I was recently the seventh wheel at a dinner party with three girlfriends and their husbands, plus five adorable children under the age of 4. When the evening came to an end at 7:15 p.m., I headed home, feeling – as I have so many times in the past few years – far removed from my former life, when my friends were single and a Saturday night started rather than ended at sundown.
Halfway through my 30s, more often single than not and (for now) comfortably childless, I've watched from the sidelines as my circle of friends transformed completely. A lack of predictable contact has made me realize that my friendships are a primal need, like food or water, and integral to my sense of self and happiness.
But as they juggle time-consuming careers, partners and children, I'm lucky to have a once-a-month date with my loves. It leaves me wondering: How should I manage and nurture female friendship in a social hierarchy that doesn't value them? When other people's priorities are constantly in flux, how am I, the single friend, to navigate an ever-shifting landscape?
Geoff MacDonald, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, sums up my feelings exactly. Single people are "rarely connected to somebody to the point where you can be certain you're always going to be that person's first priority," he says. "You're always at the whim of some other person coming into that person's life."
People have an appetite for social interaction and when that appetite is satiated, further social interaction is reduced, MacDonald says.
"When a person gets into a relationship, they just don't have the appetite for socializing with as many people as they used to. But then the single friend is on the pointed end of that."
A decade younger than me at 24, Rebecca Hallquist is already feeling the ground shift as her friends become more invested in their relationships and careers. "That notion of 'we'll be friends forever' and then another person appears on the scene, that does change things," says Hallquist, who works at an arts and culture organization in Toronto. "As we're nearing our mid- and late-20s, we've stopped thinking that long term. We're aware, on some level, how temporal our relationships might be."
Hallquist tends to move in and out of touch with various friends from her elementary, high school or university days, depending on the circumstances. "Physical distance does play a role here, as some of my older friends have moved away and started families, but also interests, as they change with age, play a part," she says. "You learn to hold onto friendships less tightly as your friends form other attachments and long-term romantic relationships."
And a friend who doesn't return a certain number of texts or messages gets put on Hallquist's backburner. "I've had to learn that I can't be the person instigating communication all the time," she says. "I've lost a few friends because I've just reached the point where I felt the investment in the friendship was too one-sided, so I stopped trying as hard to reach them."
Of course, the experience varies in each decade of our lives, as the ratio of partnered people to singles changes. In Hallquist's close-friend group, all but two women are single. My 30-something group is the inverse of that, where I'm in the extreme minority.
Among my friends in their 40s, singles are basically non-existent – which is why, as my friends have partnered off and started families, my appetite for social interaction has led me to expand my friend group exponentially.
For a while, I moved to Britain, extending my carefree 20s well into my 30s and collecting a new batch of single friends who fast became soulmates.
Danu Anthony Stinson, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Victoria, says singles have much larger and stronger social networks than partnered people. "They have more friends, they socialize more, they exchange help more often with their friends," she says. But, Stinson says, the single person must give up control of managing these friendships, letting the friend with the spouse or children dictate the terms of the relationship.
I find this challenging, because I've traditionally been the person who organizes and schedules social time within my friend groups, so I'm used to a certain level of control. But also, I'm a person who intrinsically needs my friends and, when they can't be there for me, it can be isolating.
Another major variation in our need to socialize depends on whether we live in a large city or a small town. Stinson says that smaller communities tend to have stricter rules around conforming to societal norms, so people who don't conform – such as singletons – usually migrate to larger urban centres.
"This is one of the many benefits of being single that has been documented," she says. "You get to choose your friends, family, social circle to a much greater degree than do people who are partnered. And people more often do that in big cities."
Being single allows us to build our own tribe, and mine is plentiful. But I still put these relationships at the centre of my life, which can feel lonely when your friends don't do the same. Regardless of a person's relationship status, I believe there's still a level of shared responsibility within friendships, though I can appreciate how this changes when kids are added to the equation.
My closest friends and I make the most of seeing each other when we can. One long-standing tradition with my gang from high school is a series of summertime long weekends. Whether we're touring wineries in Prince Edward County or lounging at the cottage, the caveat is "no partners or kids allowed," though a few newborns have slipped through the cracks over the years.
One long-time attendee, my good friend Anne Maffre – who lives in Ottawa and is the married mother of two girls – tells me that she hasn't developed any new friendships with single people since becoming a mom. "I guess it's not a surprise given how I'm able to spend my free time," she says. Female-friend time is crucial to her, too, especially with women she's known for so long.
"I love how we can spend so much time apart throughout the year, but come together and have a ridiculous, fun time like we've never been apart," Maffre says. "We may not all be as close as we once were, but it's so crazy that we've known each other for so long and still want to hang out. I know not everyone has that."
So, yes, in many ways, I'm making headway in managing my female friendships as everything around me changes. But I've still had to seek out new friends to join me in my single status quo.
It doesn't mean I love my partnered and parent friends any less; it just means I have to be more mindful to fill my life with the kind of social connectivity that makes me feel complete.