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Walking with a friend in darkness is better than walking alone in the light.

- Helen Keller

THE START

The advice column about staying close to friends started innocently enough. A woman wrote in, asking what to do about a rocky friendship. She and her former college roommate had a great relationship when they saw each other, but lately, that wasn’t very often. It took weeks of texting and voicemails just to find a time to get together, and when they arranged something, the other friend always had a crisis come up at the last minute. The last time around, they arranged to meet at a museum. The woman writing in showed up on time, only to receive multiple texts from her friend about her current calamity. Friend B showed up two hours late, by which time Friend A was “hangry and over it.” (WordPress does not like the word hangry. I love it. Anger and hunger mixed together until you really don’t know which one is more pressing.)

The advice guru’s response began with sympathy. “…Like you, I’m generally a punctual, reliable, organized, plan-making type of gal. And if the world were full of people like us, it might get pretty boring.” She continued that it’s hard to find good friends, and the questioner needed to lower her expectations. “Some people’s lives are genuinely more complicated, and frankly, tougher, than others.” She then went on to the psychoanalytical: “You aren’t going to recapture the closeness and spontaneous chill sessions you had in college – maybe underneath it all, this is what is really upsetting you?” She advised the woman to stop finding fault and enjoy the time she did get to spend with her friend. “Don’t make plans with her that are super dependent on timeliness and assume there is always a possibility that they will fall through…You might find you relax and remember that she’s worth it.”

I read this on the wrong day, I think. All her advice said to me was, “You’re boring and needy, and you should be glad anyone deigns to spend time with you. Ever.”

I don’t think that’s what the author meant to say, exactly.

I understand the concept of changing your expectations, because you aren’t going to change someone else’s behavior. That said, I couldn’t help thinking, “And yet, spending two hours waiting for someone shouldn’t be the norm.” (Besides, how do you make plans that aren’t “super dependent on timeliness”? I guess you could leave a non-threatening message that says, “I’ll be home all week, just waiting, in case you want to drop by.” Because that wouldn’t be creepy or desperate at all.)

She definitely lost me, though, at the “some people’s lives are genuinely more complicated” section. That’s a dangerous rabbit hole to fall into. Everyone’s life is difficult in some way. Competing to see whose problems suck more serves no purpose.

Because Zoe, in her feline wisdom, was giving me no sympathy about this, I decided to cut the columnist some slack. She only had two inches to answer the question, and it deserves a more intricate response. How do you maintain relationships with anyone when both your lives have changed radically from where you started, and are still changing, all the time?

THE PROCESS

My biggest problem here was objectivity. I’ve had many of my friends for decades, and I’d love to think that happened because I am the world’s most awesome friend. Truth is, I know a lot of very forgiving people. I also found that any advice I had to give came from my point of view, i.e. single person without kids. While I have a good life and I believe the perspective is valid, it’s only my angle.

I began with emails to friends. Some of these people I’ve known most of my life. (To keep myself from bodily harm, I’ll leave out the exact number of years.) Some have come into my life in the last year or two. Some are single, some are married. Some have kids and some don’t. Some work at home, helping children become mature adults, and some work in offices, pretending adults are mature. Some have comfortable incomes and some are just getting by. Some have cats and some have dogs and some have allergies. I asked them all the same two questions.

1. In order to stay friends with your buddies in different life situations, what do you need most from them?
2. What’s the biggest concession (or most difficult adjustment) you make for friends in different situations?
 

Nearly all of them answered. Some wrote their answers and at least one (thank you, Rhonda) left me a message saying we needed to talk, it was too big a topic for email. I ended up having really wonderful conversations with so many of my friends. They had a lot to say, and mixed in there was some very good advice.

Every different variation of lifestyle comes with its own challenges, and even in a given demographic, no two households are exactly alike. This is part of the problem. We want to communicate with each other, but opening our minds to understand someone else’s different circumstances takes effort. Some people, I have found, just don’t bother. Instead, they adjust their friends at different stages in their lives. When they’re single, all their friends are, too. When they get married, they suddenly surround themselves with other couples. When they have kids, well, it’s time to start weeding out the people who don’t reproduce.

