Your Friend Group Should Look Like the Cast of a Twenty-Something Drama (and Other Myths About Millennial Friendship)
New responsibilities clogged up phone lines and changed what used to be lifelines—how were we supposed to maintain our relationships?
There are a whole bunch of ways my friends and I told each other we were friends over the course of my lifetime. The simplicity of “Do you wanna be friends?” on the playground in kindergarten became “Do you want to share my cherry Jell-O?” in the cafeteria in third grade. The clutch of a wordless hug—celebratory or comforting, depending—when cast lists went up in middle school became celebrating driver’s licenses and mourning broken hearts in high school. It was the whisper of “Watch out for deer” when leaving somewhere in the dark and “Don’t text him back,” even if you would anyway.
In adulthood—with cross-country moves for jobs and school, losses of loved ones and grief, falling-outs and falling aparts, getting fired, getting diagnoses, and getting back together, broken engagements and half-finished master’s degrees, new beginnings folding into newer ones—it sounded like: “Text when you’re inside” and “Call me when you can” and “Let me know when you’re in town” and “You have something coming in the mail.”
It also, sometimes, sounded like silence.
As a kid, I had distinct friend groups—usually clustered into friends from the neighborhood who played with me and my siblings, friends I had from ballet class, and an ever-shrinking huddle of school friends. These little pockets—because they were always small in numbers and large in feeling—were the safety nets that made friendship feel like there was always somebody there. In the neighborhood, there were the friends from my street who I played tennis ball hockey with, traipsed through creeks in ankle-deep muddy water with, ate snacks around the trees and didn’t return home until the backs of our necks were sunburned and sweaty with. When most of my friends went to different schools or moved away in high school, we swore we’d write letters and took our new driver’s licenses for spins to coffee shops where we pretended to actually like coffee and plotted how we’d get “out of here” someday. Sometimes, at ballet, we competed for parts until our toes bled and blisters got rubbed raw. But even then, we always offered up a Band-Aid, an extra water bottle, a space to vent to each other while changing our shoes.
But as we grew into adulthood, groups faded into transience. New responsibilities, like babies and finals and first adult jobs, clogged up phone lines and changed what used to be lifelines. And those cross-country moves scrubbed out used-to-be’s, like a new life demanded new friends to go with it. Once, in college, my life seemed too splintered to establish new groups: At work, I had work friends who didn’t know what was really happening at school; at school, skipping first-semester invites for dinners and parties (hosted by boys who inevitably wanted to talk about each individually being the first person to discover Radiohead) meant I’d accidentally locked myself out of the steady group structure that populated the campus.
I think I’m just in between, I recounted via text to a friend in their late twenties, a friendship that had started in ballet. You might be in between groups, she replied. But you aren’t in between having friendships.
Friendship is a shape-shifter—we’re constantly growing in and out, inviting in new bonds and revisiting old ones.
It felt like it, though, as groups in my immediate vicinity felt impossible to bounce into and my own friends dispersed. When I moved back home after dropping out following my freshman year, a friend who’d moved across the country but was home on winter break confessed that she didn’t know how to be my friend anymore. Her life had changed so radically and mine had paused. Moving forward, she said, meant moving on—and sometimes, it meant, apparently, figuring out what it means to do that alone.
That’s sort of the enduring logic of growing up, isn’t it? That whatever counts is what you’ve done alone. That the luster of autonomy, independence, and the sometimes-somber freedom of being on your own indicate a certain level of grown-up-ness that we’re supposed to chase. So, my focus rounded to building a life that friendships could be added to later, I theorized. Moving to where I knew no one and decorating the apartment with too-high rent to only my taste, no roommates in sight; pointedly announcing at every opportunity that I was an introvert, as if enjoying solitude meant a lack of need for friendship.
Frankly, making friends felt too hard, and the myths of friendship in young adulthood didn’t make it easier. Over and over, self-help books and girl-bossy social media posts and advice from other adults reiterated opposite poles of friendship as a young person. First, there was the suggestion that if you don’t stumble into all your first Big Life Events with the backing of a sitcom-style cast of lifetime best buddies, you have done something wrong. This is, after all, the age for socializing! For putting yourself out there! For girls’ nights and Friendsgivings and dating at least one person in the friend group. “You’ll find your people,” goes the common advice. How? I always wanted to ask, the question lingering still and stiff in the silence of another night spent alone. Second, there was the great allure of individualism, in which young adulthood was the time to answer to you and only you, to separate from the pack, to do things on your own terms—something commonly presented as having to happen in opposition to other people, rather than with them.
From one angle, young adulthood billed as a time of self-focus and self-exploration feels like a revelation—a reprieve from who you used to be, a chance to build a new self, should you have the resources to do it. But from another, it’s like walking up to the metaphorical middle school lunchroom and realizing that you have nowhere to sit—where you look up and you’re standing in the kitchen of an apartment that feels too still at night—and that growing up feels an awful lot like being alone.
Of course, not every friendship should be an enduring one—and not every friendship needs to be an enduring one in order to matter. I wondered why the profundity of friendship in young adulthood didn’t get as much airtime. Around the time I began reporting the chapter of my book, An Ordinary Age, on loneliness, I realized that every conversation I had with people on how it felt to actually be alone, to feel alone, and the difference between the two was tethered to friendship—How are people making friends?
