When Friendships Falter

Growing up, David Zahl noticed “how friendship didn’t seem to be an overwhelming priority for people in their 30s and 40s, men in particular.” Now that he’s approaching middle age, he finds this passage from Tim Kreider’s essay “The Referendum” an apt account of why this might be so:

The Referendum is a phenomenon typical of (but not limited to) midlife, whereby people, increasingly aware of the finiteness of their time in the world, the limitations placed on them by their choices so far, and the narrowing options remaining to them, start judging their peers’ differing choices with reactions ranging from envy to contempt. The Referendum can subtly poison formerly close and uncomplicated relationships, creating tensions between the married and the single, the childless and parents, careerists and the stay-at-home… So we’re all anxiously sizing up how everyone else’s decisions have worked out to reassure ourselves that our own are vindicated — that we are, in some sense, winning…

Zahl riffs on this insight:

In other words, the real reason certain types of relationships tail off during middle age is because these are the years when we are doing most of our “achieving”, when our capacity for comparison is arguably at its zenith, when the discrepancies are most pronounced. Not surprisingly, the Referendum is exacerbated rather than assuaged by erstwhile closeness.

Meaning, we can and do spend plenty of (happy) time in middle age with peers with whom we don’t share many natural affinities–the difficulty comes with those with whom we once did; the degree to which we identified with someone in college or high school will be the degree to which their current trajectory makes us feel uncomfortable. That goes for the church they attend and theology they espouse just as much as the car they drive. Not exactly rocket science, I know, nor the only reason why people grow apart, but a prevalent factor nonetheless, and perhaps part of what accounts for the U-Bend of Happiness.

Kreider takes things a little further, though, claiming that our once-and-future comrades represent alternate versions of ourselves. The “control group” in the experiment of our life–scary! I can only speak for the ministry-nonprofit side of this equation, but the dynamic is as widespread as it is transparent–which is to say, embarrassingly so. It’s occasionally even used as a bludgeon against those closest to us (i.e. “if you only knew how much money I left on the table when I signed up for this” or conversely “I gave up my dreams to support you!”). I’m sure social media is not helping things, especially when it comes to Marriage and Kids, which Kreider locates as the biggies.