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Distance Matters: Surviving a long-distance friendship

It's always murky to try to define the beginning or end of a friendship-

QUESTION

Dear Friendship Doctor,

I've been drifting apart from two friends over the past few years. In the first instance, I felt abandoned after working hard to maintain a long-distance friendship. When I finally confronted her a year ago, she swore I was still her best friend. I plunged back into correspondence and calls but she didn't reciprocate.

In the other instance, I call every month or two, and visit once or twice a year, a level of commitment that feels comfortable for me. But she imagines me her best friend, and talks about seeing me more often (monthly?) and phoning me more often. Yet, she hasn't scheduled more visits, and we remain more acquaintances than friends, which is fine by me.

In both cases, I've come to recognize that we've changed as people, and don't share the same interests, priorities or outlooks on life. If we met for the first time now, as adults, we might not become fast friends at all. At the same time, I value the ongoing connection to my past - so I don't want to drop them altogether.

So my question is: What are the right words to use to signal that a friendship has changed? I've known both women longer than my husband and certainly longer than many romantic relationships, but those relationships had more definite closure or clarity. Isn't it healthy to talk things out?

This question has become more urgent because both friends will soon celebrate birthdays. In the case of friend #1, our last contact was an unanswered email from me to her more than six months ago. I plan to send her a gift and a note, wish her well, and let her know I'm still here and look forward to a phase of life when our friendship might be closer again. Will the note seem like a fresh accusation or complaint against her?

The case of friend #2 is more complicated. We're both celebrating milestone birthdays this year (and it isn't age 21) so we're taking a trip together. I travel often so an overnight trip without my husband is no big deal. For her, it's the first time she'll "cut loose" in a decade or more. While she is ecstatically excited, I'm feeling anxious that we're not as compatible now as we once were. I certainly want to go but I plan to be myself, which means enjoying a quiet glass of wine after dinner rather than hitting a nightclub. How can I stay true to myself without wounding her and fatally damaging the friendship, and how can we both emerge from this trip with realistic expectations of our friendship?

In both cases, it's a question of how to acknowledge change. The prospect of a written or spoken declaration seems to give the situation more finality than I want, but to fail to acknowledge reality seems dishonest. Suggestions?

Signed,

Chelsea

ANSWER

Dear Chelsea,

Moving is high on the list of stressors. Understandably, it's tough to move away from close friends after your lives have become intertwined. Sometimes we forget that moving can be just as onerous for the friends who are left behind.

While you hope you'll be best friends forever, the reality is that distance matters. Even when two friends are tied together emotionally at the hip, it is simply less convenient to be friends from afar. Distance can compromise even the best of relationships.

In the case of Friend #1, your friend was probably being honest when she said she still feels close. Yet, the friendship was transformed by the move and may never be the same. When you "confronted" her, you acknowledged that the relationship had changed. (I don't like the term "confront" because it sounds accusatory and these are really no-fault changes).

Since you value the friendship the way it is, especially the shared memories, and you want to remain friends, it's fine to send her a birthday gift. But do not send a gift in the hope that it will draw you closer together!

In the case of Friend # 2, she's found out it's logistically difficult (in terms of time, money, and commitments) to schedule frequent visits. After all, she's immersed in a new life, in a new place, with new people. Yet, you both seem to care enough about the relationship to have planned this girlfriends' getaway to celebrate your friendship.

Before you pack your bags, talk about your plans and expectations for the trip so you're both on the same page to help avoid any landmines or letdowns while you are there. If the trip works out well, it will offer an opportunity to talk more intimately about your friendship expectations, face-to-face, and perhaps to plan a ritual for future birthdays.

Yes, it's always murky to try to define the beginning or end of a friendship---or to even understand the transitions in the middle. It's easier with marriages and unions where there are legal obligations and divorce decrees. When it comes to friendships, changes in life circumstances often require us to renegotiate terms. There is no "right" way to do this. It can be implicit or explicit--- "right" depends on the people, the situation, and how they feel.

It's hard to lose two close friends to moves and not feel abandoned but guard against feeling hurt and defensive. You didn't ask---but you probably need to check your inventory of nearby friends to make sure you have enough of those too.

Hope this helps.

Best,
Irene


Here are a few prior posts on The Friendship Blog on moving and its impact on friendship:

The sadness of moving and leaving a BFF behind

Hard to say goodbye: Ending a 20-year friendship

A friend's unexpected move

Irene S. Levine, PhD is the author of Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend.

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