I listened as people grappled with friends they’d fallen out of touch with who had once been their emergency contacts, the grief of losing a group that had been central to their sense of belonging and identity as they pondered aloud whether struggling to make friends meant something was inherently wrong with them—whether they were needy.
And I thought of all the people I should’ve reached out to, and didn’t. All the chances to be vulnerable, to ask if someone wanted to be friends, that I didn’t take. For fear of being needy. Because of the absence of having a “friend group.” For the terror of admitting I didn’t really belong. Friendship felt more fraught than it usually was thought of amid conversation on romantic relationships, life choices, work and careers, places to live, and five-year plans. These are the things that are supposed to define and shape lives, we’re told too often. Friends are extra. They’re a given.
But they really aren’t.
People described the disorienting loss of a friend group as adulthood took them down separate paths in different directions; the fear of figuring out how on earth to make new friends, amid work or school or caregiving, got talked about just as much as the freedom of fresh starts. Guilt over being “too busy” to be a good friend, feeling untethered from a community of any kind, and wistful panic that friendship should be something that came naturally hovered in conversation after conversation.
My own adult insecurity about lacking a friend group—the second family, the guaranteed Friday-night plans, the go-get-your-stuff-after-a-breakup team—manifested first in panicked desire to make friends wherever I could find them and second in the resigned disappointment that I must’ve been meant to go it alone in this way. But the thing about meant-to-be’s, I’ve come to believe, is that we can change them. We can bend them; we can change our ideas of what’s meant to be ours and what we’re meant to give. Friendship is one of those things, given and gotten.
We can change our ideas of what’s meant to be ours and what we’re meant to give.
My favorites are the reunion stories and the reach-outs. One duo had lost touch in high school, only to find each other again, years later, in a preschool drop-off line—when their respective kids bounded toward them, eager to talk about their new friends. One of a pair of former roommates texted me a picture of the stationary she’d bought specifically to write letters to the person she’d lived with freshman year—after seeing her former roommate was looking for a pen pal on Instagram, she jumped into her DMs, and they reconnected via snail mail.
From the book, a story I think of all the time is a twenty-four-year-old who told me about “transitional friendship”: the ones that grow with you, somehow. As she and her high school friends have grown, changed, and added new people into their lives, they have a steadfast commitment to keep connected to each other, even if friendship can no longer routinely take the form of hanging out in someone’s basement and playing video games. Now, they do that when they can—but what remains, regardless, is dedication to knowing each other. People didn’t describe just best-friend reunions, but rather rekindlings: friendships that had managed to grow together, even if that growth happened separately.
This summer, when a friend I’d known in high school texted me to ask if I wanted to go for a walk and catch up, it felt like restoration. We’d meet on a walking trail early in the morning, when the air smelled like honeysuckle and the dampness of summer. It was as though someone had lifted their finger off a pause button, like we started a conversation midsentence. “It’s strange to look back and see everything you didn’t as a kid,” we kept repeating, in different phrasing, as we talked about loneliness and vowing to never move to a city just for work again, all the things about our families we didn’t realize until later, the last good books we’d read, and what reality TV show was the ultimate chosen one to zone out to. “This,” I remember saying, several miles in, “is one of the most healing things I’ve done in a long time.”Friendship, a healer. I got to know the person I’d admired so much in high school as an adult—and even after years of radio silence, of life changes, of moves, of loss, it felt like the kind of friendship that’s a porch light, calling you home in the dark.
Friendship is a shape-shifter—we’re constantly growing in and out, inviting in new bonds and revisiting old ones. Now, friendship, to me, looks like long phone calls and baked goods in the mail; coffee dates, walks, and hanging out in person, when you can; checking in and staying in touch, even after lapses. It looks like occasional check-ins and meeting for coffee when people are in the same cities; it’s sending baby gifts and buying your friend’s book and purchasing something off their classroom Amazon wishlist. Mostly, it doesn’t look like one single thing. What was most meaningful about those walks with my childhood friend was the revelation of how sprawling the definition of friendship can be. How the wide-open spaces considered to be young adulthood aren’t just about relishing new relationships but creating room for so many different versions of them to hold meaning to you.
As the pandemic continues, there’s been a lot of conversation about how to make new friends after a year of social isolation, how to make friends in a hometown you thought you’d never go back to, and how to sustain friendships with video calls and snail mail. A lot of how, because so many of us are looking for answers for belonging. Often, there’s no big reunion moment, no meet-cute with peers at school or new neighbors on your block that forges friendships. It has felt quieter than that to me: reaching out, and sometimes, when reconnecting, deciding to reach back.
And amid book recommendations and long phone calls and texts saying versions of “thinking of you” and care packages and Venmos for dinner treats, there have been silences. When it’s all A Lot sometimes, when conversation ebs much more frequently than it flows. I’m now trying to practice the care of reconnection, often messily, often slowly. I’m moving forward with the knowledge that being a friend might mean different things at different times, and that care can sustain despite distance and circumstance. That every message, every call, every socially distanced walk or coffee feels like a return to kindergarten. Feels like another way of saying, Hey, wanna be friends?
Rainesford Stauffer is a freelance writer and Kentuckian. She is the author ofAn Ordinary Age (Harper Perennial, 2021) and All the Gold Stars: Reimagining Ambition and the Ways We Strive (forthcoming from Hachette Books, May 2023).