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Losing Friends: Why It Happens and What We Can Do To Stop It

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Editor’s Note: While most of our articles are between 500-1,000 words long, the post below is a more comprehensive, long-format post designed to serve as a social tutorial. Depending on your speed, it will likely take you between 15-20 minutes to read.

And another one bites the dust.

When a friendship ends, we may secretly worry there’s something wrong with us.

Fair enough. Failed friendships could uncover areas in which we need to grow and improve.

But in many cases, losing friendships doesn’t say anything about the people involved…except that they’re normal.

Ask anyone. They can likely name at least one friendship, maybe several, that has been lost or faded over time. And while in some cases, the friendship is blown apart by some serious screw-up, more often the explanation is less intense.

In fact, many times, the friendship unravels so slowly, we’re barely aware that we’re losing it. And it often isn’t until after the fact that we look back and try to figure out where things fell off.

Here’s some likely explanations.

Hurt or frustration.

If your friendship ended because one or both of you became angry, you likely know exactly why things between you broke off. But, in some cases, one friend becomes angry or disappointed over time, and begins to purposefully withdraw without communicating their intention to create distance.

Life direction. 

Every once in a while a friendship comes to a halt with a moviesque breakup speech. We just don’t seem to have much in common anymore. But probably more often, different choices slowly separate us onto different paths that take us to different places over a period of years or even decades. They went the career-in-the-big-city route, you went the suburban soccer-parenting way. And gradually, your lives stopped syncing as naturally as they once did.

Time.

As a child, and even as a young adult, friendships often form without a lot of planning. At those stages, we tend to spend a lot of time with same aged peers, which usually results in a few friendships. But once adulthood hits, we no longer have as many natural opportunities to spend the time needed to build or maintain friendships.

Geography. 

Around 37% of adults have never left their hometown. (1) But that means most of us did. That means the majority of us went into the military, college, or chased a career or relationship to a new part of the world where we had to, in many respects, start over. Despite the best of intentions, when this happens, it is very difficult to keep an old hometown friendship functioning at the same depth. (Don’t give up on that possibility. It does happen. But it’s rare to keep the same level of closeness with hundreds of miles between you.)

Bandwidth. 

Research varies, but almost all of it suggests most of us have only a small number of friends–usually five or less. While we can handle far more casual friendships and acquaintances than just five, the number of relationships we can manage isn’t endless. That means, if we’re pouring our emotional energy into a spouse or children or co-workers who we see everyday, we have less bandwidth to emotionally connect with friends from our past. When friends drift apart for this reason, it’s not usually a deliberate choice to shift our energy away from an old friend to a new person. It’s just something that naturally happens as we try to meet the demands of our current stage of life.

Choice of Activity. 

Some activities we choose, in the course of life, are tied to our youth. While there are those who remain actively devoted to sports or “partying” over the course of life, many of us eventually do less of certain activities as we age. If we choose an adult lifestyle that requires getting up early for work everyday, while an older friend continues to hit the night life, for example, it’s only logical that we might have less in common over time.

Maturity.

Without trying to be too judgmental, there’s also instances where one person might develop intellectually, socially, emotionally, or spiritually differently than their old friends. A perfect example? Some explosive, toxic personality types “tell people off” and pick fights with strangers their entire lives. But most of us outgrow those behaviors…or at least try to. If one friend grows out of a behavior than another still enjoys? They just might not click as well.

So that’s why friendships can dissolve over time.

But more important than determining how things came apart is determining how things can come back together.

Can friendships be salvaged?

You might be surprised by the odds.

In at least some cases, you’re not the only one wondering if the friendship can be resurrected. Sometimes, both friends silently wish they’d managed to stay closer.

So why don’t we reach out and try more then?  It’s because we often feel bound by social norms. We think, It’s been too long. You can’t just call someone up and invite them to do something five years later. When, really, in many cases, you probably can. In fact, you might just make someone’s day if you tried.

But the path to redeeming friendship is as varied as the path to losing it. If you’re thinking about trying to renew an old friendship, it’d be wise to consider how your history might impact the reunion.

Hurt of frustration.

