Where Did Your Friends Go? They May Have a Half-Life

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Ten seasons is a lot, but it's not forever...

“Every seven years you lose around half of your friends, and replace them with new friends.”

These words appeared on my Twitter feed one day last month. They stayed with me for several days as I went about my business. The idea of a half-life of friendships sounded so wrong to me.

Then I thought about who my closest friends are now, compared to who they were the last time I was pregnant, then to the smiling faces in my wedding album and those with me on college graduation day. You should try it. It’s a trip. And you realize how true this statement really is. I even found a study by the Dutch sociologist Gerald Mollenhorst that confirms the idea.

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I thought about some of those “lost” friends, now proudly showing off their babies and vacation photos in my Facebook feed, but whom I never see or have conversations with. Then there are the friends who have already become distant memories. There are some friends I let go of, and some who let go of me.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Every friend has watered my soul.[/pullquote]

I found myself judging myself. Even in my forties, I enjoy getting to know new people and building special relationships with them, which invariably means having less time for existing friends. When I was in my twenties, my family was going through a rough period and I de-prioritized fun with friends. I did, however, prioritize my boyfriend at the time, who ended up becoming my husband. In my thirties, I added a demanding career and starting my own family to the mix, and left myself very little time to enjoy friendships. I have always had some amount of anxiety about not having time for the friends I love. Whatever the reason, this quote got me wondering whether I have fought hard enough for my friendships. I felt that I should have fought harder.

In an episode of the podcast Dear Sugar on troubled friendship, co-host Steve Almond quotes a book called We Learn Nothing by Tim Kreider that illuminates what makes friendship at times difficult to maintain or even talk about when compared to other relationships, such as with your spouse, children, parents or even your colleagues: “The same thing that makes friendship so valuable is what also makes it so tenuous. It is purely voluntary. You enter it freely without the imperatives of biology or desire. Officially, you owe each other nothing.”

best friends necklaceIn her post, “Steinbeck and the Difficult Art of the Friend Breakup,” Maria Popova of the blog Brain Pickings writes about how the literary giant John Steinbeck ended an important friendship because his former friend was jealous and disloyal. Popova writes: “What happens when a friendship ceases to magnify your spirit and instead demands that you be a smaller version of yourself?” I’m sure we have all experienced this at least once in our lives—a friendship that becomes more of a burden than a blessing, more of a stressor than a pleasure.

With these thoughts swirling in my head on one long subway ride, I actually wrote down names of whom I considered my best friends, in 7-year increments, mapping out my life to date in 7-year increments. It was a neat, if not mind-blowing, exercise.

The fact is, seeing the names of my closest friends at 42, 35, 28, 21, 14, and 7, fills me with joy and gratitude. I found myself thinking long and hard about each of the names and faces that came up that I no longer see. I am sure of the fact that those are the people I needed at that time, and for whatever reason, life has worked out in a way that left me with the friends that I was able to keep close, and help me make new ones. And I realize how important all those people are to me still, whether I see them or not, all the experiences I’ve had with them, good and bad, have all been integrated into who I am now. And I realize it’s okay that we have lost touch or drifted.

Marcel Proust said: “Let us be grateful to people who make us happy, they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.” Each one of these friends watered my soul.

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I think I’m going to find some of these people and send them a note. I bet several of them are already on my Facebook. Maybe some of those notes will yield some phone calls, or even a visit. Maybe some of them will become new friends all over again—but probably not. I just hope that at some point, I served them as well as they served me.

I will also turn to the people who are there for me now, today. And I will take a long, grateful look at those few who stayed with me way past their 7-year half-life. I will be there for them too. And I will no longer judge myself for the friends I lost. After all, some turnover, in anything, is indeed normal and healthy.

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Caroline Kim Oh
Caroline Kim Oh is an executive coach to nonprofit leaders. She dove right into the nonprofit world after college and spent twelve years running and growing iMentor in New York City prior to coaching. Frequent speaker and advisor on a variety of nonprofit management issues, she’s also a cheerleader for all who experiment to find and tweak the optimal work-life-happiness mix. Find her on LinkedIn and on Twitter, or send her an email.