When I was in kindergarten, my best friend was Sarah, who was in my weekly ballet class. In middle school, it was Christina, whose mom babysat me in the afternoons. In high school came Marisa, who was in my AP classes. And in college, my best friend was Kiko, my randomly assigned freshman-year roommate.
When we’re young, our closest relationships are our most convenient relationships. That’s not to say that these friendships don’t have value by virtue of their ease. It’s just to say that the ease of making them is a hallmark of youth.
But like paying bills and learning to make your own meals, one of the many givens of adulthood is that friendships become more difficult to maintain as we get older.
The older you get, the more likely it becomes that you won’t see most of your friends on an everyday basis – or even an every month or an every year basis. That means you’ve got to start putting in some extra effort to keep in touch with the ones you love.
I’ve moved 13 times in the last 10 years, or maybe 14. I can’t remember because after, like, five, who’s keeping track? These days, most of my best friends live hours away, which means I don’t see them often, and it’s so easy to fall into the “out of sight, out of mind” trap.
Even when they’re on my mind, though, I rarely tell them so. Why? Because life gets in the way, and I get distracted, and I forget. And hey, So-and-So and I will always pick up right where we left off, right? We’ll always be on good terms, regardless of how often we see one another or text or Skype or send life updates via email.
Or will we?
We’re all guilty of telling ourselves that our friendships, even – and perhaps especially – our most cherished relationships, will be OK in perpetuity, even if we’re not putting in the work to keep them that way. We assume that our friends will understand if our lives get busy, because their lives are busy, too. That’s life!
But you know what they say about the word “assume”: It makes an ASS of U and ME. (Please tell me my mom wasn’t the only one who taught me that phrase…) When it comes to staying in touch – or not – with those we love, assumptions are the enemy of healthy, lasting friendships.
We’re all guilty of reassuring ourselves, “Hey, it’s OK that I haven’t called her in months. It’s not like she’s called me either! The phone works two ways!” But what if you’re not on the same page and your assumptions are, totally unbeknownst to you, actually destroying your relationship? What if you’re hurting people you love with your radio silence?
This is a reality that I recently learned the hard way.
This summer, I was devastated to learn that my cousin – my friend, someone I’ve always considered myself close to, one of my people in the world – had neglected to invite me to an annual family trip. When I found out, I blew up, sobbed, yelled at him. How could he kick me off the island like that? What had I done to warrant exclusion from a beloved annual event?
But my cousin didn’t apologize, not at first. Instead, he told me that he was mad at me, too. In fact, he had been mad at me for five years! I hadn’t madae an effort, he felt, to demonstrate a commitment to our friendship outside of this once-a-year event. He felt neglected, and my neglect had caused him to doubt whether I even cared about him at all.
Let’s set aside the fact that five years is a really long time to stew in silence. At the crux of the matter was this: My cousin was hurting – and had been hurting for a long while – because he felt I hadn’t made enough effort to maintain or strengthen our relationship.
…and he was right.
He pointed out that when I’d visited his city, I often chose to spend my time with other friends instead of him. He’d text me to make plans, and though I always wanted to see him, I rarely followed through or explained why.
From my end, I had naively assumed that relatives would always be there, and I knew I’d see my cousin once a year, at least, at our annual vacation… until he decided that we were no longer close and he didn’t want me there anymore.
And you know what? It was my own fault.
I mean, OK, it’s his fault, too. I never had any inkling that he was upset with me, and that part, to be sure, is on him. I overestimated how strong our relationship was, but at the same time, I underestimated how much he cared about me, and ultimately, I was neglectful of our friendship. I spent five years hurting a dear friend by my absence, and it never even occurred to me.
It’s a long road back from a fissure like that. It takes a lot of time and effort and sincerity – and a hell of a lot of apologizing – to begin to pave a path toward a friendship that has a strong and stable future. So where do you even start?
Start by texting an old friend when you hear that song you guys used to rock out to together or when something reminds you of your favorite inside joke. Start by making a surprise call in the middle of the day, when you have time and it occurs to you, and if your friend doesn’t answer, by leaving a “Just wanted to say hi!” voicemail to show you care. Start by sending a “Here’s what up in my life” email – or, better yet, a handwritten letter. Hell, start big and begin planning a visit.
Whatever you do, just start – soon. Assumptions like “He’ll always be there” or “She’ll understand” do more than just make an ass of you and me. They destroy friendships with the people we love the most.