Maintaining friendships gets harder as we get older.

In those halcyon college days, keeping up with friends involved a quick text message (“Hey, let’s meet at the frozen yogurt place in ten minutes” or, “What are we doing tonight?”), and plans would materialize spontaneously. It was the perfect orchestration of our physical proximity, sheer glut of free time, and finding ourselves in virtually identical seasons that led our personal lives to serendipitously align.

Fast forward ten years and add a career. A spouse. Children. Myriad responsibilities and conflicting schedules. And in some cases, throw in the fact that there may be hundreds—or even thousands—of miles separating us from our friends (rather than a quick walk across campus). Now, it’s about more than just a perfunctory text message to meet at the local yogurt joint; in some cases, arranging a simple lunch date involves NASA-level coordination.

Not to mention, our friendships naturally change along with our life seasons. Adult friendships are no longer circumstantial, forged from physical proximity or shared interests and hobbies. But more pointedly, transitions in our lives like marriage or a cross-country move naturally separate us, in a sense, from those who are in different seasons and stages. When we move into a new life stage, it can be difficult at times to relate with our friends whose lives look quite different. We may find we have fewer commonalities with friends who are tackling a graduate degree or traveling while we are in the throes of nursing a newborn. Or we may have trouble catching up consistently with a friend who lives and works in another time zone and has little time for leisure due to professional demands.

Nonetheless, this doesn’t mean we need to renounce all of our old friendships. We can still choose connection. We can choose what Gretchen Rubin calls one of her “Commandments of Happiness” in The Happiness Project: “there is only love.” A relationship can endure changing seasons and transitions so long as both parties value the relationship more than they note the differences.

In short, our friendships can survive life changes if we make them less about us. It’s not about how our friendships can serve us. How they make us feel. How they affirm us. It’s not about us, and it never has been—even in our carefree frozen yogurt days. Like any successful relationship, friendship is a two-way street. It’s about choosing to respect each other for who we are.

Adjusting our expectations

Adjusting, or even jettisoning, our standards for others is key to keeping an old friendship alive. Recently, I felt (unjustifiably) abandoned by a friend. Although our lives have aligned very harmoniously to this point, we now find ourselves in dramatically different seasons. When I shared my feelings with my husband, he told me, “Maybe you’re thinking about this the wrong way. Have you considered that maybe, right now, she needs you more than you need her?”

This simple question stopped me dead in my tracks. My friend was walking through a challenging season, and instead of focusing on supporting her wholeheartedly, I was bemoaning the fact that she wasn’t there for me. I was maintaining an unrealistic expectation for my friend: that she would be there for me at all times, in every season—even when she was walking through something harrowing herself. I’ve learned not to hold my friends to such unfairly high standards while not holding myself accountable to them.

Eschewing comparison

Similarly, I’ll be the first to admit I’ve become frustrated with my friends when they fall off the radar temporarily, only to share upon resurfacing that their lives have been “just so chaotic” and that they “needed time to recharge.” Meanwhile, I’d feel my blood boil, surveying the chaos in my own life and thinking, “Well, I’ve been busy and challenged too, but I’ve still been engaged and connected.”

Not only is this the antithesis of compassionate charity, but it also belies ignorance: we simply don’t know the full extent of the challenges our friends are navigating. Unless they entrust that information to us, we may never know. And that’s okay. Friendship isn’t a contract, signed in blood, that we will forever share each and every detail of the challenging seasons we face. What matters in an authentic friendship is choosing to be there, to be present, when we are needed. To signal to our friends that if they need to temporarily stray, that is fine—and that when they choose to return, we will still be there.

Communicating

I think about my friends constantly, but I don’t always tell them. And what good is the thought if it’s in my head but never makes it out? How can I expect to keep my old friendships if I never actually connect? Communicate? Tell my friends I’m thinking about them?

I’ve made a resolution to send my friends a quick text message when they cross my mind, whether to share a funny story that made me think of them, to offer encouragement, to ask about their days, or to simply let them know they’re on my mind. Such a simple practice is a powerful way to bridge geographical and circumstantial gaps, and so far, my uptick in communication has resulted in renewed connections: coffee dates with friends I haven’t seen since graduate school, weekend visits from friends who live across the country, and phone dates that have both of us wiping away tears from laughing so hard.

Accepting the changes

Spending multiple hours every week with our friends, as we might have done in college, is simply not sustainable (or even desirable) in adulthood as we pursue our professional goals and build our families. Frankly, our lives pull us in other directions, and new responsibilities beckon. Nonetheless, this doesn’t mean that the quality of our friendships needs to deteriorate commensurately. A phone call once every quarter can be just as rich and deep as the third college lunch date or frozen yogurt fest in a week. A yearly visit may even be more impactful and lifegiving than idle, angst-laced dorm room chatter. And catching up with and learning from a friend who’s in a dramatically different life season may prove more edifying and inspiring than any of our conversations when we were following identical early-twenties life trajectories.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that my friendships will probably never look the same—but I wouldn’t have it any other way. At twenty-nine, I treasure my friends far more than I did at nineteen. Now, my friendships aren’t just born of my circumstances. They’ve endured the changing and sometimes turbulent tides of early adulthood, and as we carry each other’s stories, joys, triumphs, trials, failures, and flaws, our connections only become stronger—differences, distances, and distractions notwithstanding. And by simply deciding that “there is only love,” I’ve learned that sustaining my most precious friendships depends principally on my willingness to patiently and faithfully hold on and choose to be a mainstay in the changing tides of life. 

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