One thing that becomes clear as we move through our 20s and 30s is just how easy it is to end up in a very different life stage from our friends. There are real things—big things—that can separate us from each other, like deciding where to live, committing to graduate school, investing in our careers, settling down, and even starting a family. There’s less time to spend with friends, other relationships might take priority, and it can start to feel like we have less in common than we used to and are outgrowing friendships. And while being in a different stage from our friends can be tough for so many reasons, it doesn’t have to signal the end of our friendship.
Here’s how to maintain friendships when you feel like you’re in different places:
1. Remember what brought you together
It probably goes without saying, but remembering why you became friends in the first place goes a long way toward making your friendship last. Talking about the history you have together, like your inside jokes and past experiences, can help you feel close when you’re in different places and might not be able to see each other as often as you’d like. That’s why finding opportunities to reminisce, laugh, and even cringe about old stories and memories is so important!
2. Make time for new memories
It’s always fun to remember the past, but any relationship, including a friendship, won’t last unless you set aside time to make new memories. Trying out a new hobby or activity together is a great way to stay up-to-date on each other’s lives while getting in some much-needed leisure time. Being spontaneous probably won’t work as well as it used to, so planning ahead helps make sure that your time together doesn’t get sidelined by other commitments or responsibilities.
Be vulnerable. Talk about your struggles, celebrate your successes, and share your hopes for the future. Authenticity will bridge the gap between your different situations in life.
Of course, making new memories isn’t just about doing things together, although that certainly helps. It’s also about having meaningful conversations that bring you closer together. Social media definitely makes it easier to stay in touch (especially when you can’t be there in person), but it also makes it harder to have real conversations and is not always a substitute for quality time.
Regardless of whether you’re able to catch up in person or over the phone, focus on having conversations about what’s really going on in your life. Be vulnerable. Talk about your struggles, celebrate your successes, and share your hopes for the future. This kind of authenticity will help you better understand what the other person is going through and bridge the gap between your different situations in life.
3. Label your limits
Finding time to connect isn’t the only issue. There are plenty of other obstacles that make it difficult to maintain a friendship when you’re in different life stages. Maybe one of you has kids to juggle while the other is balancing regular travel for work. It’s also more than likely that finances will influence the kinds of activities you’re able to do together or even how often you’re able to see each other.
While it helps to be accommodating and flexible, it’s equally important to be upfront about how much you’re realistically able to bend and to be realistic about what you can expect from your friend. Not only is this the starting point for finding solutions or compromises (like outings that are less expensive), it helps avoid misunderstandings or conflicts (like a friend assuming you don’t want to see them when you turn down dinner plans because finances are tight). It also never hurts to take initiative and suggest an idea or alternative that takes your friend’s situation into account. This kind of thoughtfulness is often deeply appreciated especially when one of you makes more or less money than the other.
4. Be prepared to be surprised
When you’re in different life stages, it’s really common to make assumptions about what the other person is going through. The problem is, more often than not, our assumptions end up being wrong. They can also hold us back from dealing with situations and lead to even more distance between friends. Say one of your friends has a tendency to talk at length about her kids whenever you get together. And as much as you love her babies, you find it difficult to get a word in edgewise (and there’s only so much you can contribute on the topics of diaper genies or preschool waitlists). You might worry that she’ll be upset if you (gently) bring up your desire to talk about something (or anything) else. She might be. But she almost might be thrilled to talk about your recent vacation and welcome a bit of an escape! Instead of jumping to conclusions, keep assumptions in check (and check-in with your friends when you’re not totally sure where they stand).
5. Avoid social comparisons
We’ve all compared ourselves to our friends from time to time. But when you’re in a different life stage, it’s possible to get carried away with trying to determine who is doing “better” or who seems further ahead. This is especially true when you’re the friend who feels behind. As uncomfortable and toxic as it can be, jealousy is a completely normal reaction.
However, getting caught up in social comparisons can get in the way of your friendship and take away from the life stage you’re actually going through. Instead of noticing all the ways you feel behind or being overly self-critical, remember that everyone deals with their share of ups and downs. You never really know what someone is struggling with, even a close friend. And you don’t know how challenging an experience (even a positive or welcome one) can be until you’ve gone through it yourself.
Instead of noticing all the ways you feel behind or being overly self-critical, remember that everyone deals with their share of ups and downs. You never really know what someone is struggling with, even a close friend.
6. Change your perspective
If you’re feeling upset about how hard it is to keep a friendship going when you’re in different places, it can help to focus on the advantages of your current life stage. Like having the flexibility to do what you want and the ability to be spontaneous, or feeling grateful for knowing the value of a dollar.
Tweaking your take on the situation as a whole is another option. As hard as it is, going through this can sometimes be helpful, in that it gives you a glimpse of a different life stage. Whether you’re thinking about moving in with your partner, getting married, accepting a promotion, or having a child, watching a friend go through a similar experience can sometimes help you decide whether it’s something you’re ready for.
7. Make new friends (and keep the old!)
Ultimately, it’s really common and (even expected) that friendships will change or drift as we go through transitions in life. And so in addition to adjusting the terms of your old friendship (like what you talk about or the kinds of activities you’re able do together), you might decide to branch out and make new friends who are in a similar stage as you (like single friends, new mom friends, or work friends). Of course, this doesn’t mean you need to give up on your old friendships! It also doesn’t mean that you’ve done something wrong or that you’re being a “bad” friend.
Staying friends when you’re in different life stages or reach milestones at different times isn’t easy. That’s why there’s something really special about those long-term friendships that last with the help of a little renegotiating and a lot of patience and understanding!