There is much advice out there for couples on how to keep love alive, but little is said to friends and family about how to keep relationships alive, particularly from a distance.
Recently, one after another, a few close acquaintances, who had not responded to my communications for some time, got in touch out of the blue, without referring to their silence. Although I was glad to hear from each of them, I felt frustrated and didn’t have a clue how to reply. Put simply, I could no longer relate.
To paraphrase a friend, who said years ago of someone who had been her bestie for years, they just aren’t in my intimate circles anymore or, more accurately put, I am not in theirs.
Admittedly, I didn’t fully understand where my friend was coming from because my relationship with my best friend has withstood many tests of time and distance. And I still don’t get it totally, since this particular relationship is still very much alive despite the odds stacked against it. But here is what I do get: situations change and so do people.
Some relationships weather the changes and others don’t, even when there is good intention. As I grasped my new reality, I couldn’t help wondering why these close encounters had fizzled out. Try as I might to keep the fire stoked, albeit from a distance, I had failed dismally.
Suddenly it occurred to me that keeping a relationship alive requires relating, whether it is between friends, family members or lovers. Throw distance into the equation and relating can become that much more challenging.
Years ago when I first moved to New York City, pre-Skype, FaceTime and so on, my mother and I related regularly on the telephone and through letters. I kept her informed about my new experiences and she kept me abreast of what was happening in the family: her life, the life of my siblings, my father and so on.
For some reason, she kept my phone number and address in a book, which others could access if they wanted to if they didn’t necessarily have this information to hand. Perhaps they didn’t want it, but she treasured it and used these details to stoke the fire that kept me relating to my family. Still, in the early days when I arrived home from New York for a visit, I had to re-enter a world that I no longer lived in.
At times it was downright awkward, trying to fit into dynamics that felt as strange as two left shoes. At moments, my mother seemed to be the only one I really knew, or who knew me. No wonder that when I returned from New York to live in Georgia years later, we became like girlfriends. We were already in each other’s space.
Anyhow during one of my first visits home, I remember one of my sisters protesting that I had changed. So I had, I agreed and so had she and everyone else. But it wasn’t change that dragged the pink elephant into the room; it was the absence of relating on a regular basis that plopped it there.
Shortly after my mother died in 2016, some old acquaintances, many of them classmates, came to offer condolences and one said of another, who had been a close friend of mine but did not attend: ‘He’s changed’. Even then, I thought, we all have. I stayed quiet, fully understanding that my old friend was referring to the conceptual side of relating.
What my mother did until she fell sick and handed the job over to my father – who stepped happily into the role in the technology age – was and is practical. Though it kept and still keeps me inside of the family, I often joke that if I don’t talk to them I don’t always have inside information specific to any one person’s life, except my dad’s. And I always talk about re-entry before visiting.
The point is this. Conceptually, it is hard to relate to someone when you lead completely different lives and have different interests, sometimes even different fundamentals. This might explain why my old friends and I, though we might be friendly enough if opportunity presents itself, are no longer chums. We are no longer on common ground.
With my school friends, the point was that some of us could no longer relate to each other: a hard pill to swallow for some people, particularly as social media has made it possible to bring the mundane into the spotlight, albeit on a superficial level.
Still it is being a part of someone’s day-to-day thread of life as much as possible that keeps relationships alive. That means being interested in knowing what is going on in their lives and being interesting too; keeping them abreast of what’s happening in your world. Furthermore, it means having something in common.
You have to relate, otherwise it is unrealistic to expect sparks to fly after months, sometimes years, of not relating, regardless of the relation. Granted, it might not be possible to speak to friends and family members everyday, sometimes not even every month. The key is being able to relate to them on a practical basis as much as possible and, equally as important, on a conceptual one – finding the common ground.
No wonder some of us are no longer chummy. But for those who are, congratulations on being realistic about what it takes to keep relationships alive.