January 26, 2017

Friendship After College

I remember exactly where I was when I realized friendship had become a struggle. I was sitting in my car, at a stand-still during rush hour traffic on I-75 in Dallas, Texas. Exhausted from a long day at my new job, fresh out of college, I only wanted to crawl into bed and sleep instead of grocery shop or pay bills or accomplish any number of the necessities screaming for my attention.

This whole real-world adult thing wasn't as exciting as I'd hoped.

I considered my new life from various angles as I inched forward in traffic. I was working a job that kept me from attending church services, even though I was actually working at a church. I was living with my aunt and uncle, 60 miles from the seminary I attended part-time. And because it was the prehistoric time before cell phones and Facebook, I hadn't communicated with my closest friends, who were also newly navigating adulthood, in weeks. None of us had the energy to call each other or drive for hours for a face-to-face. I felt so out of sorts, so disoriented, so alone.
I missed college terribly. I hated that I'd been surreptitiously thrust out of its safe, warm cocoon-like environment without so much as a warning that adult life would be this challenging. I hated that my relationships were changing so rapidly because of responsibilities and new jobs in faraway places and engagements. In adulthood, it seemed to me on I-75 in Dallas, relationships were not going to come easy.

I write about that moment and my transition into adult friendships in my forthcoming book, Messy Beautiful Friendship. Here's an excerpt:

Looking back, college was the friendship jackpot. I remember that time with fondness, and I admit that I've spent much of my adulthood dreaming up ways to recreate that slice of life. College friendships felt much like my childhood friendships, when community just sort of happened to me, except in college it was with additional freedom, opportunities, and a wider diversity in the types of friends I made. Everyone was on an equal playing field because everyone started as a new student and everyone was asking the same questions about life and the future and relationships.

But then we all became adults. Suddenly we weren't on an equal playing field any longer, because some of us became engineers and some of us chose to get a graduate degree in psychology (ahem). Some of the kids I went to high school with had skipped college altogether, entering the workforce straight out of high school and having to grow up a little quicker. Some of us got married right away and some of us didn't. Some of us were already picking out fabric swatches for the curtains and couches in our newly purchased house while the rest of us went back to Mom and Dad's spare bedroom.

I didn't like that my friendships were evolving, nor did I find this new social territory exciting. Life coaxed me toward making new friends, but I didn't want to make new friends; I simply wanted to figure out how to maintain the ones I already had. I wanted things to be how they used to be.


In reality, I had crossed over some invisible line. I was no longer a child, and friendship had become inexplicably and frustratingly hard. The ease of childhood friendship was forever irretrievable.

In my mind, I returned to that moment in the car many times over the next few years, even after I got married and together my husband and I moved to a new city so he could take a college ministry position. Sometimes I returned to that moment because I still longed for my college years, and I remembered with such clarity when my eyes were opened to my new reality. Mostly, however, I've returned to that moment with others to let them know they weren't alone. Former students who had come through our college ministry would call me up about six months after graduation and, almost with shame in their voices, tell me how much they were struggling relationally and how much they longed for what they'd had in college.

I would tell them about my own struggles and then I'd offer some advice, based upon what I myself learned the hard way:

Transition is hard for everyone, so know you're not the only one wrestling with it. Cut yourself some slack. Despite what you see on Instagram or Facebook, everyone is navigating new roles and responsibilities and everyone is a little unsure of themselves. Give it time, even up to two years, before panicking. By then, if you put some intentional effort into your life, you'll have no reason to panic.

Don't try to recreate what you've experienced. You won't find a church exactly like the church you loved in college. You won't have the free time you had in college. You won't experience the effortless, drop-in-your-lap community either. You probably won't live with your friends, and even if you do, you'll probably all have different work schedules anyway. The sooner you let go of what was and embrace the reality of what is, the easier your transition will be and the more open you'll be to new friendships.

Learn to pursue others and make intentional time for friendship. The pace of our lives often pushes friendship to the sidelines as a lesser priority. You're going to have to be intentional with relationships and probably even give up some nonessential pursuits in order to have the community you want. Adult friendship is a different bird than college friendship--you are absolutely going to have to seek it out, pursue friends both old and new, and carve out time when it'd probably be easier to veg in front of the TV. And when you pursue people? Pursue peers, but also intentionally pursue those of older generations. They've walked in your shoes before you and have wisdom to share as you navigate adulthood.

Make decisions that help rather than hinder friendship. Don't discount the idea of choosing a job, city, or neighborhood based upon a church or community. If you have a choice, choose in a way that fosters relationships over money or stuff every. single. time. I see many people choosing in a way that drastically affects their drive time or their ability to join in community-building opportunities and then feel frustrated or even bitter when they don't have the relationships they crave. Choose wisely.

If you're staying in your college town after graduation, think of it as a move. Because it will feel like a whole new world but you'll try to convince yourself it shouldn't be so difficult. Thinking of it as a move will broaden your horizons and help you notice new people as potential friends.

Make time for the old. If you developed deep friendships in college, you've found a treasure. How can you continue to engage those friends while cultivating new ones? Talk through ideas with your friends and commit to making time for one another. Both my husband and I take separate trips to Texas each year to spend the weekend with our college friends. Over 20 years, these relationships are some of the most important ones we have. I'm glad we've made them a priority while cultivating new relationships where we live.

What did you learn about friendship after college?