My thoughts on friendship and the suburbs

In the latest Wheaton magazine, I share some thoughts on friendship and the suburbs:

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Developers began mass producing tracts of parklike suburban housing in the 1920s, and the trend burgeoned after WWII. All along, sociologists have found that parents move to the suburbs in large part for their children’s success. Those goals shaped the housing structure in these new developments, which featured single-family homes and activities centered on nuclear families of parents and children.

“Suburbia is so individualized, privatized, and family-oriented,” said Miller. “Relationships beyond those boundaries are seen as bonuses or good things to have, but not necessary.”

The arrangement of the American suburbs also narrows a person’s potential pool of friends. “When you’re making decisions based on schools, quality of life, and affordability, you end up preselecting your social relationships and possible friends,” Miller said.

In this milieu, Miller said, many Americans end up making friends based on two things: geographic proximity or shared interests. For example, one might find friends at grocery stores, local parks, or children’s activities like schools and sports. But even proximity and shared interests are not enough to push people into deeper friendships, as Langan has found.

Later in the article:

Miller sees this tension in his research on the suburbs, where—again—people prioritize family success over friendships. Over the past two decades, most books published on practicing faith in the suburbs have pushed against the societal current of surface-level and transactional relationships. “You should be forming relationships with people who have nothing to give you, nothing to offer you,” Miller said, summarizing a key theme in Dave Goetz’s 2006 book Death by Suburb: How to Keep the Suburbs from Killing Your Soul (HarperCollins, 2007). “That’s where you may truly meet God and meet people.”

Miller has seen some Wheaton students take these teachings to heart as they graduate. Some friend groups will decide to live together for one or two years post-graduation, focusing on relationships rather than careers. “That’s frowned on as delaying adulthood, but it poses a great question for Christians about what we value,” Miller said. “Is it about going out after graduation and finding the ‘best job’ and then finding people later? Or is it prioritizing relationships, friendships, and connections to a local church? I hope we would say that the latter are more meaningful in the long run.”

Build and idealize a suburban landscape around single-family homes, nuclear family life, exclusion, and driving and these are some of the patterns of social interaction that develop. I am sure there are numerous ways to address this; there are many researchers better suited to comment on that. Yet, it is helpful to know the underlying factors that contribute to difficulties to forming adult friendships at the start of the 21st century in the United States (in addition to oft-cited factors like social media).

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