Friday, July 29, 2011

Friends Old and New

I don't talk about my parents much because they're private people. But today I have to tell you about one great thing I learned from my mother.

Growing up, I learned what healthy friendships looked like from my mom.

No, my mom was not my best friend growing up. I am not a Gilmore Girls-esque daughter. But I watched my mom be an amazing friend to literally dozens and dozens of women, and she gave me a vision for what it means to have lifelong girlfriends. She is still friends with women from grade school and college, yet somehow she continues to remain open to new friendships, making true friends in every place my parents have lived. I've found that her relational aptitude is quite rare.

Every time I've moved, I have experienced how difficult it is to simultaneously maintain old friendships and build new ones. In the past 10 years I've "left behind" four major groups of friends. Each move brings its challenges and rewards, but maintaining my friendships from a former home is one of the most challenging aspects of a move for me. I am an introvert, so I can only have so many deep conversations in one day. I also hate small talk, so "catching up" alone doesn't exactly appeal to me.

A few years ago, someone helped me understand that I simply do not have the capacity to be super close friends with dozens of people at once. I was advised to view my friendships in concentric circles: The more intimate the friendship, the fewer the friendships I could maintain at that level. For instance, I can only maintain four or five friendships at the most intimate level at once. But in the next ring out, I can maintain about 12-15 friendships. In my head, it looks something like this:

This diagram might seem a little cold to some people, but it is quite helpful for me. Your capacity may be much larger than mine, so perhaps you can have 12 Besties. Other people operate with one Bestie. I'm not saying everyone is like me, but I am showing you a model based on my own life.

Whether or not you've moved, you probably experience a similar model based on who you work with, go to class with, or share life stages with at any given moment. Based on life circumstances, it's normal for people to drift from one circle to another. If I want to maintain the same level of intimacy with all of my friends, I can do so, but not without a cost. Focusing all of my energy on existing friendships can actually be a deterrent to making new friends simply because new friends require time and energy. If I want to make room in my life for a new friend, it's necessary for me to let an old friend drift down to a more distant level of friendship.

This doesn't mean I am being negligent; this means I am being flexible. I should never let a friendship drift away because of unresolved conflict or hardness of heart. But sometimes, relationships change and that's okay. I'm not letting my friends drift off into space; I'm just accepting the fact that talking every few months might be more realistic than talking weekly.

With all of that said, distance does not automatically kill a friendship in this day and age. In fact, some of my closest friends live across the country. I think the constant interaction I have with a few friends via Facebook, Twitter, and Google Reader helps tremendously. When you share ideas with people and have an exchange of real thoughts, friendships remain healthy. Of course, there's nothing quite like face-to-face time. Skype, Google video chat, and the new Google Plus "hang out" feature get us awfully close, though.

So, how do you maintain old friendships while making room for new friends? Are you aware of your own capacity for intimacy? Do you sometimes feel guilty when the dynamic of a friendship changes?

Next week I'm going to follow this up with a post entitled Being Friends when it's Hard. That will hopefully continue the conversation so that we can talk about when to fight for a friendship and when to succumb to a downgrade in intimacy. Stay tuned.

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