Long distance friendships
Long distance friendships

Long distance friendships

Eyeing graduation, a junior asks how to keep friends after school.

September 1 st 2009
Appears in Fall 2009

Dear Ms. Harlan,

I am an undergraduate studying psychology in Washington, DC. I have the delight of being connected in wonderful friendships with several dear people who will be relocating internationally but with whom I want to stay connected as close friends.

Do you know of any insight or resources on how to develop a solid perspective and practice of maintaining long distance friendships? What are healthy expectations and realistic, good ways to stay meaningfully connected? I am praying through these new seasons and trying to understand how to open my heart to adapt and grow in them. Any thoughts would be appreciated.

Heather Dewey

Dear Heather,

You ask about maintaining deep friendships, a commendable desire and one I felt similarly at the end of my college years—my college friends where the first people who really "got" me and appreciated me, and I felt a bazillion times closer to those friends than I felt to my own family. My friends were Christian believers, my family members were non-believers, and my family did not "get" or appreciate me—they saw me as a quirky pain-in-the- butt with some self-righteous overtones.

Back in the ancient days of snail mail and wall phones, it was much easier to lose track of people. I tried my best to be Facebook, to be the "operator" at the centre of the network. I wrote lengthy letters, supplying my myriad phone numbers and travel dates and street addresses. I also worked in college ministry, a job which required me to write fundraising letters, so I created a monthly hand-lettered and illustrated note about my work and my needs. It's not possible for me to have worked any harder at maintaining my circle of friends for the first decade out of college.

And eight years out of college, I "kept" close and intimate friendships with . . . only the college friends (not the close ones) who'd chosen to work in the same workplaces as me. Ten years post-college, after traveling all over the US attending dozens of weddings, sleeping on friends' floors and sending care packages and post cards, I stayed close friends (emphasis on "close") with exactly no one from college.

Here's what I learned: a circle of friends is a finite and time-bound joy. A circle of friends allows you to believe, for a stretch of time, that you can choose your own kin. A circle of friends is like the threshold of heaven, truly, since heaven will be a community. But in truth, in ugly truth, for much of adult life you are essentially alone. In families, too, you are often alone in your worries and frustrations. What I wish someone would've said to me? "Your friends will radically reassess the level of intimacy they can bear to share with someone who lives far away—and they should. People need to be committed where they live. As should you." What I wish someone had said to me? "Let them go, with no obligation to you. See who comes back to you in six months."

I don't know how Facebook and Skype will affect long-distance friendship in the future. I suspect the word "friend" has already been damaged beyond repair, as my "friends" from high school (a.k.a. people who couldn't stand me then, but now find me a curiousity) ask to be let in, let in, let in, perhaps only to find that I really am a quirky pain-in-the-butt with some really-highly-educated self-righteous overtones. Several of my college friends have sent their children my way, when kids are looking for colleges. (I live close to Gordon College in Massachusetts.) Of my small and intense circle of college friends, it's now easiest to connect with people who never expected much of me, nor I of them—it's easiest to connect with people whom I never "set up to disappoint me." My closest friends, the ones who meant the world to me—I think I expected them to remain my kin, forever. That expectation, and the refusal to let those friends go, stunted those friendships and made us all hurt.

What I will tell you about preparing for this transition: "Grieve those friendships now. Say goodbye like you'd say bon voyage to people leaving on a long trip. Expect to never see them again. Cry, and blubber, and cry some more." It takes courage. There is no theory, no set of links, no how-to, no method. Weep. It's over. Very much like a theater production: even if the same set of people gathers in a room later, it will never be the same.

See who comes back to you, over time. Perhaps you will be blessed and find a group of four or five people who stick with you permanently. If you are very, very blessed you will leave your circle with a "best friend, forever," as they say. (This is a miraculous occurrence and should be treated as exceptionally rare, a treasure.) Perhaps, like me, you will find some of those dear ones again after a long absence, and you will be happy to catch up, with many tears, and maybe if you are very, very lucky you will find courage to apologize for any wrongs, later. I have.

If you grieve well, you will find this is your spiritual practice of friendship: see endings and respect them. It's practice. You will lose another group of friends, and another, and another. It's practice for losing people to death, which will happen. Pray. Love. Give all you can while you are present. Grieve. We are but grass, here for a season. When you have close friends, rejoice. When your friends leave, embody hospitality for those who've never had close friends.

