‘I Wasn’t Alone, But I Was Lonely’: Dealing With Your Friendship Circle Shrinking Post-College
Feel like your friendship circle is shrinking thanks to emigration, marriage, and babies? You're not alone.
I’d need several hands to count the number of leaving dos and goodbye drinks I’ve attended over the past five years. One by one, college pals peeled off in different directions around the world, clutching ziploc bags of Barry’s Tea and cards full of foreign currency. But it all felt pretty removed from me until the year that two of my closest friends left for San Francisco and Vancouver, and a third a little later for Scotland. All of a sudden, I was left with three friend-shaped gaps in my life where they used to be.
Nights out dwindled. The spontaneous hang-outs, dinners and pub visits that used to pepper my weeks disappeared, and Saturdays seemed so empty. I’m lucky in that I have a wonderful boyfriend and amazing housemates that I love with all my heart, but they of course have their own lives and friends and interests. I wasn’t alone, but I was lonely.
Social media made it seem like everyone was always having incredible nights out with their super close groups of pals, while I was spending another Saturday sitting in bed watching YouTube videos on my laptop. Why is it only me? I’d think, having a lovely little pity party for myself. But really, it wasn’t just me – Paula Coogan, AKA The Quarter Life Coach, says lots of people find their friend groups shrinking as they move further away from school and college.
If you think about it, all through school and secondary school, and college as well to a certain extent, everyone is on the same path, working towards the same goals of good grades, progression… It’s like we have our own bubble and it’s protected. But once we’re out in the real world, things start to change very quickly and that bubble bursts. People start following their own interests, meeting new people and making new friends as they do.
“Relationships get that bit more serious, marriage, babies and mortgages come along. Priorities shift away from friendships and fun to responsibilities,” she tells me.
This can be a lonely time, as I found out, and Paula advises anyone feeling low to speak to a counsellor. “I know this sounds dramatic, but it can be a very difficult experience for many people,” she says.
Is it possible to keep friendships alive as circumstances change? Yes, but how you do it depends on the situation. If your friends have emigrated, do you FaceTime or email regularly? Can you visit? I’ve been all over the place over the past three years visiting my emigrant mates – this isn’t feasible for everyone, obviously, but I feel that making the effort to go and see them has helped to solidify our friendship. We also settled into a rhythm on Facebook Messenger, in which I pelted them with thoughts and observations and bits of news during the day, and they responded with their own when they woke up on the other side of the world.
“I visited my best friend in the UK about two to three times a year – we text and chat all the time as well, so it did bring us closer. My friend who went to Australia now has residency there, I’ve been to visit twice but the relationship isn’t as strong as it used to be,” says Paula. “For some relationships, proximity doesn’t matter, but others need it.”
If the gap between you is less of a physical one, and more a result of you moving in different directions in life – marriage, babies – then it’s just a fact that the dynamics will shift and these friends will have less time for Love Island and takeaway nights. You’ll just have to learn to adapt.
“If you’ve a friend with kids or a new baby and feel that she no longer has time for you, sometimes what you need to do is make more time for her,” says Paula.
Make her a meal and bring it over, offer to watch the baby while she has a nap or a shower. It’s a completely different dynamic of friendship, but the friends that can do this for one another are the ones that last.
Friendships can absolutely survive these tests, but for them to do so, everyone involved must be willing to put in the work. “At some stages of life, you may not have as much time to invest in friendships and some leeway needs to be given, but as long as you communicate and talk about it, there’s no reason for friendships to die,” says Paula. Remember that if it’s turning into a one-way friendship with you getting nothing back in return, you may just need to let it go.
You might be expertly maintaining your long-distance friendships, but still finding yourself at a loose end a few Friday nights in a row. Why not use this time to get to know yourself a little bit better? “Sometimes, our identity can be quite tangled up in our friendships and when they untangle, we can feel a bit lost and unsure of ourselves,” says Paula.
It’s worth reminding yourself that you’re on your own path too. Use the extra alone time to follow your own interests or, if you don’t know what those are, figure them out. Paula recommends asking yourself these questions: Who am I? Who am I without my friends? What’s important to me? What am I passionate about? What do I want to experience?
You won’t be able to answer these ‘Who am I?’ questions the first time you ask yourself. No one can, and that’s normal. It’s just a sign that we need to start getting to know ourselves that bit more.
For me, things are a lot less grim than they were a few years ago. All three of my emigrant besties are now based in Europe, and being in the same time zone (and only an hour or two away by plane) has made things so much easier. We’re as close as we’ve ever been – but I’ve also started saying yes to more things and made a few new pals. Sometimes I even go on nights out! I know, what a shock. But seriously: If you’re going through a bit of a friendship shake-up, know that you will come out the other side. It won’t be the same, but it’ll still be good.
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