You have a friend who’s been around for years, through ups and downs. You became friends when you lived nearby, going to school or work, but once you moved a couple of hours away, the relationship seemed to slip. Instead of going out or seeing each other every day, it started to become every week. Then after every week, it became every month. And now it’s about twice a year. The calls and chats in between also started getting more and more sparse. There’s no reason to ‘cut off’ the friendship just because you don’t talk as much, but they are getting upset that you don’t hang out enough. Is it because of life or because you are simply growing apart?
Let’s dissect what a friend means first; I know it may seem trivial, but bear with me for a second. Friends are defined as sharing some sort of ‘mutual affection;’ we simply ‘like each other. The degree of friendship, then, depends on the degree that we like each other. For a strong friendship, we could even say we love each other. The main complication is that it has to be ‘mutual’ affection, not one-sided affection or lop-sided affection. So a friendship ends up being as strong as whoever has the lowest amount of affection, the amount that is ‘mutual.’
Unfortunately for us, there’s no friend affection meter that we can use to determine how much affection we should release. If we release too much, then we look like idiots that love someone who doesn’t care, and if we release too little, we look like jerks who don’t realize someone cares about us. So we end up constantly monitoring this friendship meter to increase or decrease the love.
Where’s the Love
Since we don’t have a common friendship meter, we have to figure it out for ourselves. Often the go-to is how much time is spent together. The more time together equates to more love. We don’t even think about doing it, but we assume those who are around us the most are those who care the most. However, time together is not the only factor in how much someone loves us.
So what else is there? One framework by Gary Chapman describes ‘five love languages:’ gifts, words of affirmation, acts of service, physical touch, and, of course, quality time. This isn’t an end-all-be-all list. (For example, where is listening or a shoulder to cry on? Are those acts of service? Or silent affirmation?) In either case, these love languages at least give a framework that we can use to broaden our perspective outside of focusing on time spent together.
Once we have a better understanding of how people show their affection, we can start to fill up the friendship meter with more inputs. Maybe we don’t spend much time together, but the random visit with a small gift or words of encouragement may count for more than multiple get-togethers. What does this score really mean though? Does any amount of scoring give us an understanding of how much someone truly cares?
There may be a scientific way to provide evidence for this, but everyone’s scoring would be so different that it would be difficult to track. One person may care immensely about someone else and be the best at listening and being a shoulder to cry on, but they only demonstrate that when there’s a problem. Another person may be the type that really likes quality time but is extremely busy, and so a chat every few weeks is all they end up doing, despite their love.
And then there’s the person who doesn’t actually care but read the ‘manual’ and knows exactly when to give gifts and words of affirmation just to get on someone’s good side. That would wreak havoc on any scorekeeping because we’d be fooled or simply wrong about how much someone actually cares.
Tit for Tat
This scorekeeping isn’t just in relation to directly showing affection; it’s in any giving and taking, for example, separating a bill equally versus paying for the bill versus not offering to pay. These may not have any bearing on how much someone cares, but we tend to track these things to keep the scales balanced. One friend drives two hours to visit all the time, while the other friend does not. One friend brings food when visiting; the other does not. One friend initiates the calls; the other friend does not.
To an extent, it makes logical sense why we want to track these tit-for-tat actions; if the scales aren’t balanced, it could mean we’re getting taken advantage of. The problem is, when we let these tit-for-tat actions determine our choices, again, it is based on arbitrarily or misguided assessments that only hold our own limited perspective. A better solution is to simply have boundaries as to what we will and won’t do or give and stop worrying about the scores.
Assume that we had a crystal ball, and could see that the friend who never initiates calls or contact loves us dearly. Would we still feel upset about being the one to reach out first? We have to know that these tit-for-tat situations cannot be used to judge one’s level of affection. They can however help us understand their tendencies and if for whatever reason we don’t like those tendencies then we will grow apart.