If a friendship was deliberately broken off, it might be one of the harder kinds to retrieve. It’s much easier to rekindle a good friendship that ended accidentally than it is to get past old hurt. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

Most of us look back at our younger selves–five, ten or twenty years ago–and reflect on how naive or ill-equipped we were at the time. We recognize we’ve matured and become more resilient since then. And perhaps we know we wouldn’t make the same choices or behave the same way now as we did in the past. If this is the case, a person who humbly owns their previous shortcomings has a better (but not guaranteed) chance of renewing a friendship or at least finding resolution. That is, parting on a better note.

Keep in mind, if you’re scared to make the first move, that the other person might also feel silly in retrospect. They too might have come to realize that your worst, parting moments weren’t a fair representation of your whole friendship or of you. If you offered to do your part to not repeat your previous mistakes, or to try to grow through behaviors that may have offended them, the relationship might not be lost altogether.

Though, fair warning, go in with low expectations. Perhaps set a small goal: to offer some kind words of peace to smooth over old pains. And then consider anything more than that a pleasant surprise. If you’re only able to develop a casual friendship, that is still better than a lost one. And if you are able to recover a close friendship, you’ll be extra glad you tried.

Life Direction.

It is possible to recover friendships, even when the two parties have settled into two seemingly different lives, but it often takes more effort and more commitment. Sometimes, life creates a natural chance to reconnect over new developments. Perhaps someone who moved away returns to the area. Or maybe the friend who has been single gets married and the two friends have more in common again, as they both navigate married life.

Sometimes, though, nothing creates an opportunity. You have to pursue the opportunity for yourself. A good place to start might be to send an email, Facebook message, or text that starts with, “Was just thinking about you the other day. Good memories! Would love to see you again sometime.” Even if the old friend doesn’t take you up on the offer to reconnect, it’s unlikely it will offend them. At the very least it will probably bring a smile to their face.

When approaching a friendship like this, you may be able to find new things in common that you’re not aware of. Perhaps both your sons play hockey…or you’ve both recently gone through the loss of a parent. If something like this arises, it may create a natural opportunity to say, “We should go to a game or take a class together sometime.” Spending time together again may recreate the same conditions that once grew your friendship.

But even if you live entirely different lives, it doesn’t mean you can’t be friends. You just have to be realistic. Maybe your friendship today looks like getting together every few months for dinner. Everyone eats, after all. The friendship might not bear all the closeness it once did, but it still might be a source of warmth and well wishes to spend time with someone who hopes good for you.

Time.

If you don’t think there was any sort of grievance that came between you and an old friend, you probably have the best odds of reclaiming some sort of friendship. “What would I even say after five years? That’s so awkward.” You might think. And this–guilt over having lost touch in the first place–is often the thing that keeps friends apart for the remainder of their lives.

But there is another option: own it. Back then, I never intended to grow apart. I just got so caught up in this stage of life that before I knew it, it had been years. I felt bad I’d let it go so long without being in touch. And then it seemed like it had been too long so it would be too awkward to reach out.

Some people will have moved on. They’ll have let go of who they were in the past and relegated old friendships to the scrapbox in their mind. But many people who part ways slowly over time are open to reconnecting, as long as the expectations aren’t too high. It’s wise to ease in slowly. Get together. And then periodically, send a text or give them a call. Try to connect in person again. Maybe get your significant other or kids together or pursue a new experience that you can bond over.

Geography.

This one is one of the toughest friendships to recover, purely because of the obstacle of distance. Are you going to be near their home or in the same area any time soon? That’s probably your best bet for rebuilding something. But small steps count too. You can always send a Christmas card out of the blue. Offer up a text message or a Happy Birthday Facebook post that mentions you’d love to reconnect if you ever find yourself in the same place. “Please look me up if you’re ever nearby” might one day pleasantly surprise you. If it hasn’t been too long, if you’re confident the core of your friendship remains, or if you’re just brave, you could always suggest a Skype or Facetime call as well.

The trick to all of this, of course, is expectations, expectations, expectations. Go in hoping for a positive connection and maintain a sense of openness over what develops. It may turn into a more regular connection, or it may just become a friendship you revisit every few years to reminisce.

Bandwidth.

If you live nearby, haven’t been derailed by a fight, and still have things in common, odds are your lost friendship fell victim to bandwidth issues. Each of us only has so much capacity, right? There are only so many hours in each day and often, those hours are claimed by home and family responsibilities.

