Celibacy and friendship “after 30”

This was published last summer in the NYT, but it’s just now coming to my attention (via Luke Neff): “Friends of a Certain Age: Why Is It Hard to Make Friends Over 30?”

An excerpt:

In studies of peer groups, Laura L. Carstensen, a psychology professor who is the director of the Stanford Center on Longevity in California, observed that people tended to interact with fewer people as they moved toward midlife, but that they grew closer to the friends they already had.

Basically, she suggests, this is because people have an internal alarm clock that goes off at big life events, like turning 30. It reminds them that time horizons are shrinking, so it is a point to pull back on exploration and concentrate on the here and now. “You tend to focus on what is most emotionally important to you,” she said, “so you’re not interested in going to that cocktail party, you’re interested in spending time with your kids.”

As external conditions change, it becomes tougher to meet the three conditions that sociologists since the 1950s have considered crucial to making close friends: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other, said Rebecca G. Adams, a professor of sociology and gerontology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. This is why so many people meet their lifelong friends in college, she added.

In the professional world, “proximity” is hard to maintain, as work colleagues are reassigned or move on to new jobs. Last year, Erica Rivinoja, a writer on the NBC series “Up All Night,” became close with a woman, Jen, when they worked together on a pilot. Almost instantly, they knew each other’s exercise schedules and food preferences. Jen could sense when Ms. Rivinoja needed a jolt of caffeine, and without asking would be there with an iced tea.

“But as soon as the pilot was over, it was hard to be as close without that constant day-to-day interaction,” said Ms. Rivinoja, 35. They can occasionally carve out time for a quick gin and tonic, she said, but “there aren’t those long afternoons which bleed into evenings hanging out at the beach and then heading to a bar.”

When I speak to groups of Christians about celibacy and friendship, one of the questions that always comes up is whether intimate friendships are attainable in churches today, particularly for single young adults. “You speak positively and hopefully about friendship,” people say, “but are you and other celibate gay Christians actually satisfied by the friendships you’ve found? Do you have the companionship and intimacy you need?” This NYT essay points to some reasons for skepticism on that front. And if emotionally fortifying friendships aren’t attainable for young adult Christians, then is celibacy really a viable option for those Christians? Outside of religious orders, where proximity, regular unplanned interactions, and a setting that nurtures meaningful speech and mutual self-disclosure seem more readily available, where are the kinds of friendships that will sustain “parish celibacy” (which is the way I’ve started referring to the Christian practice of celibacy outside of vowed religious contexts, etc.)?

I don’t have a good answer to this question, other than to talk about what has been sustaining to me. (And also to admit, candidly, in many ways, in the words of U2, “I still haven’t found what I’m lookin’ for.”)

In my own life, I have certainly noticed the trend this article describes. Intimate friendship seemed to come easily among my peers at the small Christian college I attended, but after graduation, when many of my single friends married and began to have children, it took much more effort. When I think about the sustaining friendships I did find in my mid- to late-twenties, though, several traits stand out. First, they were forged in an environment that replicated, in some respects, the intensity of my undergraduate experience. I moved to Durham, England, for graduate school, and some of the people I met there — mostly, but not entirely, my fellow Ph.D. candidates — became close friends. Being in the same university department and having regular interactions because of that proximity made friendship virtually effortless. (Now that I teach in a seminary, some of that same ethos of my graduate school days is present again, though in a different form.)

Second, my post-college friendships with married people have each involved frequent planned interactions. I think of the middle-aged couple with teenage children at my church in Minnesota with whom I had lunch (that stretched into dinner) every Sunday afternoon. I think of the couple my age who lived next door to me in England. We attended the same church, and we had a standing Wednesday dinner appointment. Throughout the week, there would be other spontaneous times of seeing one another, but we always knew that on Wednesday at least, we’d be together. Likewise with another couple I was close friends with in graduate school: every Tuesday night we’d alternate cooking for each other — I’d be at their house one week, they’d come to mine the next week. Again, I’d see them at other times — often several times a week, and on weekends — but we knew we could count on significant time together at least once a week. Being able to count on these interactions, rather than having to expend the energy each week to schedule time together with friends, gave me a great deal of emotional security.

Third, the “after 30” friendships that I’ve made with married people have all depended in large measure on my married friends’ treating me not as a frequent guest but like an uncle to their children. While in Durham, two of my close couple friends asked me to be a godfather to their children. Being a godparent doesn’t necessarily (or even often, in our culture, I guess) guarantee frequent interaction, but in my case, it meant that I was with these two couples so much that it began to seem natural for me to go on family outings with them, to read books to their children before bedtime, even to share in household chores. I suspect many single Christians feel out of place in churches that place such a premium on programming for families in part because many families are not prepared to welcome single people as permanent members of their circle. But in my case, in Durham at least, I didn’t feel that dichotomy — between couples (or singles) with children and (childless) single people — as sharply as I might have because my close parent friends made clear to me that they considered me part of their family.

