How Friendships change over time by Bob Ritzema

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By Bob Ritzema

Julie Beck, a writer at the Atlantic, recently wrote an article about how friendships change over time. She notes:

“The voluntary nature of friendship makes it subject to life’s whims in a way more formal relationships aren’t. In adulthood, as people grow up and go away, friendships are the relationships most likely to take a hit.”

Even in the social media age, when we can keep track of friends from long ago no matter where we each happen to live, there are some friendships from earlier phases of life that aren’t maintained. Others are maintained, but barely: seeing facebook posts a couple times a year written by someone I worked with 20 years ago means we are still in touch, but the fiber of connection is stretched so thin that it makes little difference to either of us.

Beck describes the developmental trajectory of friendships. In childhood, a friend is mostly someone to play with. In adolescence, there is more talk, more self-disclosure, and friends are important in our search to discover who we are. Young adults are “more likely to seek out friends who share their values on the important things.” Young adults are also quite mobile, so many friends get left behind as we travel to get educated or take a job. By middle adulthood, we’re all quite busy, shuttling between work, marriage, and parenting. “[I]t’s easier to put off catching up with a friend than it is to skip your kid’s play or an important business trip.” Thus, friendship researcher William Rawlings of Ohio University found that middle-aged adults defined friendship as “being there” for each other, but actually had little time to spend together. Busy middle-aged adults make relatively few new friends other than among people they already see regularly, such as co-workers.

Later in life, though, kids leave home and we work less, or not at all, and we have more time. Some of that time is devoted to friends. As Beck indicates, “People tend to reconnect with old friends they’ve lost touch with. And it seems more urgent to spend time with them…” Of course, some old friends are lost for good. Others live at such a distance that it is difficult to get together. It’s not impossible, though. There is one friend I’ve known for over twenty years that I go to Georgia a couple times a year to see. I also have a high school friend who lives in California but was able to spend time with when he came to Michigan twice since 2012.

I grew up in West Michigan and returned here in 2012 to help my parents. There are several old friends in the area with whom I thought I would be spending time, but it hasn’t worked out that way. I’ve seen a few of them briefly, but only meet regularly with one–the one I had made time for throughout the decades I was really busy. I’m not fully retired, so my desire to renew old friendships may increase once I do quit working. For now, though, rather than reconnect with old friends, I’m devoting more time to friends who were already a priority for me, and I’m making new friends.

I’ll write more about why I think I’ve maintained strong friendships with some people but don’t have much interest in renewing friendships with others with whom I was once close. I’m curious about other people’s experiences, though. How have your friendships changed over the years, and why have you kept the friendships you have?

By Bob Ritzema

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