Bad Friendships and Growing Apart
If we shouldn’t use our friendship meter to determine how much affection and giving our friend has shown us, what can we do to determine if it’s a good or bad friendship? And what if our friend really cares for us but is debilitating for us, like an alcohol or drug addiction, for example. This type of negative dynamic is exactly what a bad friendship is: a mutually caring friendship that has bad effects or bad influences .
It doesn’t matter how much we care, and it doesn’t matter how much they care. If there are bad effects, there are bad effects that need to be rectified. The amount we care provides only an indicator of what we’re willing to do about the bad effects and how we address our friend.
For example, if we have a really strong friendship, but our friend is doing something that we no longer approve of, we have to let them know and establish boundaries about what we’re willing to do around them. It doesn’t mean we have to grow apart; we just draw a line in the sand as to what we won’t stand for or let affect us negatively.
Aside from bad friendships, maybe we simply don’t want to be that close anymore. Maybe we’re not meshing with our friend well anymore. Instead of going out to party every day like we used to, we’d rather stay home, and our friend hates that. Or maybe our friend has constant drama that we’re tired of being a listening ear or helping hand for. Maybe we just can’t get over some of their tendencies, like the fact that they doesn’t reach out to us enough.
In all cases, growing apart is our choice, and it should be a deliberate one. Setting boundaries is something we must actively choose to do. This, again, doesn’t mean we don’t care; it just means we are changing. We should embrace our own feelings, set boundaries, and be unapologetic about it.
It seems, however, despite the fact that we think we can care for someone deeply and not talk or hang out with them much, there is an instinctive need for continuous connection to those we care about. If we truly care about someone, it’s hard to accept that our feelings would eventually change due to time alone.
In a depressing example, what if our close friend passed away? Would our feelings for them slowly change? Our instinctive answer is “no way,” but the intense anger and sadness of losing a loved one we know needs to subside over time or we wouldn’t be able to continue with our own lives. We may love them the same, but the impact of emotional situations, people and events will morph as time goes by.
Imagine falling in love, truly believing this person is forever, only to break up and find another true love later on. There is something in our makeup that helps us to move on, to continue to change and grow. It is likely no different with regard to friendships. If a friend isn’t around at all, even if we cared dearly for them, after a while, the strength of those memories and associated feelings will likely subside unless we are actively working to keep them.
Communicate and Create
Assuming that we’ve determined we want to keep a strong friendship and we don’t want to grow apart, there are two things we simply have to do: communicate and create new memories. We have to communicate because we may not know what our friend wants or needs. They may need affection in a way that we aren’t showing. This is how we replace our broken friendship meter. We talk to them and get an idea as to what they’d appreciate.
We create new memories by interacting, of course. We determine what things they like or what issues we may have collectively and give in relation to our own feelings of affection. When we do things for them based on our own level of affection, while taking into consideration their needs, we create a natural balance that isn’t dependent on guesswork. It’s what we discuss together or what we want for ourselves. For most close friendships, this type of dynamic happens automatically. But sometimes life gets in the way and we need to be more assertive about it.
Shared Goals and Life
Friendships are not meant to be difficult, but it is no surprise that life just happens. Life seems to be the indirect cause of a lot of inactive friendships. In these cases, we have to make it a point to reach out and hang out or do something with them. Many of us seem to be less than good at this, letting life’s priorities take control, while some of our best friends and times get put on the back burner. It may ultimately take a concerted effort on both parties, but only one person is needed to initiate that effort.
One thing that can help incorporate life is to find common collaborative goals or passions. Chances are that there was originally something in our lives that acted as this shared goal: school, work, a sport, a particular event or venue. Having a new shared goal can be a great way to keep the friendship strong and can last through life’s obstacles.
Life happens, but one thing that we have heard, time and again, from those on their deathbeds is that friends and family are usually top of the list. This is NOT a reason to keep friends that we no longer feel a connection to or that infringe on our boundaries. But for those who make the cut, let’s be better at involving them in our lives where possible, to find shared goals and keep our friendships strong if not for them, for ourselves.