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Reaching Out to Old Flames and Former Friends

Memories of past relationships can offer comfort in times of stress.

When we experience a sense of danger or face threats, most of us immediately are driven to seek out our support network members. The phrase that "there is safety in numbers” refers to our primal need to belong to a tribe of kinpeople and extended kin—“fictive kin” is a word that is used by some groups to describe the close friends who serve in the roles of aunties, uncles, grandparents, etc., even without a blood or legal tie. When people are experiencing anxiety and fear about their health and well-being, and uncertainty has become the “weather and the climate," they often want to make amends with people from their pasts. These may be friends, family members, and love interests whom they may have wounded emotionally or with whom they fell out and it’s totally normal to want to find a way to resolve longstanding issues and gain a sense of peace.

Part of the need to re-connect is driven by the ambiguous threat of the pandemic and, practically speaking, part of it is likely due to the greater number of hours of “alone time” that we may feel the need to fill—to get our minds off our own circumstances, in some cases, and focus on something more positive, or at least feel like we’re doing something to support someone else.

Old friends are like favorite shoes: Style isn’t as important as comfort

When we’re scared, we long for the familiar, and right now, many of us are afraid or concerned in ways that we haven’t been before ever in our lives. In searching for “the familiar,” we may be drawn back to past times in our lives when our cares seemed so much “lighter” than they do now. For many adults, that can fuel the attraction to Facebook friends from high school days—they remind us of a time when we were more self-assured than we might be now, more carefree, and probably with a greater sense of agency in our lives. When we’re young, we think we know it all and even if we were more timid or reserved, most of our “teen-aged selves” had a set of friends who “got us,” even if we were still figuring out who we were. It’s like comfort food—mac-and-cheese may not be haute cuisine and it may not reflect what our normal menu offers, but it brings back images of childhood and safety and security.

In addition, we might reach out to friends who have “been there before,” and dealt with a life-altering event. When we’re facing something scary, we do like to hear about people who’ve survived a similar threat or something even worse. This helps us in two different ways. First, it helps normalize our experience and our feelings. In fact, it can help minimize our own sense of anxiety. Secondly, it also gives us evidence that others have successfully faced similar challenges. This reminds us that whatever the threat is that we’re facing, it can be overcome.

To Skype or not to Skype?

It takes more energy—emotional and physical—to make a phone call or video call than it does to send a text or "like" a social media post. If you're hesitant to use a video call, a phone call can be as intimate and connective as a video call. However, video calls are especially meaningful when someone is totally isolated or when grandkids or more than one person is at one end of the phone. A voice can calm us down and we can catch so much more meaning when listening to another’s inflection, tone, rate of speech that texts will never allow – even with the latest set of emojis! Most adults in their 40s and up spent long hours on the telephone as teenagers—they were the way we deepened friendships, kindled romances, and were able to comfortably whisper our deepest secrets or express our anger—when there was no other way to get close to the friend, romantic interest, or ex-romantic interest.

Video calls with loved ones are really meaningful when you’re not getting to see anyone outside of your own reflection in the mirror. It helps us feel less alone and like we’re among others when we do video calls, but they also can drain energy when you’re also spending long days on work video conferences.

Should I call that old friend or old flame?

Sure. If you’re longing to give a friend or an ex a call and you haven’t spoken to them in years, give it a try! But do it because you want to re-connect from where you are now in your life, not expecting to re-connect in a way that doesn't reflect the ways in which you may have changed and grown over time.

You never know how valuable your “reach-out” might be to another. It’s not helpful, though, to go into any “reconnection” with too many expectations. People change over time, relationships shift, and priorities and interests shift as well. Reach out because you’d like to reconnect to see where someone is at in their life, to share a memory of past times, or offer a show of support and caring. Don’t reconnect expecting the relationship to start back up at the depth it existed years ago. Temper expectations, but reach out if it’s something you feel you would like to do—regardless of the response.

It’s kind of like the phrase about not lending money to friends if you can’t afford to lose it. Don’t reach out with specific expectations about an old friend’s response—reach out because you would like to hear their voice again and check in, and nothing more.

Remember, friendships are often place-bound or time-bound relationships and their remembered intensity may be reflecting more about the intensity of that period of your life rather than the depth of that friendship.

Will a newly-rekindled friendship last?

Friendships are funny things—some of the relationships you think are the deepest are really reflecting more about the intensity of that time in your life, not the genuine depth of the relationship. And some friendships just aren’t built to handle the transitions and changes that we go through in life as we grow and develop. People are not static, and friendships that can’t shift and grow as people do just can’t endure.

Friendships tended are more likely to thrive

Some of our newly rediscovered friendships may very well pick back up and grow in their meaning in your lives, as they’ll reflect the shared experience of the pandemic anxiety and fallout that is happening as the friendship is heating back up. Other rekindled friendships will wane and possibly evaporate again, but they will leave the friends feeling better for having connected.

When you reach out to a former friend from a place of support and no expectations others than to share a moment of connection, it can leave a lasting feeling of positive connection and appreciation for that person’s having been there earlier in your life and when you reached back out in this period of uncertainty.

More from Suzanne Degges-White Ph.D.
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