If you have been following along on my blog, I told you in my post Refresh Yourself that I’d explore friendship in an upcoming blog post. Well, here it is! It’s a hot topic with my peers these days because no matter how much we understand that things are different among our friend groups than they were 20 years ago – it still seems impossible to wrap our heads around the changing face of friendship as we age.
As we all know, there are varying levels of friendship. There are best friends, family friends, acquaintances, mentors, business associates, middle school friends, friends from kindergarten, sorority sisters, kid’s sports team friends, workout friends, and on and on. We all have a mental list of friends and we might mention to a mutual acquaintance: “Oh, I’m friends with her too!” but when I think about it, I find I almost always follow it up with – “well, friendly”. (I don’t know her dog’s name or anything). Truth! And that’s okay. We are all busy and there are WAY too many people I like and not enough hours in the day, or days in the month to see them all. But I do cherish all my friendships and try to treat them with care.
Some people call me a giver. Some people call me a people-pleaser. I just like to say – I’m a good friend. My college friends (sorority sister category) and I had a long-running joke that they would say in my eulogy: “She literally gave us the shirt off her back”. And I did… I do! “Babysit your kids tomorrow? Absolutely.” and “You like this shirt? It’s yours” – are regular gestures I hand out. I try to be generous and thoughtful always. Sometimes, I miss the mark and think I am doing something so amazing for a friend only to find out it’s the absolute wrong thing. When I was in 6th grade, we had a student visit us (picture small private girls’ school) for the day and I was her hostess. I already knew her from Sunday School and I thought I did a bang-up job of including her and making her feel welcome that day. The next day our teacher Mrs. Esselstyn (of Strunk & White fame from my post Use Your Words ) sat us down and said the guest had reported feeling badly about something someone had said. Everyone was horrified including me! Now, I cannot remember what it was, but it came out not long after – that it was me; her generous and thoughtful host – that had offended her. Ugh! That happened in the early 80’s, but it stays with me. Sometimes we all get it wrong despite our best efforts to be a good friend. As the years have ticked by – I started to notice that sometimes my gestures were not returned by many of the people I had placed in my most intimate circle. My college friends for instance – had always been considered (by me) to be my closest friends in the world. They knew me and my husband from the University of Arizona, we were all in each other’s weddings; but when my family moved to Dallas (where they reside) during a difficult period in my husband’s career, and then we moved back to Seattle and got divorced – we went back to talking every so often. Had I confused intimate friendship with geography? They had moved on with their own lives, and I with mine. We went back to our old way of friendship: I would call often to try and connect, we would finally catch up, and then we both went back to our family and friends locally. When I first moved back to Washington, I had a deep sense of loss with that group. Having them in such close proximity when we lived in Texas had moved them to an intimate circle that was a product of where I lived. They will always be my close friends – from afar.
Friends are easy to make (for people like me), but hard to keep! This is because I make everyone a good friend out of the gate. That’s just my personality. But often, because we are all busy – the friendship doesn’t blossom. Just because we lift weights at the same time at the gym, doesn’t mean we are going to enjoy getting our boyfriends together and going for drinks. We are gym friends. And that’s cool! I have two best friends. And they are my sisters. I could probably be all right with just the two of them forever. But they live far away and I don’t get to see them very often. When I open my eyes in the morning, I check my phone to catch myself up on the banter that’s been going on between the two of them while they wait for me to wake up. It could be a conversation about anything from “Dad drank a spiked seltzer by accident when he was babysitting the twins” (this is funny because he doesn’t drink very often and definitely didn’t know that it was spiked!) to “My kids are driving me crazy”, and I love to chime in immediately. My favorite texts are the ones that come around 5pm on the east coast some days. One sister: “I said I wasn’t going to have any wine today but I just poured my second glass.”. This is a text that is meant to prompt the other two of us to say “it’s all right” – which we always do! But since there’s a three hour delay and 2000 miles between us, I need some local friends. Sisters always stay in the circle of intimacy, which I like. No matter the geography – it sticks. And I have so many amazing people in my life. But they are definitely different people than they used to be – and I do dwell on that sometimes. Close friends I once had, have become people I see occasionally at a party or bump into in the cereal aisle at the store. I get excited when I see them! I might even send a text afterwards to tell them how happy it made me. But, we aren’t going to be getting together anytime soon because our worlds don’t collide as often anymore. I have spent time considering the cycle of aging and meeting new people through shared experiences and how our older friends move from our intimate circle to outer rings. I feel like I know a lot of people – but the burning question is: On what level?
