My husband and I moved from LA to the Bay Area a little over a year ago. Whenever someone asks me how I like living here, I answer truthfully: I like it a lot, as the Bay Area is a nearly unbeatable place to live. But building a community has taken longer than I anticipated.
If I’m talking to someone in their 30s, the latter sentence usually evokes a visceral response: Their eyes widen with recognition, their nods get deeper. Because they know.
It’s remarkable how common an experience this is: Making friends in your 30s is significantly harder than making friends earlier in life. Almost as remarkable is how little warning I had that this was coming. There’s plenty of literature that tells you what to expect when you get to college; there’s even more about what to expect when you get pregnant. But save for a single article in the New York Times, I had read nothing about this phenomenon until it actually happened to me.
Maybe I just ignored the warnings. I spent my 20s in my grad school community – in friendships formed during Welcome Week, when everyone was new and hungry for friends, and sustained by our common experiences of being in school. As people slowly moved away after graduation, they almost universally reported that they had trouble finding a community like the one we had as students. I didn’t connect the dots until it happened to me.
So many factors play into this phenomenon: In your 30s, you’re not in contact with as many new people as you were in your twenties. You have less time and energy, so you have higher standards about who you spend your time with. (In my younger days, I was happy to go out on a Tuesday with a random group of people; now that I’m in my 30s, and I always have the option of spending a weeknight with my husband and Netflix, it takes something pretty impressive to get me to choose otherwise.) You don’t run into people with similar experiences as often as you did growing up or in college.
And a big factor, at least in my case, has been complexity of adding a second person to the friend-matching mix.
In my single days, when I was looking for single friends, the odds of forming a friendship with a new acquaintance weren’t too bad. There were four scenarios for how I’d feel about them – let’s call them Jen – and how they’d feel about me:
So there was a one-in-four chance that Jen and I would like each other. One in four isn’t bad. I could potentially become friends with 25% of the people I met.
But now that I’m partnered up and living in a new city, I’m looking for friends as part of a unit, which means that I’m looking largely to other couples. And couple friends are a completely different ballgame from single friends.
Because there are 16 scenarios for how Robert and I could feel about a potential couple (let’s call them Jen and Ben, for the sake of brevity):
So the chances that both of us will like both of them are one in 16.
And then you have to consider how Jen and Ben feel about us. They have the same 16 options. The chances of both of them liking both of us are also one in sixteen.
So the odds of both of us liking both of them AND both of them liking both of us are
1/16 * 1/16 = 1/256.
The chances are one in TWO HUNDRED AND FIFTY-SIX that both of us will like both of them and vice versa.
I mean, with those odds, it’s remarkable that anyone ever finds couple friends.
Obviously, this model is overly simplistic. It assumes that everyone likes 50% of the people they meet, which is an underestimation for some and a gross overestimation for others. It also assumes that there’s no relationship between who you like and who your partner likes; in reality, there’s probably at least a slight correlation. It places feelings about another person into two discrete categories – “like” and “don’t like” – when really, those feelings exist on a spectrum. And it disregards all the other factors that influence the likelihood that you’ll become friends with another person, like proximity and repeated interactions and the like (which the aforementioned NYT article covers well).
But, for all of their flaws, these numbers help me understand why it feels so much harder to make friends as a couple than it did as a single person, and why making good friends only gets harder as you get older.
I was recently discussing these odds with friends of mine who have kids. “You think it’s hard with 2 people,” one of them said, “just wait until you have 4.”
I paused. I had figured that having children was the next point in life when friend networks get rewired, as you befriend people who are also becoming new parents, and those people become your primary friend group for the rest of your life. It wasn’t that simple?
“Nope,” he said. That scenario may be true when your children are infants, but once they start interacting on their own, you also have to contend with how they feel about each other. Matchmaking for 2 becomes matchmaking for 3 — or more.
From their perspective, working with only 2 people is a breeze. So I guess I’ll make the most of the fact that we’re only looking for 2: I’ll be proactive about inviting people over for dinner, since I don’t just run into them the way I did as a student; I’ll be intentional about connecting with people through the things I do outside of work; I’ll be grateful for the solid friendships we do have here and keep investing in them. I don’t think it’s impossible to build a community at this age; it seems to just take a lot more work.
P.S. If you have any similar experiences or reflections, I’d love to hear them!