(I might add here that I also, as a single person, didn’t consider parents with young children outside of my circle. I regularly invited families over to my house for dinner, and there were other single people in my church who did the same. As my friend Eve Tushnet says, a big part of what we celibate people are seeking isn’t just to be the recipients of sacrificial love but to be able to give it — we want to be able to make soup for someone who’s sick, not just have someone who will make soup for us when we’re sick.)

None of these anecdotes offer a solution to the problem this article identifies, but I do think they go some way toward reminding Christians that we have resources, already available in our churches and Christian institutions, with which to approach the problem.

Margaret Clarkson once suggested “that there is a vast difference between being single at 25 or 30, with marriage still a viable possibility, and being single at 45 or 50 or 60, with little or no prospect of ever being anything else. Singleness has a cumulative effect on the human spirit which is entirely different at 50 than at 30.” The question we face in the church is, Can we live our lives in such a way that friendships flourish in the rush of those accumulating years?

12 thoughts on “Celibacy and friendship “after 30”

  1. You’ve hinted at this pretty well, but I think that physical proximity is almost a necessity in making this happen well. I won’t go Wendell Berry all over everybody in a brief comment, but certainly his thought and work has shaped my understanding of what communities can look like incorporating single people into the larger whole.

    For our part, my wife and I have had single roommates for 2.5 of the 3 years we’ve been married. We have blessed each other in ways that we couldn’t have predicted, and when we had our baby 4 months ago we were fairly certain we would have to ask our roommate to leave so that the baby could have her own room. But God provided a house for us to move into in the same neighborhood as our church (which is in the inner city and *very* dedicated to people living in close proximity), so we get to continue this relationship.

    While the roommate relationship may not always be the best for these sorts of situations, I think that living at least within walking distance, if not spitting distance, is a very important piece. And the church’s value on proximity and place makes up a big part of that.

  2. I am single, celibate, and over 50, but I live with a family. There are so many opportunities for giving and receiving support and encouragement. I highly recommend this for anyone in my situation!

  3. Amen to all of this, Wes. My experience has been similar–the need and gift of being included as an uncle in my close friends’ families. Two things I’ll add: (1) A sad remembrance of a friend whose insecurity led him to see me as a competitor for his child’s affections, cutting me off from much relationship with his son and, unsurprisingly, hamstringing out friendship as well. (2) The surprising way that inclusion in families–particularly the way my friends’ *wives* welcome me in–has encouraged and affirmed me in my masculinity and even my desirability. All this in thoroughly appropriate ways, I hasten to add; but being seen as a “good man” by my friends’ wives has been a great gift of friendship.

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  6. I am encouraged to read of this happening in community. I consider myself in a little bit of a different ‘sub-set’ of those responding, as I have been married in the past, single for ten years and celibate, yet have grown children and grandchildren. I am happy and emotionally full as my church provides a strong sense of community. I have wondered why there is such a high percentage of life-time single, divorced, and widowed people in our small church, but there is. I mentioned my best friend in a previous post, but I will also say here that her whole family has ‘adopted’ me as one of her own. I did not develop this relationship until my early forties, which considering your post, is also unusual. I will concur, that it is the ‘inclusion’ on both sides, they to my ‘events’ and visits and me to the rhythms of their household that has sustained us. During a time time of transition a few years back, they even opened their home to me and I lived with them for nine months until I got back on my feet. I have to also say, it is Not in the weekly Sabbath gatherings that we connect as much as the planned AND impromptu weekday get-togethers. I also agree that it is a reciprocal relationship.

  7. This reminds me of the friend I met on a tour of Israel last year who was an assigned roommate. The Holy Spirit convicted me to share my deepest shame with him at 10pm in Jerusalem on the last night of the tour. I said no and that I was going to bed. 3am I woke right back to the same prodding and woke him up at 5:15am. I shared my brokenness with him and he shared his as well. We have had countless calls, emails, texts in the past 9 mths and will God willing meet up again in May.. Once we even talked for 5 hrs! He knows more about me than anyone else and I definitely know more about him than anyone else. I have been waiting all these months to be rejected or have the friendship to drop but it has never happened. He has been so patient with my insecurities and weaknesses as I am 45 and never been in a deep friendship before. And he has taught me so much about being a real man and what true friendship looks like. The way he has loved me has given me a beautiful picture of how Christ loves me. And I will treasure this forever.

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