I remember a few years ago noting to my sister Rebecca, that a few friends really didn’t step up for me the way I had for them. Rebecca said: “I feel the exact same way! Let’s face it – no one gets in return what we give to others.” That’s an unmet expectation. And then of course, we would talk about the fact that we aren’t doing the things we do for repayment. It’s a funny thing though, because we all want that same attention we give to others, that emotional hug back that we offer to another person. At some point along the way, you start to understand the circles of friendship as indicated above.
A disappointing friendship lightning bolt that hit me in my mid-forties: while I had lots of friends made thanks to having kids in those early childhood years, once my kids branched out to new friends (say in middle or high school) – I found myself surrounded by a new crop of people – my kids grew, and so did I. And I have found, and my friends agree: not many of us need or have time for a million friends. A few good ones are enough. Okay… but what about the college friends that I thought were “my very closest friends” or the “super wonderful couple friends” who quietly, when I got divorced didn’t invite me out very often (we don’t want to catch what you have!)? Those friend groups moved to a more outer circle, further away from the center ring – more ‘affiliation’ and less ‘intimacy’ or ‘influence’. It doesn’t mean they aren’t my friends! But these people I had known, sometimes for more than half of my life – move naturally into the periphery. I went to the eye doctor last week and did the test where I’d press a button if I saw something off to one side, or in my peripheral view. I liken that test to my grade school friends, college friends that live far away and even my workout friends or friends made through my kids when they were in preschool. They are still my friends and I love to see them – but it’s brief and not often deep. We catch up, share a few stories and have a hug (that’s the button push!) and then – they are gone. I’ll see them again soon perhaps, but they aren’t right in front of me where I see them head-on daily.
Most of my friends and colleagues have echoed this same sentiment. It’s just harder to navigate raising teenagers, working at your business, your personal relationships – PLUS friendships too. We all go through so many changes especially mid-life and it’s been fascinating to see that the relationships I give the most to are mutually beneficial – where I feel the love, receive AND give, and have fun. Any toxic friends (and we have all had them) are ousted with incredible force and speed. None of us have time for a friend who drains us, or talks about us behind our backs. We have all been in the position where we need to remove someone from our intimate circle and move them to ‘acquaintance’, or off the grid all-together. And it works much better if they stay out there, you wave hello at the mall and keep walking.
Navigating my 40’s has definitely been more progress than perfection. But the friendship topic is something I think about a lot. My mother never told me how much would change once I had to relocate for my husband and then move back, see my kids grow up, get divorced, go back to work full-time and watch friends newly empty nested, move away. It’s been an amazing journey for me to have all kinds of friends and I cherish each relationship I have had. Someone recently said: “We have friends for a season, a reason or a lifetime” and I am sure if you’re reading this, that you agree. Every friendship comes to us at a certain time in our lives and makes us even better. The hard part for me has been watching those friendships change and realizing that nothing stays the same. This of course points back into the topic of getting older, and growing and changing along the way. I try every day to be the best mom, friend, colleague and community leader that I can be. I nurture all of my relationships no matter where they fall in my friendship circles. Someone once said: “You can never have too many friends.”
I am grateful for so many strong friendships from very old friends that remain, to newer ones that are nurtured and fueled by similar experiences. Do I still wish everyone could be my best friend? I do.