As we age, secrets grow bigger, but no one wants to share them.
A few weeks ago, I got back from a weekend away with some friends, some old and some new. The average age was 30 and, as far as I could tell, everyone seems to be doing well. We are all employed and most have significant relationships. Some own real estate. Yet despite the outward appearance of winning at the game of life, I wondered about what was going on below the surface. These were some of my nearest and dearest friends, but I realized there were things about them I didn’t know. Had we been students, I would know almost everything about their lives. Suddenly, there are areas that I am not only not privy to, but I have no right in asking. When did this happen?
Over the years, one of the first areas I noticed becoming taboo was sex and relationships. When I lived in a sorority, I knew the dirty goods on pretty much every gal in the house, and they knew mine. Thursday was the big party night, and so Friday morning breakfasts were graphic and funny rehashings of the night before. It wasn’t about being nosey or kissing and telling, it was about bonding and having a good laugh. As years went on and the girls married off, the valve of gratuitous sex stories turned off. No one dares to talk personally about sex anymore, because now it’s married sex. Marriage comes with a vow, and in this case, things really are sacred. I have very few married friends who even broach the subject of sex, however tangentially. If there are troubles in paradise, it’s rare I’ll hear about it, even if it’s coming from the same person I used to pound beers with during spring break.
Money is also suddenly a taboo subject. In college it was okay to admit to not having enough money for an outing, to borrow a few bucks for groceries, or charge everything to daddy’s American Express. The typical earning power of a 20-year-old isn’t that high anyway. Even after college as we tried to get entry-level positions, salaries were often open topics of discussion, since we were all trying to collect intel and get the best deal possible. Rent was sometimes paid by parents, and sometimes for years. Nowadays I wouldn’t dare ask someone how much they make or even allude to my curiosity about their yearly bonus. Along those lines, no one will tell you where they got the cash for the down payment on their house, even if they did have to dip into their 401K to do it. For some reason, I feel terribly gauche knowing what anyone pays monthly for their mortgage. These changes came abruptly, as if I woke up one morning and suddenly it was more socially acceptable just to split the check evenly instead of haggling over who had a salad and who had the braised duck.
Then there are the larger life flubs. Those are the biggest secrets that stay under wraps. No one I know will admit anymore to having less than stellar credit or getting passed over for a promotion. The same goes for pharmaceuticals. If you’ve found yourself in a mental funk and suddenly need a magic pill to keep you stable, I don’t know anyone who will admit to it. Like taking care of the check, it’s better to subtly see your shrink and slip your pill when no one’s looking.
But if we are all mature, educated adults, why would it suddenly be so hard to talk about a bubbling anger management problem or mounting student loan debt? If our flaws are common knowledge, could this get us cut from the list from the next wedding or cocktail party? Does it make us look like failures, as if we can’t keep up?
Don’t get me wrong, my friends are incredible people, and maybe this new insight into their boundaries is a blessing. Maybe it took a weekend away for me to appreciate them in their new forms: adults. We’re not students anymore and we’re not spastic young graduates trying to find our place in the world. We have disposable income, we’ve had a few bumps along the road and we’ve made some big life decisions. So when we’re sitting around a house in the Hamptons, drinking wine and carrying on until the wee hours, maybe it’s the lessons we quietly learned from these secrets that makes us all the more interesting, and why I want to keep everyone around.
Dispatches from NYC is a bi-weekly commentary on America's largest city and its impact on the wider world.