It’s a way to go, certainly, but I think it robs you of deeper friendships and a deeper understanding of humanity – including yourself.

THE FINDINGS

What does it take to keep friendship going and thriving?

“Flexibility”
This came from Jynae, but I heard echoes of it all over. The married/kids crowd said it most. The more responsibilities you have – especially the ones that take the form of people – the more things will pop up in your life at the last minute. Rhonda, a single mom with two boys, put it succinctly: “When you have kids, your schedule is not your own.” These things make setting aside time with friends difficult. Try not to take it personally, and remember that in all likelihood, you’re not the only one they’re putting on the back burner. Many of us rush to judgment and anger. They’re avoiding me. What did I do? Holly, who has two boys, put it well. “It can be so easy to wonder why I haven’t heard from so-and-so in a while, and the answer may have nothing to do with me personally.”

Holly and me, age 14

Holly and me, age 14. We’d been friends for seven years already, and back then, I thought that was a long time.

Holly and me, all grown up. I think we improved with age.

Holly and me, all grown up. Thirty years of friendship.

“Honesty”

This came directly from Holly and Tracie. I got the same feeling from others, in less direct wording. This was big in the single/no kids area. It reminds me of an audition that I had, years back when I was still auditioning. I sang my sixteen bars, and then waited three hours to read one line in a group scene. As honestly as I can evaluate it, there was nothing wrong with my audition. The casting folks just had something in mind that wasn’t me. For the first time, I wished they had told me that after I sang, before I sat on a really uncomfortable chair for three hours. It had never occurred to me before that the “thanks, but no thanks” I so dreaded could actually be a kindness.

Tracie and me. Thirteen years of friendship. And yes, we've been mistaken for each other.

Tracie and me. Thirteen years of friendship. And yes, we’ve been mistaken for each other.

I think this is where the advice column had a big hole. What the woman writing the letter really needed from in her friend, in my judgment, was honesty. Sometimes you just have to say, “It seems like you’re really too busy to get together right now. How about we touch base in a few months and see if things are better then?” It’s possible that things will have calmed down, or that your friend may have learned to juggle the craziness better. In the meantime, the honest admission that your friend can’t pull it together for the next couple of months is kinder than promises to meet that will only get broken.

When I suggested this, a couple of friends pointed out that their loved ones would freak out, immediately taking this as “I’m so mad that you can’t get together, I don’t even want to talk to you and I’m probably going to cut you out of my life.” If you suspect someone will take it that way, I suggest you say the phrase to yourself, sometime when the other person can’t actually hear you. Then act as though you have both agreed.

The big thing, in order to make this strategy work, is to follow Holly’s advice above: Don’t take it personally. Don’t blame them for not being a good enough friend. Don’t blame yourself for not being funny/smart/kind/zany enough to keep their interest. Tell yourself that it’s a timing issue, and it will work itself out. Then go call another friend, and line up something fun to do.

Friendship is awesome that way. Sure, there’s probably less great sex involved than with romance, (unless you have some very interesting friendships), but you’re allowed to have MORE THAN ONE. During the recent World Series, in which my beloved San Francisco Giants played (and won, just in case you missed it) I watched the three weekend games in different places, with different people. Jynae is great fun to watch baseball with – her dad trained her from birth to love the game, she played softball in school, and she’s remarkably tolerant for a Dodger fan. Plus, she’s known me for most of my life, so it’s virtually impossible to embarrass myself in front of her. (Not that I don’t try.) Kristian is from Northern California, too, so he’s partial to the Giants, and he tells witty stories in between plays about Ikea furniture disasters and Manchester United games where he sat two rows behind David Beckham’s dad. Scott played baseball, makes a mean guacamole, and is willing to root for the Giants despite the fact that his heart belongs to the Boston Red Sox. This is partly because he logged some years in Northern California and partly because he’s a sports slut. If it involves a ball, puck or people moving fast, he’ll watch. The important thing is, I could mourn Friday’s game with Jynae and celebrate Saturday’s with Kristian, knowing that come Sunday, there was very little chance I’d find Scott drumming his fingers on the arm of the chair, waiting for an explanation as to what I thought I was doing watching baseball games with someone else. (Zoe, on the other hand, did demand to know why I came home smelling like Scott’s dog, Stella. How to stay on the good side of a cat is a topic for another blog.)