Write letters. I love Facebook, for what it does well: it provides a shallow and safe level of connection for people, which makes me happy. But I don't want to trust it any more than I trust "coffee hour conversation" after church. It keeps me in touch in some minimalist kind of way. I can't expect it to feed me in any substantial way.

So I suggest you write letters, and after a few months or years, foist yourself upon people's hospitality. Visit them, wherever they live. Demand that they visit you—playfully. Be a pest, later, and bug the four or five who come back to you. Bug them mercilessly. Have your car break down near them. Get stuck with them. Laugh—but all of this must happen much later, after you expect nothing of them for a very long time.

I assume you will find other folks who offer you books and resource lists about staying close while moving away. I may be the opposite of what you seek, and I may in fact be a lousy friend, and unwise and cynical. I hope I'm wrong, and I hope you will personally prove me wrong by staying close with your friends. Some people do. I've lost more friends than I can keep track of. I'm closer to my family than ever, those people with whom I am actually stuck, whether they like me or not—and, yes, they are still not Christian believers. I found graduation to be the most traumatic event of my life, in many ways, as I shifted from receiving attention to giving my own attention to others. It took me a few years to recover.

In my late twenties, I formed the best friendships of my life, the ones that really stuck with me. By the time I met those friends, I expected them all to leave me—and perhaps that lack of expectation made friendship easier.

I can only hope you don't find this note too harsh. I'm so sorry you can't keep your friends close to you forever.

Denise Frame Harlan

Hey Denise,

I'm sorry for the long delay in writing back. Finals are over, concluding a long junior year. Gearing up for summer was a little more time-intensive than I had anticipated; hence, here I am now, catching up.

Additionally, honestly, this email was really hard to read. It took me a long time to read what I was afraid of hearing. I think in this time between replies, God has taught me about simultaneous engagement and detachment in the Christian walk. From this imperfect process, I reply:

Thank you for being very vulnerable with me in your reply. I hear you on your valiant work to continue to pursue friendships, and I'm definitely sobered by the end of those friendships of which you spoke. I am at a place with a few friends in particular, with whom I'm committed in friendship for as long as God continues our bond. These relationships have been the best in my life, truly gifts through which I've learned an immense amount about myself, God and other people. I wouldn't be the same woman without them and have truly seen "iron sharpening iron" at work in each of our lives.

I think the strongest thing your shared words leave with me is the knowledge that the loss of friendship through natural ebb and flow, relocating, transitioning into marital relationships and so forth, need not be seen as failure. It is instead reflective of the way things are: changing. The teacher of Ecclesiastes offers me the same blend of sting and comfort in his third chapter ode to the seasons of life.

You shared, "Here's what I learned: a circle of friends is a finite and time-bound joy."

I read this line and try to absorb that people I love so deeply may not continue to be a part of my life and I of theirs forever. This ache, even while the friendship is still solid and growing right now, is real. I pondered this and believe that this is a deep reflection of the eternity I am called to. Because I am made in God's image, I long for eternal things. Because I am redeemed for eternal life by God's Son, I connect everything I am to eternity. My relationships are no different. But we are still living in the temporal. This paradox I believe is what I struggle with. It's so hard to think that relationships that are so good and meaningful to me now could give way to relationships in the future that are also good—just different.

Another thing that has come in thinking carefully through these relationships and considering your generous words is recognizing that it is neither I nor my beloved friends who are the source of these bonds. Friendship is a gift, and God began the bonds I share with each of them. I err when I try to take control of them. And in this incorrect perspective, I find myself quickly jealous, discontent and frustrated at the loss of how things were. By giving love that is only pure and selfless, without regard to reciprocation, I leave the results in God's hands, and trust Him carefully and lovingly with those I love. When I begin to try to elicit proof from friends that they still want to be in deep, committed friendship with me, I have left the original vision for the friendship, that is, one bonded by the Lord.

