Handling friendship transitions

As our lives change, so do our friendships. We discuss staying close to friends through life’s major transitions.

Maintaining a friendship is easy if you're both at the same stage of life, or if you work together. But when your friend is worried about her baby's nappy rash and you're planning a big night out, your bond may be tested.

"A friendship is a relationship and like any relationship, it needs input, energy and resources to exist, grow and be sustained," explains Cape Town-based psychologist Anelle Naudé-Lester. "Without insight into the changes within ourselves, our contexts and each other, the connection will become less meaningful, serve less purpose and will eventually become silent. The challenge is to actively look for similarities and connection potential, although life changes happen and will continue to happen."
We ask Naudé-Lester about sustaining a friendship through different stages of life.

Is it possible to stay close to a female friend when one of you undergoes big changes?
As we go through life changes and adjustments, our relationships change too. It's important to remember that friendships should enrich our lives. If not, it might be time to re-evaluate the purpose and significance of the friendship.

It might be helpful to look at a friendship not as a relationship that should and must be meaningful in all areas, but to recognise the role it can play in specific or limited areas of our lives. If your best friend becomes a mother and you are not, look for opportunities to contribute in meaningful ways and adjust your expectations of what the friendship should mean.

To have the same expectations of a friendship that started in high school when you are 30 (now managing a career, or starting a family) would not only be unfair to the friendship, but also very unrealistic. Unrealistic expectations almost always lead to disappointment and unnecessary resentment. As our lives become more complex and diverse, we find it increasingly difficult to have friends that will be able to relate to us on all the different levels of our lives. Although preferable, it would be unrealistic to expect that one friend absolutely must be able to understand and relate to every single aspect of our lives.

Consider that we have different friends who fulfil different roles. To the one you talk about relationships, the other about work, and another about history, etc… one friend cannot possibly fulfil or relate to all aspects of your life and if you expect it to be so, you will probably exhaust your friend to such an extent that she will leave. She is, after all, only one person.

What emotions might you experience when you feel like your friendship is changing?
When faced with change and adjustment we usually react with sadness and anxiety. Sadness about we have already lost and anxiety about what we anticipate loosing. Often it is more the sense of uncertainty that gets to us – not knowing without a doubt that things will be ok, what things will be like and if we will be able to handle changes, creates severe anxiety if we don't learn to manage it properly.

Knowing that uncertainty is the cause of the discomfort can be really helpful. The challenge therefore does not lie in the changes in the other person or the relationship, but in your reaction to the uncertainty about the future of the friendship and the way you think you'll be able to handle it. Talking to your friend about this could go a long way in easing the fears and helping both of you manage the friendship responsibly.

How can one handle a friendship transition and stay close?

  • Talk to your friend about the fears and concerns you have.
  • Don't make demands, rather voice what you believe you have to offer to maintain a meaningful friendship.
  • Look at what you have in common, as well as on the history you share, and focus on building on those aspects, rather than the differences. Ignoring your common ground will only create distance and disconnection.
  • Be prepared to share your friend with the other significant people in her life, without jealousy and resentment.
  • Have realistic expectations about the friendship, knowing that no single friendship can fulfil us on all levels.