Making Friends in the Suburbs

When you live in the city, making new friends is as easy as opening the door. But in the burbs…

AS IT TURNED OUT, there wasn’t something wrong with us. There was something wrong with just about every person we knew who was like us—i.e., an over-30 adult. Married or not. Kids or not. Suburbs or not. Transplants or not. It seemed like anyone we talked to in our age bracket who wanted to “join a book club” couldn’t make it happen, either.

Actually, that wasn’t altogether true. One woman I knew had great friend-making success when she started playing ice hockey. Another made a slew of multi-generational BFFs when he joined a dragon boat team. But generally, the
joiners—whether joining mommy groups, running groups, writing groups, farmers’ market boards, bowling leagues, newcomers’ clubs, biking clubs, churches, Zumba, even a clutch for “women who own five cats”—found that the relationships they made rarely carried over to the “Wanna go to a movie” stage. It seemed so much like dating because … it was so much like dating. “I just gave up in despair after a while, frankly,” confided one former grad-school pal for whom even a book club was a big fat fail.

She and I weren’t the only people I knew (casually, head-noddily, not even slightly familiarly enough to call if I, say, needed someone to drive me to the ER to have a limb reattached) who kept trying and trying, and failing and failing, like lepers with a short-term memory disorder.

Kacy in Moorestown was eight months pregnant and desperate for “young parent friends” when she trudged through the overgrown brush behind her house to introduce herself to a new neighbor she’d been told had three young kids. The entire family watched her and her belly approach, smiled politely, and looked quite relieved when she left. Their relationship progressed to “Wave through the weeds,” but no further. (“I’m still annoyed I scratched my legs for her,” Kacy admits.)

When Tina started a new job in King of Prussia, she met a co-worker she knew could be more than just a “work friend.” So Tina invited the woman and her husband out to dinner with her and her husband, never considering how much harder it is to make “couple friends,” since not two but four personalities have to get along. “All her husband did was make anti-Semitic jokes all through dinner,” Tina said. “My husband is Jewish. It was so bad. I had to say something the following day. It got awkward. Luckily, she stopped working there shortly thereafter.”

One outdoorsy couple I knew from college thought they’d made couple friends at first sight when they met another outdoorsy pair who had boys exactly the same age as their boys, and lived right around the corner. But when Stephanie, the wife, went out for drinks with another girlfriend, the other wife freaked. “She was jealous,” Steph said. “She thought I should only be mommy friends with her.” The two women had dinner together to try and make up, a dozen pink roses were offered as an apology, but they could never get back that platonic-ing feeling.

“Thank God for Facebook,” reasoned Stephanie, still basically friendless, “so we can all hang onto friendships we made years ago and reassure ourselves that we’re not hopeless social fuckups.”

Except for the fact that we kinda are. Last fall, a friend—an old friend from grade school, to be clear—forwarded me an article from the New York Times about making friends in your 30s and 40s. It felt strangely reassuring to read about a psychology professor at Stanford who found that “people tended to interact with fewer people as they moved toward midlife, but that they grew closer to the friends they already had.” Ohhhh. So that was why we couldn’t make friends.

“Do you really feel like you have time for new cast members?” asked my neighbor, Tricia, the person who broke our four-year drought by inviting us to a Christmas party two years ago, at which my six-year-old threw up all over her living room rug. “Kids, work, family, house, trying to keep up with Philly friends from pre-kid life … I feel like any time I can find should be for me, my husband and the kids to reconnect. Uh-oh. Does this mean I’m one of the assholes running to and fro and not stopping to make friends?” (Tricia and her husband were once so uninterested in new friend requests that they would quip to each other, “Sorry, but we are not accepting applications at this time.”)

I couldn’t deny this made me hate Tricia a little, in the same way I hate people who have naturally curly hair or can play the piano by ear. But I also didn’t entirely believe her. I’d so often tried to convince myself that I was too busy for a “book club” that I did more to be busier, so that it might actually be true. When my girls hit school age, I joined the PTA, directed the school’s talent show, and joined the choir at the Unitarian church. I took on more writing assignments from more magazines. I tiled the kitchen backsplash all by myself. I have no time for new friends, I’d lie to the new people I was meeting in the alto section and at drop-off in the morning at school, not wanting to appear desperate.