You shared:

What I will tell you about preparing for this transition: "Grieve those friendships now. Say goodbye like you'd say bon voyage to people leaving on a long trip. Expect to never see them again. Cry, and blubber, and cry some more." It takes courage. There is no theory, no set of links, no how-to, no method. Weep. It's over. Very much like a theater production: even if the same set of people gathers in a room later, it will never be the same.

I found this beautiful and helpful to love my friends right now, while our friendships still continue to grow stronger. It also reminded me that friendship is not about how skillful or intentional I am in being a good friend. Faithfulness, loyalty, caring specifically for the other, serving them, having fun with them, weeping with them, excellent gift-giving these are good. They are the result and practice of deep love. I will take this to heart, mourning what has been, experiencing this sadness fully and then detaching from it, trusting the promises of our Father beyond what feels awful. Thank you so much for this insight.

I wonder, Denise, if there is something else here too. What about David and Jonathan? They were devoted to each other wholeheartedly, from David's complete trust in Jonathan to Jonathan's willingness to even lay down his crown. I wonder at the discernment of friends, to know the delicate timing of when their commitment in a covenant of friendship means to pursue intentionally and fight the distance, and when it requires the release of regular communication and mutual involvement, submitting to the distance. I think that my generation has a deep misunderstanding of love and right relationships, as many (not all, of course) cultivate a deep disconnect from the reality of sin and therefore the reality of God's grace. Is the fact that relationships include connecting and disconnecting honouring to God? Or is it something that grieves Him too?

In closing, thank you again for your generosity and vulnerability in sharing your thoughts and experiences with me. They have encouraged me and stung me and invited me to think carefully and very deeply of the right perspective to have on the upcoming seasons in relationships I hold dear. And you have spurred me to consider these things all at the foot of the cross—the perfect context. I end thinking of how Jesus devoted years of friendship to twelve men and then left them with everything they needed to bring liberty to the world. Because of his example of friendship, I know him. And he too was able to leave, knowing that they needed who was coming: the Holy Spirit.

I do not need to prove you wrong, I've determined. I think, instead, I'll remember your words and experiences, even the heartbreak, and follow Jesus, clinging ever more tightly because I do not know what is coming, but I know that he does. And we are friends.

All the best,
Heather Dewey

Dear Heather,

I'm so delighted you wrote back so thoughtfully, in the midst of a busy season and a big transition! You catch me sitting in my friend Ellen's house—she just left on her honeymoon, near her 46th birthday, after her first real dating relationship. Ellen was the maid of honour in my wedding eighteen years ago, and when people at Ellen's wedding asked how I knew her, I realized Ellen and I only lived near each other for perhaps six months of our lives, twenty years ago, and most years we only speak two or three times by phone. I wish we could be closer— but here I am, as close as I can be, for now. In this new occasion in her life, we might make more opportunities to talk—it's a big year, and we may find more overlap of our experiences.

As I wrote to Comment's Dan Postma about his suggestion for an article, I mentioned the parable of the Prodigal Son. I acted the part of the older brother when my college friends dispersed—I tried so hard to do everything right, to make them stay connected, to hold them tightly. I didn't want to face the heartbreak of losing them, so instead I may have inspired guilt, all around. So I wanted to say: be the welcoming father who lets go, and then lifts his skirts and runs, or be the desperate son who's all but given up. As Christians it's so very easy to be the older brother who thinks right and does everything right, and who ends up resentful and unfulfilled.

My son just played Jonathan in a school production of the story of David and Goliath, and I've been thinking of that friendship story, too. I think you've found the challenge: to be selfgiving, like Jonathan, without clinging to an identity of always doing the right thing, always making things work out.

I trust you will find the way to be faithful, to be mature, to be gracious, to know what to keep and what to let go.

It's great to meet you by mail, and I hope to meet you in person sometime as well. May God bless and keep you and make you to thrive.


Heather Dewey
Heather Dewey

Heather Dewey is studying psychology and Spanish at American University in Washington, DC, and aims to pursue graduate study in Social Work and serve as a counselor in the United States. She hopes to leverage her gifts and passion to bring restoration to many victims of trauma.

Denise Frame Harlan
Denise Frame Harlan

Originally from Farmland, Indiana, Denise Frame Harlan now writes from the Atlantic coast, north of Boston. She teaches at Gordon College and guides tours with Exploritas New England.


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