Eventually, I identified that the discomfort was coming from a place of fear and mourning. I've steadily grown more afraid over the years as my friends transcended phases of life—college graduations, first jobs, promotions, and marriages—with each successive milestone less in lockstep with my personal journey.
And as my friends and I continue going further down our separate paths, our differences in timelines and general goals grow more stark. So, along with my happiness during the inevitable growth spurts of life also comes a fear of how our friendships will change and a sense of mourning for the simpler days when we had much more in common than our shared pasts.
That's not to say I don't still cherish my friendships in the present tense or have any intention of turning my back on them. To help ensure that doesn't happen, I sought expert advice for staying friends at different stages of life.
First, recognize the difference between changing circumstances and changing friendships
“When you’re in your mid-twenties and everybody starts to go their different ways, not only geographically but life-stage-wise, that’s when it really can feel like the foundation of the friendship is not there anymore because you can’t relate to one another’s daily lives,” says Amber Trueblood, LMFT, family therapist and author of Stretch Marks. As a result of new additions to each person's respective life—whether it's a new job, baby, or simply a lack of availability, for example—the friendship can seem different, but the core of what's changed are accessories of life, not the person leading it. That means your friend's life having new components doesn't make your friend a new or different person.
“A lot of times with long-term friendships, we’ve established a rhythm," says Danielle Jackson Bayard, friendship expert and coach and author of Give it a Rest: The Case for Tough Love Friendships. "We have a lot of practice being friends in a certain environment, and then you throw in something new,” Bayard says. According to both Bayard and Trueblood, addressing the evolving ecosystem of relationships starts with intentionality and clear communication.
Be intentional about your connection
Without being intentional about a friendship, Bayard says it's easy to essentially blink and notice five years have passed. Being intentional, she says, starts with planning specific times to catch up with each other, whether by text, phone calls, emails, or a combination. Relying on spontaneous communication alone, especially between friends in different stages of life who are very busy, is an easy path to friendship burnout because you'll likely keep missing the right time to chat. To make the sessions feel more manageable (considering part of the barrier is how busy we are!), Bayard suggests putting a time limit on the exchanges.
“A lot of us are still thriving on experiences we had together in college, but we need to continue to have shared experiences that keep us connected.” — Danielle Jackson Bayard, friendship expert
Another component of how intentionality can help friends in different stages of life stay close is in creating new memories. That could be as simple as choosing to tune in to the same TV show at the same time, or checking out new brunch spots together. “A lot of us are still thriving on those glamorous experiences that we had together in college and things like that, but we need to continue to have shared experiences that keep us connected,” Bayard says. “Spice things up the same way you would romantically. You could infuse the element of discovery into your friendships” because having new experiences together builds memorable bonding moments.
Communicate clearly, openly, and often
According to Trueblood, while the exact components of life may grow to be different among friends in different stages of life, many underlying issues like fatigue, stress, and forgetfulness are pretty common—regardless of who has kids and who doesn't. “Sometimes these perceived disconnects [between different life stages] are exactly that: perception,” she says. “That sometimes causes a greater disconnect, because we assume and don’t talk about these things, but there’s a lot more in common than we realize.”
Assumptions can also be problematic when we take our friends' happy-looking lives at face value and don’t dig deeper. In other scenarios, this lack of communication can lead some to create one-sided narratives about how the other person feels about the friendship. “We’re losing a lot of our friendships prematurely, because we won’t talk to each other about things," Bayard says.
Another important communication tip? Actively ask what your friend wants from you in their time of need, and be open about what you want as well. Sometimes, friends need an ear to listen to them vent. Sometimes they need your opinions, advice, and potential solutions.
Advice for friends at different life stages to support one another
If you—even if just subconsciously—feel “behind” friends who are moving forward with careers or personal life along a path that doesn't look linear in the same way for you, don't hide your vulnerability and lie to yourself and others about your authentic feelings. But also be careful not to make your friends feel uncomfortable or shamed about where they are and what they're doing.
One way to reframe this thinking in a way that benefits everyone involved is to shift your mindset to view your friends’ wins as your wins, and trust that yours will come in time. Otherwise, your doubts may subconsciously infiltrate your relationships and stop you from being optimally happy for your friends.
For the friend who is “ahead,” Bayard says, “You should be able to shine in front of each other, to share your successes and the things that you enjoy without fear [of making your friends feel bad].” But there is a catch: “Make sure that you don’t get caught up in the new changes of your life that you fail to also be a questioner and listener for everyone else,” she adds.
And just know that despite your best efforts, continuously showing up in your friendships may get tough at times. “Awkwardness is part of the process,” says Bayard. “So try to figure out how to relate to each other in a new space and time, but keep trying.”
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