How the recession is wrecking friendships.

Snapshots of life at home.
June 12 2009 7:00 AM

Friends Without Money

How the recession is wrecking friendships across the land.

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer. Click image to expand.

In his book The Big Sort, Bill Bishop shows how our country is ever more divided along economic lines. Migration patterns differ by income, reinforcing the separation of people into rich and poor counties—a phenomenon that has been on the rise since 1976 with a big jump since 2003, according to a recent paper by professor of government James Galbraith. One of the reasons schools are so often segregated, in terms of class as well as race, is that rich and poor people—or even middle-class and working-class people—don't live side by side in many places.

Emily Bazelon Emily Bazelon

Emily Bazelon is a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine and the author of Sticks and Stones

Even small, nuanced class differences can be hard to negotiate. Do you feel your throat constrict when you suggest a meal with a friend at a restaurant that you worry might be too pricey, or not pricey enough? Have you ever had a friend over a few times and not been invited to her place in return, only to figure out, when you've finished feeling insulted, that your friend is embarrassed by her apartment? We often sidestep relationships in which spending habits don't match up exactly, I think, to spare ourselves feelings of inadequacy or insensitivity, those awkward breaches that make intimacy feel like work. Remember that indie movie Friends With Money, in which Jennifer Aniston flummoxes her whole circle of screenwriter and fashion-designer friends by going to work as a maid?

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But the recession is forcing more of that pricking of conscience upon us. Because of the downturn, friendships between two people whose Saturday-night spending and overall class status used to calibrate precisely have now turned into trickier relationships between one person who still has money and one person who doesn't. The sudden uneven footing isn't easy to negotiate, as I've learned from the responses I got to my question about the effect of the recession on friendships. The one-sided change in circumstance trips up even—or, perhaps, especially—old and close friends. People need BFFs to sustain them through this time of doldrums. Yet, judging from my inbox, sometimes these, too, are lost. The rifts between friends created by the recession are a kind of collateral damage. We're only beginning to sift through the rubble.

One reader—call her Katie—says of her best friend, "We have always been able to lean on each other until recently." (The readers who wrote to me didn't want their real names used for this story, and who could blame them?) What's changed is that when the recession hit Michigan, where Katie lives, her friend lost her job. Meanwhile, after years spent digging herself out of the debt of divorce, Katie scored, in a small way, by buying a house at the right time. "How can I confide in her when small problems arise in my life, when hers are so much worse?" she asks. "We have not seen each other in a few months and phone calls and emails are down to about two a week. I miss my friend, but I don't want to add to her problems or make her feel worse. … When we do talk, I never discuss my life, I always make her talk about hers."

That's a familiar feint: When you feel like talking about yourself amounts to the pouring of salt in a friend's wound, you try turning every question back on your friend and hope you win points for listening. But most of us can't sustain this for long. We forget and slip up, especially with people we're used to feeling comfortably matched with. Another reader writes in about a friend at work who is now her family's sole earner. "I've gradually learned that I can't share too much of what's going on in my life because she gets so mad," the reader writes. "She really blew up at me one day when I mentioned we were going on our third trip for the year. I realized I was being insensitive to her situation. … We still have lots of laughs and I like being around her but I'm sorry I have to be on guard as to what we talk about."

Maybe this kind of unease is not a bad thing for people who live in comfort. Watching someone you care about fall apart, one unpaid bill at a time, should breed empathy. It should take you out of your new sandals and into the frayed flip-flops of someone else. And yet the e-mails I got were shot through with more bitterness than kindness. "I'm starting to think I need new friends," writes one reader—let's call her Anna. She is in her mid-20s, and she has had the same small group of best friends since seventh grade. They have kids and she doesn't yet, so in the past, she says, she helped them out. "I was always helpful—back to school clothes for their kids, girl scouts, soccer, etc. I paid all the fees and shuttled them to and fro."

But last year, to help her parents keep their house after her father's salary was cut, Anna and her fiance moved in with them to a town about an hour and a half away from the city where she grew up and where her friends still live. Anna lost some hours at work and her health insurance and also took a pay cut. Her free time in the city, where she still works, no longer matches up well with her friends' schedules. She doesn't have the gas money to make a lot of separate trips in to visit. And her friends, she says, are upset with her, not for her. "My friends are talking behind my back complaining that I don't see them anymore or that I'm a bad friend because I'm not helping them in these tough times," she writes. "One friend is losing their house and thinks I should live with them not my parents."

"Real friends understand what we are all going through, right?" Anna asks. Then a note of judgment creeps in. She writes about her own savings—canceling the Internet at home and the movie channels from cable—and frames a comparison: "Most of my friends have not done anything to cut back where they can (and there are things they could cut out as well, which I pointed out to them)." Maybe they would say they don't want to hear that from her. In any case, in spite of the years they span, these relationships sound like they're breaking into fragments of mutual resentment.

Layoffs threaten different relationships—the ones a reader named Kelly calls "the accidental friendships of proximity." Kelly lost her job in March. She writes of these severed connections: "I never knew any of these people well enough to be invited to dinner, but I miss them still. They are valuable because of the time invested in their unfolding. They are valuable because of the different perspectives they offered." Kelly brings up a related point from The Big Sort: Workplaces are one of the only places left in most of the country where people do mesh across economic lines. Jefferson Pestronk, a former consultant and current Slate intern, talks about this as "the unconscious support network" that comes from work. The loss of that in the consulting world, he says, is for him the recession's "social toll."

Work puts people from disparate points on the class map into a shared space. The loss of work, then, spins them out into their separate worlds. And then, the recession, by leaving some people broke, or at least fearfully frugal, also alters the friendships that people count on when they go home to their own lives. When it comes to friendship, it seems like money is an important catalyst, the glass of wine that takes the edge off. No wonder it's hard to make do with less of it.

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Next question: What have you given up because of the recession that matters most to you, big or small? Please post your responses below or send them to me at doublex.recession@gmail.com. E-mail may be quoted in Slate unless the writer stipulates otherwise. If you want to be quoted anonymously, please let me know.

This article also appears in Double X.

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