Friends make us feel good in lots of ways. They get us through breakups, stay up late debating best baseball team names, and when needed, they call us on our weak excuses.
Fundamentally, they accept us, and, in a way, they validate our judgment, because we choose these people, and they show up, for no other reason than they’re friends.
But that’s part of the problem as well. There’s no discernible start time to a friendship, or any family blood or marriage license that binds and compels us to work out problems, leaving the door perpetually open.
“Friendships are tenuous relationships,” says Irene S. Levine, psychologist and author of Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend.
Friendships end, often without any rancor or noise. It’s just because of life and while it might not be a shock, it’s a reminder of what we once were and could do, like staying out all night, watching an entire game, and doing everything at the last minute.
No matter how a friendship ends, it’s a loss that can be hard to wrestle with because it represents so much. As Debbie Sorensen, Denver psychologist and co-author of ACT Daily Journal, puts it: “Friends represent a place in life we’re no longer in.” But it’s a loss and something needs to be done with it. It doesn’t have to be much. It could be a simple recognition that something’s gone. But it also helps to put the change into context and then fill what might be missing with something that has more relevance and currency to your present-day life.
So a Friendship Is Over…
To start with, it’s important to acknowledge the loss of a friendship in whatever form it might appear. You might be sad, regretful, or guilty. You could even be relieved because the friendship was more work than you wanted. They’re all valid because few situations are one thing. Whatever the emotions, pay attention to them. “The only way to get through it is to feel it,” Sorensen says.
The next step is to realize something about friendships: We want to believe they’ll last forever, and we almost have to. Otherwise, we couldn’t invest ourselves, Levine says.
But most friendships have an expiration date. They go through ebbs and flows and the cause is nothing greater than life transitions, says Claude S. Fischer, professor of sociology at University of California, Berkeley and author of Still Connected: Family and Friends in America Since 1970. You get married, change jobs, have a child, move. Getting together becomes less simple, and because you have less personal time, every decision of, “Should I …?,” gets analyzed and requires coordination to make happen. “It just raises the costs in terms of time, energy and opportunity,” he says.
Only the really, really strong relationships survive; the others don’t, but rather than being full-on dead, Fischer says that, “They go dormant.” Your and your friend are not in sync now, but your ties can bring you back together and the friendship can be reawakened. It means there’s no need for any formal goodbyes, and you can keep in occasional contact to gently maintain things. However, your energy gets directed elsewhere in order to replace the loss.
That energy should be directed towards making new friends, a prospect that can seem unappealing because you still have no time for what feels self-indulgent, Levine says. But the outlet and safety valve is necessary.
Your advantage is that there are other parents of young children all around you. They may feel random and not like the kind of people you’d choose, but this is your pool, and the first stage of any relationship hinges on context, because, “You can’t be friends with someone you never meet,” Fischer says.
What follows is showing some guts by being approachable and approaching, but, as Sorensen adds, you don’t form trust immediately, and since you will see these people over and over again, there’s no reason to rush or force anything.
Conversations should start small, and once you achieve regular, friendly chit-chat status, you can delve a little more. “I had the worst day” is an innocuous share but it’s an opening and if the person takes it, you can slowly expand the topics, and then as Fischer says, you might eventually suggest grabbing a beer or going for a run or whatever else might take the relationship beyond the sidelines and make it its own entity.
On the surface, you may think that you have nothing more in common than having kids, but that’s not a small thing, Levine says, and it’s also not the only thing. The stuff you’re worrying about, like money, parenting, finding a decent babysitter? They’re doing it as well. “Life can get stressful and we need someone to remind us out our shared experiences,” Sorensen says. “It helps us navigate hard situations.”
And it’s also a good reminder that while you might be a little out of practice, you’re not looking to learn a foreign language. “It’s a natural process,” Levine says. “If you’ve made friends in the past, you should feel confident you can make them in the future.”