Distance and the evolution of friendships

I remember a conversation with a friend a few years back, when we still lived in Cincinnati. I mentioned a woman I had been close with for many years. First, I described her as one of my closest friends, a friend for nearly two decades. Then I corrected myself. We’re not so close anymore, I said.

Not since I moved.

My friend’s reaction: So when you move, they’re not your close friends anymore?
For a moment, I was taken aback. My husband and I were planning to relocate in the near future and I certainly didn’t want this woman to feel like I would place any less value on our friendship simply because of a geographical change.

Not at all.

But these changes in intensity have not been my choice.

They were, simply, an inevitable effect of moving.

It is a lesson I have learned over the past 19 years as we have dragged our belongings back and forth across the country from New York to Arizona to Cincinnati to the hills of Northern Pennsylvania, where we live now. Each time we moved, I felt that huge void, that loss of the immediate physical presence of my good friends, the people I could count on when I was bummed out, excited or just plain bored.
And each time, I vowed to maintain that intensity from afar with phone calls, emails, text messages and occasional visits.

I succeeded at first, especially when we all had young children and craved that adult conversation. There is nothing like a good phone call with an old friend when you are cooing with a baby who cannot converse in return.

But then something happened.

Our babies got older and we were stuck in the house less often. They became little people, engaging us in fascinating conversations about bugs and dinosaurs and Swiper the fox. The older ones became teenagers, applying to colleges and taking dates to the prom. Suddenly, I noticed my old friends and I had less and less to say. Uncomfortable pauses became more frequent. The time between calls grew. The calls were shorter and the texts less detailed.

The kids were one factor.

The other was simple logistics.

In my previous communities, I was just one among of a network of friends. When I left, I damaged those networks – some more than others – but, for the most part, the networks remained intact. I left my friends in the hands of other friends, in familiar surroundings with communities that were familiar to them, open and welcoming. Though I know they missed me, the gaps I left were quickly repaired.

I had left them with everything, but me.

But when I settled in my new communities, I was on my own. I had to cultivate new friendships from scratch, learn my surroundings, learn the cultural temperament of the areas and gain acceptance, in some sense, in the communities. I had to build a network from scratch or find a place in a new one.

It was difficult and it was, at times, lonely.

In the beginning it was easy to tap into those old friendships.

Too easy, especially with social networking apps, like Facebook.

But it wasn’t easy for my old friends and it wasn’t healthy for me. Maintaining intense friendships from afar requires a great deal of energy and a denial of that which is physically present. If I focused all of my efforts on the old friendships, I left little for the people who were new in my life.

I had to reduce my dependence, especially since they had done that long before.

That does not mean that I love the old friend we discussed any less. I would still do anything for her, fly out there to be with her in a crisis, call her with news of any major event in my life. She still means the world to me and our years of “best” friendship can never be undone.

It means simply that we no longer share the details of our everyday lives, what I like to call the minor big things. I don’t call her when all the kids are sick and I need to vent. I don’t call her when my kids reach particular milestones in their lives, when I’m thinking about whether to cover my emerging gray, when I am annoyed about a certain situation in my life.

And I no longer get upset when she fails to share those things with me.

I did not lose friends. The nature of my friendships simply changed and I welcomed new people into my life, like her, the woman I was chatting with. And thank goodness I did. It has been seven years since we last saw each other in person. In that time, she also moved, leaving old friends behind. She gets me and I get her.

We don’t speak on the phone often, but we make sure we do if it’s been too long. We both understand the struggles of being the new person in the place that is old to others. That shared experience adds a new and unique dynamic to our friendship. Hers is a new kind of long-distance friendship for me. She didn’t leave a void in my life when we parted ways. She fills one I didn’t know I had.


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