Post-College Friendship: Figuring Out Which Pals Will Stick Around

Crunching on cereal in my pajamas, I watched my dad feign interest in Rick’s life. Rick, a boisterous figure from his childhood with overspilling mannerisms, paid my father an unexpected visit in early February. My dad hadn’t seen him in 30-plus years and if I had to guess, he hadn't given Rick’s absence much thought in the interim. As this strange man spoke of gambling escapades, his third wife, and a son who spends too many hours getting high, I slinked away from the increasingly uncomfortable conversation, only to return an hour later to see Rick had left. 

According to Rick, he and my dad (whom he called Charlie), were “thick as thieves” when they were kids. I asked my father what happened and why they lost touch. Then, it occurred to me I wasn’t sure where most of my parent’s childhood, high school, and college buddies are. There are only a few friends from their pasts who I know by full name. There was one who more or less disappeared after joining the Peace Corps, another that became victim to a destructive marriage, and then there are those whose whereabouts are simply unknown. But at what point had the phone calls ceased? From my perspective - having carried the majority of my closest friendships from grade school through college and into my 20s - it’s difficult to imagine a day when such familiar faces transform into near strangers. 

A recent essay written by Ryan O’Connell on Thought Catalog places the understanding of friendship third in a list of 25 things he learned in his 20s. O’Connell writes: “You’re going to lose touch with a lot of your friends. With some people, it will be expected but with others it will feel like a punch to the stomach.” He warns readers about ridding themselves of people they deem toxic and encourages us to take caution when handling matters of the heart. Although many reading his article (and mine) may be shrugging - Ugh, yet another self-indulgent reflection from a dramatic millennial - no one can argue the unmatched role friendship plays in our lives.

In college, you sleep down the hall from - or in the same bunk as - your closest friend whom you also skip classes with, meet for meals, and stay up late divulging your soul to. When things drastically change following graduation, it’s not with your nod of approval. You try keeping in touch, activating a Skype account and downloading WhatsApp, but the pull of a long workday or a 12-hour time difference is more powerful than your desire to play catch-up.

As we move forward into adulthood, we make weightier choices based on what’s best for ourselves, oftentimes discounting anyone else’s opinion. We try desperately to piece together a semblance of the world we imagined adulthood would be like; a world in which not everyone fits. Suddenly, our friends are those we end up needing when the timing’s right. You reach toward someone who's kind when you crave reassurance; someone unapologetic when you feel you’ve been careless; and someone more cynical than yourself when you're discouraged by bad luck. Slowly we discern which people make us feel best and let go of those that only negate the progress we’ve made or the person we want to be.

Losing a friend can be heartbreaking or it can happen unknowingly. Many people I talked to about friendship - aged 24 to 61 - had either begun to funnel or finished funneling the friendships they’d gathered since childhood. A couple college graduates live with their best friends from high school and see their college buddies regularly; while a father keeps up with the men he plays basketball with and typically makes dinner plans with his children's friends' parents. And I wonder: What happened to his high school best friend-turned roommate?

A particularly eloquent and insightful friend of mine explained, “My closest friends are those who are nonjudgmental listeners, and those who have reached out to me when they need a nonjudgmental listener for themselves.” She’s 24 and living across the country from her hometown and alma mater. In addition to keeping up with co-workers and spending time with close-by classmates, she phones in to friends on the East Coast during weekday commutes. Comparably, a 61-year-old male relative of mine noted: “My closest friends today are the folks I currently have most in common with. Similar life circumstances, similar interests, likable spouses.” He feels strongly connected to his pals from prep school, but rarely sees them and places his family - his brother and sister - a notch above others.

Growing up, we tie ourselves to a BFF, believe in making new friends while keeping the old, and lean on adages from the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson: "The one way to have a friend is to be one." But at a certain point, we no longer have the bandwidth to maintain every meaningful relationship, and the once tried and true tenets of friendship fall short of expectations. If possible, a lesson in the evolution and dissolution of friendships ought to be taught earlier and with more honesty; knowing others endure similar transitions, it'd be less terrifying. But maybe, like many of life's other harships, this is just one of those things we come to understand solely through experience.