Lauren Bowling

The Ones That Got Away

How To Avoid Friendship Drift

Words By
Read Time: 4min
Photo Lauren Bacon

Last week, I met a friend for lunch. She’s not just any friend – she has been in my life for more than twenty years, since our first days in university. We were roommates; we’ve witnessed each other joyful, studious, drunk, deeply in love, angry, inspired, ugly-crying, you-name-it.

But our hour-long lunch date was the first one-on-one time we’ve shared together in at least a year and a half. The truth is, I don’t know exactly when we stopped the habit of making time for each other, but I can guess: it was probably shortly before my son was born.

Our lunch was upbeat, chatty, but a little awkward. How could it not be? Looming below the rapid-fire exchange of stories was the submerged part of the iceberg – awareness that when I became a mother, it had a cooling effect on our relationship.

It may be too soon to tell, but I’m pretty sure we’ve had a successful rekindling. The alternative – letting the friendship go gently into that good night – isn’t something I’m willing to contemplate; twenty-year friendships are not easily replaced.

I’ve lost friends this way before — thanks to changing life circumstances — and I’ve learned my lessons.

Why Do Great Friendships Drift?

Unlike most of my romantic relationships, the friendships I’ve lost have fizzled out not with a bang, but a whimper. They faded slowly, ever so slowly, and with little to mark the endings but a vague absence and a suitcase of memories.

In nearly every case, changing circumstances were a contributing factor.

Friendship demands a modicum of common ground that can erode over time as our lives evolve. I lost a slew of friends in the months and years after leaving university; a few more when they became parents and moved to the burbs; still more when shared activities, friends, locations — even interests or opinions — diverged. Sound familiar?

I’d file the vast majority of these under “drifted apart”: the no-harm, no-foul kind of distancing that tends to happen when people’s paths meander off in different directions.

But there have been a couple I really wish I’d held onto – and it’s only in retrospect that I see how easy it was to rely on common ground that was liable to shift over time.

There’s inertia when you can count on seeing a friend at a weekly class, around the office, or in the neighbourhood. It takes considerably more effort once one of you graduates, gets a new job, or moves across the country.

So: what are the steps to maintaining a friendship when the conditions under which it formed change? I’ve learned through trial and error (and I’ll be honest here, there have been a lot of errors) some very actionable ways to forestall unwanted drift. They take some vulnerability and courage, but I’m seeing them work.

3 Ways To Preserve a Great Friendship

How do you protect friendships from the slings and arrows of new parenthood, cross-country relocations, boyfriend disapproval, and the lot? Here’s my strategy:

1. Acknowledge Circumstances Have Changed

When I became a mom, my schedule changed drastically – and at the risk of feeling socially awkward — I’ve had several direct and rather pedantic conversations with my close friends to sort through the logistics of how we can continue to spend time together.

(A combination of mid-week lunch dates, weekend play dates, and post-kiddo-bedtime visits is doing the trick so far).

It may not be as spontaneous as we’d like, but it’s helping keep our connections solid during a life change that tends to put many friendships through the wringer.

It doesn’t hurt, either, to state the obvious: “I know I’m less available now than I used to be – but I want you to know our friendship is a priority for me. Let’s figure out how to make this work.”

2. Find New Common Ground

If nothing has changed except your mailing address, this may not be necessary. But things get trickier when your lives seem to be pulling in different directions – family for one, and career for the other, or when your new obsession with the paleo diet craze runs up against your and your friend’s once-shared love for home-baked cookies.

At times like these, your best bet is to hone in on the common ground you still share: an appreciation for indie comedy, an affinity for weekend hikes, or just the desire to see each other fulfilled and happy.

3. Reach Out

Let your friend know their friendship matters to you. Take the initiative to plan a time to connect. If you’ve been on friendship auto-pilot for a while, this may require a bit of a nudge; remind yourself what’s at stake and pick up the phone.

A Final Thoughts

If we want to avoid friendship drift, one of our critical tasks as Lifeboaters may be to figure out what our conditions are before they change. What are the circumstances underlying the health of your closest friendships? Are they predicated on shared activities, interests, friends, locations, values? What would happen if one or more of those conditions shifted? Life being what it is, odds are good that they will.

I’m okay with letting go of a friendship that’s run it’s course. But when it comes to a decades-old ugly-cry buddy who still lights me up, I’m not going down without a fight.

** This guest post was written by the wonderful Lauren Bacon. You can find more from her at her website here.

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