It's become too easy to feel like we've maintained a friendship because we can ‘like’ someone's photo or see what they're up to on social media. But I need the in-person catch up.”

Friendships these days require both recklessness and ingenuity — the willingness to try hard, but also to settle for scraps. So you see friends when and where you can: say, at a coffee shop around the corner from a drop-off birthday party while working side by side on laptops. “I only have friends who will go to CVS with me,” my best friend, Tara, once announced while we were making our way through Chelsea. I had picked her up at Penn Station (she lives in D.C.) and I was walking her to a meeting. We covered a lot of emotional territory as we marched downtown carrying heavy bags. “How much time do we have?” she will ask most days when we get on the phone. “Six blocks,” I will say. “Okay,” she’ll say. “Go.”

The way Tara and I have stayed close for something like 15 years is that long ago we lowered the bar, accepting that so-called quality time is for other people and that it is our lot instead to tell each other stories one bit of dialogue at a time in ten short phone calls spread out over a week.

“Quality time is not about the length of time per session you’re with somebody,” says psychotherapist Dr. Karen Ruskin, whom I called for a professional verdict on the relative value of the quickie friendship. “If you go to the drug store and spend two seconds at the checkout talking about a magazine, there it is: quality time. Having time to sit down and have long discussions, that’s special, too, but that’s not more special.”

What’s more, low expectations can be liberating. “When a friend comes to the grocery store with me because it’s what I have to do, the pressure to be fun evaporates,” says my friend Liesl. “Then we can just walk down the aisles and I can complain about the domestic shackles of having to make dinner and maybe get recipe ideas or maybe not, but somehow that kind of environment — purposeful, practical — allows me to be far more myself. And in that headspace — which is also key to feeling close to someone — the conversation organically weaves from the price of granola to something about my marriage to something I've read to petty gossip. And I feel way better after, especially since I got my groceries, too.”

I’ve started to think that even if I had all the time in the world I’d prefer my friendships this way: disjointed, casual, improvised. My friend Jason often takes me to see plays. We talk fast and laugh loud for the 15 minutes before the lights go down and then for however long it takes us to find taxis afterward. “When you have a meet-up that only lasts from the time the curtain goes down to when the cab arrives, there's no time for boring talk,” says Jason. “You need to get right to the entertaining stories, the really good gossip, the truly unvarnished complaining. It forces you to be blunt and interesting. And you forgive friends easier. If you can't make a show, no excuse is really needed; I know your life is insanely complex. And you are past the stage when you are entertaining excess drama. It’s sort of the same point: You make the most of your time.”

Recently, I had plans to meet someone for a drink. The day had already involved an event at my kid’s school in Brooklyn, a meeting in midtown, and turning in a project at an East Village Starbucks. And yet the timing had miraculously worked. I would even be a full ten minutes early to the bar, which would let me respond to emails while I got a head start on drinking. Heading there, I saw a text from my date suggesting we postpone drinks for sometime when we wouldn’t be so frazzled. See you in a few years, I thought.

*An earlier version of this article misidentified Karen Ruskin as Nancy Ruskin.