Then, it would happen. I’d meet someone. We’d click. I’d start to believe that maybe, just maybe, I’d made a genuine, bona fide new friend. And then I’d get the form. It always came. Always. It came from the school and from the township athletic association during soccer sign-up. I’d get one at the karate studio and the art camp and in the office of any new doctor we went to: the “In Case of Emergency” contact form.

At the start of last school year—11 years after we moved to this town—when I flipped the page on our first-ever registration for the school district’s after-care program and saw the form, I nearly cried. There were not one, not two, not three, but four lines on which we were supposed to list four people who could be called to “act on behalf of parents” if “parents couldn’t be reached.” The main requirement was plain: All four of these people needed to have local phone numbers. The extent of my “local phone number” supply was the digits of three other second-grade moms.

I had never felt more isolated in my life. Because that was it. Right there. It was the real, true defining line of friendship—who would you be able to ask, be able to count on, be able to trust, to take care of one of your kids in a crisis? I wouldn’t have hesitated to write down the numbers of any of my old friends. I wouldn’t even have had to ask them first. But they weren’t here. Who was?

“Thad, I need a book club.”

“I know, Vicki. I know.”

1 2 3< Previous Next >View as One Page

Around The Web

Be respectful of our online community and contribute to an engaging conversation. We reserve the right to ban impersonators and remove comments that contain personal attacks, threats, or profanity, or are flat-out offensive. By posting here, you are permitting Philadelphia magazine and Metro Corp. to edit and republish your comment in all media.

  • Jen

    This article really comes off as pathetic. Further into the article is a comment about how 30 and 40 year olds typically make less new friends and instead focus on the friendships they already have. I agree with that. I feel embarrassed for this author going around and pathetically trying to attach herself to others. Several questions come to mind, if she has children and a husband when does she have time to “hang out” or see a movie and if she wants to see a movie maybe she should go with her husband. This article does get into another interesting topic…..marriage between people with not enough common interests…..

    • trevsonic

      Wow, clearly you miss the points entirely. What an unhappy grump you are. Next time do everyone a favor, and when you get half-way through something you clearly don’t understand and don’t like, just stop reading and spare us your inane and unqualified opinions. : )

      • Heather Lippincott Fowler

        AMEN! It is mind-boggling to me that people feel the need to make harsh character judgements about a writer who’s just trying to tell it like it is! If you don’t like the article, or feel it doesn’t apply to you, stop reading and zip it sista! All writing is not for all people and variety is the spice of life. I have a great relationship with my husband and plenty of common interests (as I’m sure Vicki does as well) but we all need girlfriends!!!

    • JennyC

      Wow. I hope you never find yourself in a position to want or need new connections in your life.

  • Irene

    Wow what a judgmental narrow-minded person you are – instead of taking time to write an insulting reply to the writers honest brave article maybe you should go spend some more time with your only friend your husband – the man forced to hang out with you because of a ring on finger – I feel sorry for him but at least he’s the only person who has to listen to you so therefore I’m grateful to him

    • Me

      Hope you don’t move any soon to a not nice neighbors place some day!! Or you kids? ;)

  • Irene

    Thank you so much for putting on paper how I’ve felt for so long – I live in a suburb of Illinois, transplanted here from the east coast (still get Philadelphia magazine!) & have been in the Friend of the Friendless Club for years – so grateful to you for letting me know I’m not alone & that to never give up hope – if I found you then I bet there’s someone fun looking just like we are hopefully just a little closer

    • Pam

      I’ve lived in the Chicago suburbs for years and have had the same experience many times over. Thank goodness for Facebook so i can keep in touch with old friends. So many people have the “not taking new applications” attitude.

      • Irene

        omg Pam what suburb do you live in? lol

        • Pam

          I live in Glen Ellyn, so we’re nearly neighbors! We should have coffee.

          • Pam

            But, of course, Irene never responded when I suggested something as innocuous as coffee. Nevermind…

  • Ella

    I moved to the west coast. Tried to make “mommy” friends. Threw a huge birthday party for my son and people came. But, I was appalled by the lack of manners. We asked for no gifts- but a few insisted and brought obviously used items. One husband asked the event space manager the cost of the party – in front of me. I had brought prizes for all the children but a few moms hoarded them all. I could have these people as friends…. I feel the author’s pain. Just someone to pal around with after you drop the kids at preschool….