So while bandwidth issues might be the easiest to get around, on one hand, they can also be the most awkward to try to explain away. Hallmark doesn’t make a card for, I know we only live 3 miles away but I’ve chosen not to see you for 2 years.

But still. What did giving up ever get anyone?

More than likely, if your friendship faded while you were still on good terms, the other person also feels occupied by life and work and will take part of the responsibility for falling out of touch. But where to start? Honest conversation is a good ground zero for almost every scenario, including this one. Acknowledge that life has gotten busy and you didn’t want to become as unconnected as you have. And then go for the reconnect. Is there some activity you used to enjoy together that you could suggest for old time’s sake? An old hangout where you could grab a meal? Would it make sense to have them join you for a family gathering–to watch the Super Bowl or to cook out or to celebrate your child’s birthday?

But what if bandwidth is still a major issue? Try to get around it by doing something together that you’d already both be doing. Can you run errands together? Will you both be at the park for the local fireworks display? Are you both taking your kids to the state fair? Do it together. If there’s no natural overlap in your schedule, be okay with starting small. Coffee. A quick breakfast before work. An I.O.U. for three months from now.

Stick with it. Friends are worth it.

Choice of Activity.

If life hasn’t brought you back to similar hobbies, you’ll have to stick with reconnecting over something you both do: like eat lunch.

And if you have the chance to build the relationship beyond that, you’ll have to be creative in thinking of things you might both be able to enjoy together, even if your social life is very different. Do you both exercise or work out? Go to church? Enjoy movies or a certain TV show? Also, don’t over-complicate things. Though we often feel like old or distant friendships require some event to justify connection, sitting on your porch on a sunny day might be good enough.

Maturity.

When your friendship ends badly, or when the two of you seem to have gone in two different directions, it makes it hard to recover your relationship.

Reality check: It’s possible (in either case) that you’ll reconnect…only to find that you don’t really connect well…still.

With this in mind, there are several ways to go if you want to reach out.

One, invite a group of friends who know each other to hang out and include the friend you lost over time. This way, you’re not opening the door to a one-on-one engagement, but you’re still allowing for the chance to test the waters.

Two, pitch it as a rare occurrence the first time. I know we are both busy and won’t be able to hang out like we did in old times, but I’d still love to see you and catch up.

Three, plan to run into each other at an event you’ll both be at. A wedding, a baby shower, a local holiday parade.

The underlying idea is to turn regret into small steps. To be hopeful, but realistic.

Source:

1. http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2008/12/17/who-moves-who-stays-put-wheres-home/

 



There are 8 comments

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  1. Iluvbetty

    Wowzers, that was a long one but I couldn’t stop. I’m fascinated by social life and all the drama and crises that come along with it.

  2. M.Yearse

    I rekindled a friendship with a childhood friend who got cancer later in life and who passed away since then. I am so glad that I was able to reach out to her and only wish I had done it sooner. There isn’t really a lot of risk if you keep it simple. If you’re thinking about someone today, don’t wait!

  3. CarolAnnPeters

    Its worth the risk!!! Me and my best friend from middle school reconnected last month and we talk all the time more. I wish I wouldve called her even sooner.

  4. Sugar76

    I agree with a lot of things this says, but I would warn people even more strongly about how this could go wrong quick. I tried to patch things up with a childhood friend once and it was a complete disaster. It ended up pulling even more people into it and I regretted even calling her in the first place. That said I will say that this was an unusual situation and that I personally would be glad to hear from any old friend even if I wasn’t super close to them. I think gestures of goodwill dont happen enough. If someone extends kindness to me, I am grateful for it.

  5. Tamika

    YES yes yes. If you were ever real friends the first time, you will sit down and it will seem like no time passed at all.

  6. Danielle Marie

    I feel like it is fate that I read this today because I’ve been thinking about my college roommate who fell out of touch. She has been on my mind for no reason and like it says, I can’t put a finger on why we drifted apart. It just happened because life happens.

  7. Sue Wells

    My old friend, Ellen, called me the other day out of the blues. She and I and our husbands were friends in the 90’s when our husbands worked together, but then she moved out of state and weren’t in touch much. She’s coming in to see family in the spring for a wedding and we are already planning on getting together.


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