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The problem of long-term close friendships
There was a point a year and a half ago when I felt I had found a community that would last forever. One best friend in the West Village, another best friend in the Upper East, an apartment with roommates that I loved coming home to. I wrote at the time, “I yearn for best friends that I’ll still be best friends with in 30 years.”
I was convinced that this must be possible because I had read the book A Little Life which follows a group of best friends from college until old age. Until that point I don’t think I had ever imagined—in that much detail—what it would be like to grow old with your friends, but I decided it was something I absolutely wanted.
A year and a half later, this vision seems harder than ever. One best friend is in a relationship and is leaving the city soon, another best friend has become harder to reach; the roommates are still there but one of them is moving out soon too. Everyone is always moving somewhere new, dating someone new, working somewhere new.
People talk about how in the strongest friendships, even if you go on separate paths and only see each other once a year, it always feels the same and you can just pick up from where you left off. I appreciate these friendships, but I much prefer consistent presence over the long haul (studying together, cooking dinners, sharing memes) rather than annual hourlong catch-up calls and barely ever talking in between.
I’m partly to blame for my frustration with my friendships. I haven’t yet demonstrated that I’m willing to make all the sacrifices involved in choosing one group of best friends and sticking with them forever. Am I willing to make major life decisions in partnership with my friends? To choose, together, which city (and which neighborhood) I’ll be living in, when I’ll settle down, how much I’ll prioritize my career? We are used to expecting this level of alignment out of a relationship, but not friendships.
It seems like the only person you can rely on to be there indefinitely, and with whom you can build something long-term, is your partner, and this is nice, but I do find the concept of a nuclear family—two parents on their own raising a few kids in a suburban house—a little depressing, when contrasted with a bustling extended family, many of them living together in the same building, hosting boisterous family dinners and monthly trips to a cottage. How do you build that as an adult, when your actual extended family is on a different continent?
The problem of long-term close friendship becomes harder if you have a large number of friends/acquaintances, because you are constantly tempted to shift your energy towards a new friend or a new group. Maintaining a friendship is taxing: you have to be there for each other through everything; you have to be willing to keep talking even when you’re annoyed with them, even when they’ve hurt you. You have to have unwavering conviction about who the most important people in your life are. In the moments of frustration and doubt, it feels easier to put your energy towards someone new instead.
There are two practical ways I think I can be better with this.
One is being more direct about what I want. Telling people that I want to shift from “let’s be friends for two years and then bye” to “I want to see you every week until we are physically incapable.” I have trouble imagining anyone who can make this commitment, and I’m not even sure that I can make the commitment and follow through. But I think at the very least I can get on the same page as my friends: to ask each of them, what do you want out of our friendship long-term? How do you imagine your life and friendships in a decade?
The other way I can work on this is seeking out regularity. Going to writing club every week, even in the busy weeks; attending my roommate’s annual birthday cottage trip, even in the busy years. Continuing to host an annual thanksgiving dinner among my Canadian high school friends. Each time you go to these annual/monthly/yearly gatherings it’ll be a slightly different group, but there will be a small group of faces that is there every time. That seems to be the way to create family: out of the people you see again and again. Showing up no matter what else is happening in your life, and believing that by the act of being there, something a little more sturdy will form, at least for the time being.
There is something else that will help too, but it’s harder to do: addressing my deep-seated dread towards goodbyes. They make me unbearably sad. If I know you’re moving away in a few months, I try to get myself ready for that by distancing myself now. But this is futile. You have to say goodbye eventually, even in the most committed and enduring friendships. Saying goodbye in forty years is not gonna be any easier than saying it in three months. The more I can internalize this, the more I can treat each friendship as the precious and singular experience that it is, without any guarantee of how much longer it’ll last.