I don’t need to be here. I have friends.
It’s a line I repeated to myself, a line I almost blurted out loud, at a “friend speed dating” event I attended in Washington, DC, earlier this year. It was designed for women in their 20s and 30s to find not love, but friendship.
For two hours, scores of women paraded in front of me like a Golden Corral buffet. The same scent of desperation and loneliness that characterizes actual speed dating events on TV permeated the air.
And so I kept telling myself: I’m not like them. This isn’t something I need.
But the truth is there are two events looming in the distance that are going to happen whether I like it or not.
First, I’m reaching “the decade friends disappear,” an age when sociologists and psychologists say you’re most likely to lose your closest friends. “New research recently found that starting at age 25, we lose more friends than we make each year,” one writer reported at Vox last year.
Second, my own best friend, whose existence in my life is inextricably linked to my time in DC, is leaving town. The date hasn’t officially been set, but the reason for her imminent departure is immutable: She fell in love.
I don’t need to be here. I have friends.
But for how long?
Why we have trouble making friends in our 30s
After 30 — the age I’m nearing — experts find we may make casual friends, but most of us lose our best friends. People get married. They have kids. Priorities shift, and suddenly friendship starts to seem like a luxury, maybe even a waste of time that is now in ever shorter supply. How ironic that falling in one kind of love has the ability to make us lose another.
In a phone interview, psychologist and author of The Friendship Fix Andrea Bonior told me that even if you’re not married or parenting, people stop being as close to their friends because, well, they’re literally not as close anymore.
“Proximity is what keeps your friendships going,” Bonior said. “The problem is the busier we get, the less we have proximity to people naturally.”
She also referred to “the epidemic of busyness” that seems to hit cities like DC especially hard. “It’s almost viewed as unattractive to have all kinds of time available to hang out with your friends.”
DC is a city known for its impermanence, and our social infrastructure seems to be built for loneliness, or at least intimacy with an expiration date.
Which is why I was open to attending the speed friendship dating event, cleverly named “Friend Request,” at a hip synagogue in downtown DC. It had sold out all 30 seats; clearly I wasn’t the only one on the hunt for new friends.
Friendship is like dating: chemistry is important
In romantic dating, there’s an easy way to gauge whether you want to get to know someone, and it usually boils down to answering a single question: “Do I want to see this person naked?”
When you’re dating for friends, it’s a little more complicated.
The rules of the friend speed dating event were simple. For the first round, our host would provide a prompt (“What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken?”) that we would have a total of three minutes to answer; how we divided those three minutes was up to us. After that, a bell would ring, and the women sitting on the inside would rotate to their right, while those on the outside stayed still. Rinse and repeat.
I may not have had a desire to see anyone naked, but I did discover that, much like dating, friendship is predicated on chemistry, something I did not feel with the majority of women rotating my way.
One woman, in true DC fashion, treated our exchange like a networking opportunity. When I told her where I work, she responded with the classic, “We should talk.” Another — showcasing how small the city actually is — turned out to be someone I knew; she had once answered a Craigslist ad I posted looking for a roommate.
Finally, after half a dozen exchanges that were either painful or painfully ordinary, I met someone with potential. I told her about my best friend leaving the city, and said that I’d joked about me going with her.
“We even looked for jobs together. I have my eye on one as a livestock crime investigator.”
“What is that?” she asked. “Investigating people who tip cows?”
“I’m not sure, but it listed fence climbing as a required skill.”
“Well then, you officially have some competition.”
When the buzzer went off, it seemed that both of us found the three minutes weren’t enough. By the end of the evening, I found myself taking on the role that men have traditionally adopted, racking my brain for activities to suggest and clever pickup lines to try out. Should I ask for her phone number? Or was that too needy? Should I find an activity to do and follow up in a few days instead?
When the event finally ended, I took a look around the room and decided on the last option. The only thing I wanted to rush was my commute home.
The secret to making friends with my BFF: getting stuck inside during a snowstorm
I’ll never forget how lonely it was the first time I set foot in DC as a congressional intern, young and still in college and shocked by how cold my surroundings were.