  • christine

    Great article. I had the same experience living in South Jersey, but thought it was because I didn’t have any children. It was extremely isolating. My husband is my best friend and soul mate, but you still need girlfriends, and mine we’re also scattered about the country. So I started joining meetups in Philadelphia, found a great bunch of women, and 8 years later, we’re still besties. Oh, and years ago, this country girl gave up on the suburbs and moved to Philly, and hasn’t looked back.

  • Yes!

    I think it is pretty funny that someone actually breaks down what occurs. . . .it definitely is a struggle when one moves to a new town. I remember my neighbor looking at us like we were crazy when we asked if they wanted some clams we were cooking on the barbecue…as if a yes would be a commitment to lifelong obligations too scary to contemplate!! I found that my very social kids didn’t know or understand all the boundaries the adults were throwing out and actually made friends. . .whose parents (many but not all) started to see us differently. I cried the whole first year I was in my new New Jersey town (from Philly) and thought who are these people? Why did I have friends in Philly but not now? My husband was a little worried for me because I lost all my juju for awhile but looking back, I think it was when I could laugh a little at the situation, my kids made connections, and I decided it wasn’t me, it was a group of very unhappy neighbors (who eventually moved) that it came together. I empathize with the writer who spelled out what so clearly happens sometimes. . .I actually loved my town and neighbors in the end. . .but we still laugh at the Twilight Zone experience in the beginning.

  • The nice neighbor here

    I know!! Happens!!! Is just so stupid to do something like a book club…is nice if everybody welcome a new neighbor is hard enough to change you life and start again in other new place…. Very bad example for their own kids! Some ladies are very crazy about a stupid “exclusive club”

  • Rachel

    What a great article! My husband and I are transplants from NC (home
    of the passing hello to every stranger) and were really surprised by the shut
    out up here. We live in Delaware County
    (where people taut their child’s elementary school as their Alma Mater) and
    have experienced a very similar tale as Vicki’s. About 6 months after we moved here we met our
    first friends in our baby birthing class, and through them made a few
    others. We all have one significant
    thing in common, we aren’t originally from here. I have found that the majority of people who
    have been born and raised in the Philly area are good with their own circles
    and aren’t open to new experiences. One of my good friends, a neighbor whose
    child is involved in all the same activities as mine and whom I see and talk to
    every single day, is almost never available for a weekend dinner or outing. She is booked months in advance because of
    how many friends/family she has locally!
    She actually told me she wasn’t
    into making new friends because she isn’t available for more in her life. (We don’t have that in common,
    obviously.) In the past 7 years I have
    done the same things as Vicki: joined everything, volunteered, said yes to
    every invite, and eventually even formed my own group (it was a Book Club but
    turned into “Ladies’ Night” because only 2 of us actually wanted to
    read). The friends I have are not friends in which I have a lot in common with,
    more so friends that want to be involved with other people and are open to saying
    yes. I am beginning to think that this is just the way of “adulting.” No one is coming up to us (at either of the 2
    concerts we can get out to a year) to invite us to hang with them. So I introduce myself and try to make
    connections regularly; we’re cool people, I know there is hope for us. Maybe as more people choose to move here that old
    school environment will be more welcoming.
    Until then, yes we are available for your barbecue, book club, and
    Easter dinner…we have no other plans.

  • Jenn McKee

    I believe I’m the one who “gave up in despair.” :) It’s crazy. Just recently, I tried to launch a book group, reaching out to many women I’ve gotten to know a little bit since moving to this town 8 years ago. We had one inaugural, awesomely fun night out with drinks – I came home full of hope – but then, over the course of just about 5 months, it’s already pretty much dwindled to nothing. I’ve been racking my brain lately, thinking that adults are now as “over-programmed,” if not more, than their children. Leaving me languishing for a close friend or 2 yet again. Sigh. Been thinking, too, about how all those lists of what makes happy people happy list things that are often pretty near impossible for parents of young children: time with close friends, travel, plenty of sleep, etc. But I’m still going to try and keep trying. I already grieved losing the close friends with whom I used to spend much of my time.

  • Amy

    You hit the nail on the head; it’s hard to make friends as weird..