I've lately done a lot of press about the friendship disruptions caused by events that seem like they should be happy times. Like most shoulds, these types of situations can easily get more complicated than they seem at first glance. "I'm happy for my friend that she finally got pregnant. But why am I also resentful?" "I love my friend, so why am I annoyed at her latest promotion?" "I should be thrilled that my best friend found a partner who really gets her. Why am I instead feeling jealous and sad?"
A life transition—whether it's a geographical move, a job change, a new romantic partnership or breakup, having children, retiring, or any number of other possibilities—can challenge a friendship for two main reasons. The first is logistical. When new life circumstances arise, you and your friend may no longer have the same things to talk about ("All he seems interested in now is is parenting his kids, and I'm so not there yet" or "Now that she's at a different company, she doesn't get what's going on at my job anymore.") You may not have the same natural proximity to each other, or you may be unable to to fit each other into your lives as easily. The second part of the challenge is on a more emotional level. It is easy to feel like your friend has changed into someone else, now that they have had such a life shift ("She used to be up for anything, but now that she's living with her boyfriend she is anal about planning way in advance" or "Now that she's moved to downtown it's like her life is too exciting to want to veg out with me.") The disconnect can be painful and startling. And of course, if the friend's life transition is something that is a classic "success" story by our cultural yardstick—especially if it is something you have not yet attained—it can feel downright awful, as much as you might not want to admit it.
Of course, not all friendships are meant to last a lifetime, and that doesn't take away from their value at any given point in your life. And some friendships that are a little more surface-y (a fellow water-cooler kvetcher, a next-door neighbor you occasionally chat with but whose apartment you've never been in) may not be built to withstand a change in venue. But for deeper relationships that you really do want to preserve through the most challenging of life transitions, there are certain things you must keep in mind. Want to weather the disruption in the healthiest way possible? Read on.
1) Understand that certain reactions are human.
Ironically, the damage that jealousy inflicts gets worse from stuffing it and pretending that it's not there. Your first task when you feel it? Acknowledge it—even if only to yourself—and forgive yourself for being human. Why wouldn't you feel a little sad if your friend got pregnant easily when you've been trying without success for two years? It's natural, because it highlights what you're missing. How couldn't you feel frustrated if your coworker—no matter how beloved she is to you—slipped into a promotion that you are more qualified for than she is? Why wouldn't you feel a little more down if your friend finds a great new partner when you know this means you'll have a bit less time with her, and in the meanwhile, you are not finding much joy yourself in your dating life? Give yourself a break. These are human and understandable feelings. And if you immediately try to bury them, they'll only grow more ingrained. They're much more likely to pass on their own if you let them get some air (even if only by your own acknowledgment.)
2) Take time if you need it.
Of course, pulling an unexplained and indefinite disappearing act is not a good friendship move, but sometimes a little space and time are called for. Can't bring yourself to go to the happy hour celebrating your friend's engagement? It's okay—but at least communicate about it. Last-minute flaking out can often inflict far more damage than the missing of the event itself. And though you may not want to disclose all the gory details, don't make up an excuse so flimsy that your friend will be even more confused and annoyed. If it is a particularly close friend and you know she can eventually understand your point of view, or if your absence will be so disruptive that a true explanation is the only way to go, choose your words carefully (see "Be honest" below.)
3) Be willing to embrace change.
If you're struggling to make rent and your friend just scored a huge upgrade in pay, maybe you won't go to restaurants together as much anymore because the stress of figuring out a solution (you don't want her to have to treat all the time, yet you don't have the cash for the places she prefers) is too much. So, consider having coffee before work instead. Maybe now that your friend is in a lovey-dovey new live-in relationship, you may not hang out at her place as much anymore and instead find other places to meet up. Even if jealousy is not an issue—like a friend who's a new parent and simply can't go out much anymore at all—it pays to be flexible, and build from scratch some new routines. Don't get caught trying to keep your relationship in freeze frame. Much like species over time, if relationships are meant to survive in the long haul, they need to adapt.
4) Listen and learn.
So now that your friend is an executive, she has a totally new vocabulary. Or your buddy became a Dad and is talking about baby gear that you have no clue about. Or maybe your friend's talk about her posh new hobby or wedding planning leave you totally clueless. If you want to remain connected, ask questions. The new aspects of your friend's life may seem totally foreign to you, but the only way to solve that problem is to be open to learning. This doesn't mean that you have to listen to 40 minutes of talk about wedding centerpieces if it totally doesn't interest you, but it does mean that if you make an effort to understand what is now important to your friend, you're showing how much the friendship itself is important to you—and giving yourself a much better chance to stay connected.
5) Be honest.
If you're truly struggling with feelings of jealousy, bitterness, or resentment that do not show any signs of abating even after a period of days or weeks, it may be time to explain to your friend what's going on. Of course, this can be quite tough, and you risk alienating the person further if they feel attacked. Choose the right time and place to bring this up: telling your BFF in the middle of her baby shower that you can't deal with the fact that she got pregnant so quickly when you didn't even think she wanted kids is not going to turn out well for anyone. Choose a relaxed and private time, and make it clear how much your relationship means to you, and how you really do want your friend to be happy. Say that you are struggling with your own stuff, but are continuing to work on it—and you just need a little time, understanding, and flexibility on their part.
6) Look for new ways to connect.
A big part of embracing change (above) involves not just letting go of some of the ways things used to be, but looking for new things to build upon altogether. Presumably, if you want to keep this person in your life, there are solid aspects of their personality and interests that you appreciate and enjoy, and so there is a foundation there to build anew. Much like romantic relationships, friendships can be given a boost by novelty and excitement: why not seek out a new hobby together, or work on a new health goal together? There may be aspects of your old way of relating that were getting stale anyway, and this new life transition brings an excuse to start from scratch. Always wanted to be in a book club? Need a buddy to challenge you with a mutual fitness goal? Want to learn a new language, do volunteer work, or take a class in something that interests you (even online?) Sharing with an old friend can bring new joys to your relationship.
7) Examine what it brings out in yourself.
The best way to turn this friendship hiccup into an opportunity for personal growth is to ask the hard questions of yourself about why these feelings are coming up. Even better, you can make a plan about how to address them. Is there something missing in your life? Are you stuck in a dead-end job that you need to get out of, or suffering from a lack of solid social relationships more generally? Perhaps you are still punishing yourself for mistakes of the past, or anxious or depressed about what the future may or may not hold for you. The deeper you can dig, and the more honest you can be with yourself, the better you can make a plan to use this as a wake-up call to work on the things that are getting in your way. Even better? The more content you are with your own path, the less likely you will resent whatever path your friends are on.
For more of Dr. Andrea Bonior's pieces on relationships:
Dr. Andrea Bonior is a licensed clinical psychologist, speaker, and writer. She is the author of The Friendship Fix and the recent Publishers' Weekly bestseller Psychology: Essential Thinkers, Classic Theories, and How They Inform Your World, and is also longtime voice behind Baggage Check in the Washington Post Express. She serves on the faculty of Georgetown University and speaks to audiences across the US about mental health and relationships.
Photo credit: Alessio Lin (Unsplash)