By the time “Snowmageddon” hit, the major snowstorm that shut down most of the city for days in February 2010, I’d already been in the city for six weeks and still hadn’t managed to make a meaningful connection. But then something unexpected happened.
Locked in with a dozen or so other women in the all-female dormitory I was housed in, left with nothing to do but play board games in the common area, I made eye contact with another resident over a game of Apples to Apples. We both laughed at a slightly inappropriate joke, the only ones in the room to do so. It only lasted for a second, but it was enough.
At first, I wasn’t sure I wanted to get close with her. But her room was only a few doors down from mine, and most nights after work I could expect to hear a soft knock on my door. I knew she was on the other side, eager to rehash her day, but as a true introvert, there were times I didn’t answer, hoping she would think I wasn’t home.
“I always knew you were in there,” she finally told me, years later. But she understood my need for privacy, and she kept coming back.
We stayed in touch when we both left to finish up our undergraduate degrees, and she talked me off ledges and through breakdowns in the post-collegiate quarter-life crises we millennials sometimes go through. When the time came, we both agonized over whether we should move back to DC and leave our hometowns behind permanently — the biggest risk either of us had ever taken.
She went first, taking a job on the Hill, while I applied for graduate school. When I moved back more than two years after we first met, she was the one to pick me up from the airport, to welcome me back, welcome me home.
“You’re here!” she said.
This time, we had no physical hallways to connect us, no natural proximity to tie us together. We lived on completely opposite sides of the city, to the point that overnight bags were sometimes required to see each other on the weekend. All we had was the experience and the understanding that it was all worth it, to manufacture our own opportunities for closeness, even if it didn’t come easily. Now that she’s leaving, it’s a lesson we’ll have to learn again.
It’s nothing new to write about the love we feel our female friends, for women writers to wax poetic about the friends who became our soul mates, the real loves of our lives. Hell, Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert went so far as to actually fall in love with her best friend.
But however clichéd or commonplace it may be, the lack of originality does not diminish its veracity. True friends, like soul mates or spouses, don’t come around all that often. And when we lose them, they are not so easy to replace. The time granted just wasn’t enough.
The secret to making friends as an adult: proximity — and persistence
After Friend Request, I spent weeks doing the same dance I do with men on Tinder or OKCupid. I met a few women for drinks in a small group, followed up with brunch a couple of weeks later, and, in a move meant to garner greater intimacy, spent one Friday night at a concert with the one woman I felt most connected to, the one who vowed to compete with me for title as livestock crime investigator.
In the end, how I felt about these women is the same way I feel about most of the men I’ve met online: They’re wonderful. Funny, smart, interesting, successful. There was absolutely nothing wrong with them. And yet it felt forced, our attempts to manufacture the kind of intimacy that typically takes years to form. We seemed to be missing our own infrastructure, one that fosters love and humor and the kind of exchanges you have in snowstorms, when you’re stuck inside and find it’s not so bad after all to be where you are.
Or maybe what we really need isn’t proximity, but persistence. Whether it’s speed dating for love or for friendship, there’s no shortage of ways to gain access to potential intimacy; there’s just a lack of effort on our part to stick it out when it stops being convenient, to keep knocking, to keep coming back, even when it’s hard. To decide it’s worth it.
When I met my new friend at the concert, just the two of us, we had a great time. We drank whisky and PBR and laughed at a couple we were sure were on an awkward first date — kind of like us — and discovered we had even more in common than we’d initially thought. But when the evening came to an end and we said our goodbyes, that’s all there was — that and our mutual lack of attempt to make plans to see each other again.
As we both prepared to brave the cold, the threat of snow once again tingeing the air, all I could sense was potential, and the uncertainty that we would ever do anything with it.
Eva Harder is a writer in Washington, DC. Her work has appeared at the Washington Post, Salon, and WAMU 88.5. Since she could always use more friends (and followers), find her on Twitter @HarderNews.