Kristian and me. Eighteen years of friendship.

Kristian and me. Eighteen years of friendship. We got paired up at acting school because someone thought both our voices sounded old.

“Kindness”
This came from Diana and K.D. (The Kimberly who is not me, but K.D. is less confusing.) It struck a chord with me. When your life finally slows down a bit and you have the time, who’s the first person you’re going to call? Probably the person who will greet your reappearance with the most kindness (and the least drama). “Hey, it’s nice to hear from you! How are you?” is a lot easier to deal with than, “Well, finally, you got around to calling me back. To what do I owe this honor?” Okay, maybe this person put you on the bottom of the priority list for awhile, but it’s worth remembering that you don’t know what was at the top, or why. Try to find the pleasure in reconnecting with them, and go from there. (I’m giving this advice to myself as much as anyone else. Sometimes it’s really hard to follow.)

“Perspective”
This is my own addition to the list. I find I can be the best kind of friend when I keep my eye on the big picture. As the one without a spouse or kids, my time is usually more flexible. I try to understand the fact that with parental-type friends, I will usually be the one going to them.

That said, perspective works in many ways. I may do more accommodating, but that doesn’t mean I should be doing all of it. Me going to you twice, even three times as often as you come to me? I can handle that. If the ratio is more like 10:1, something is off. Perspective means realizing when you need to give, and when you might be giving too much.

“Compassion” 
Variants of this came from too many people to name. As we discussed earlier, nobody’s life is easy. I have a couple of friends who seem to have it made. Good marriages, great kids, lovely homes, everyone’s healthy, enough money to get by or even get ahead. Listen closely when they talk, though, and you hear the reality. They have their problems, just like everyone does, and if I had the chance to trade lives with them, I probably wouldn’t.

The advice columnist said that some people’s lives are tougher than others. This is probably true, but none of us has the omniscience to make that call. Don’t waste your time trying to figure out which people those are. Assume everyone has a tough road, and you’ll probably be fine. Have compassion for everyone, including yourself.

“Time”
Jynae said it best. After lobbying for flexibility, she added, “You do have to make some time for your friends if you expect to keep them.”

Counselors talk about it a lot for marriages, but it goes for all relationships. You have to put in the time. Obviously, not the kind of time you put in with a spouse, but specific, deliberate time all the same. This was where my heart really went out to the woman writing in for advice above. I don’t need my friends to make time for me every day, or every month, for that matter. But when we do finally meet for coffee, I expect them to make some effort to set other things aside, just for that hour or two. I want to feel like I’m important enough for that. Selfish? Maybe so. But it’s still true.

***
Whew. That was a lot of info. Are you tired? I’m kind of tired. But there is so much more to discuss. In this column, I’ve dealt with general friendship issues. What would happen if we got specific about those life differences? Say, kids/no kids? Career/stay-at-home? Well-off/struggling? Constant traveler/homebody? Dogs/allergies?

Okay, that last one is easy. Meet at a coffee shop.  Pet person: leave the dog at home. Allergy sufferer: even if you secretly can’t stand dogs, recognize that this creature is important to your friend, and be sure to ooh and ah over pictures. It helps the other person to leave their furry friend at home if they feel like you appreciate their buddy in spirit. Problem solved.

But the rest? Let’s tackle them. I’m bringing in my buddy Erika Gardner to help. Aside from offering the married-with-kids point of view, she maintains friendships like no one else I know. She’s still pen pals with a cab driver she met on vacation. She’ll be posting observations on lasting friendships on her blog, too. She might even talk about how to stay friends with your spouse.

Erika and me. Friends since we were ten. Some of those years we lost touch, but we still hoped for good things for each other, even then. Now we're back, better than ever.

Erika and me. Thirty years of friendship. Some of those years we lost touch, but we still hoped for good things for each other, even then. Now we’re back, better than ever.

Oh, and I expect all of you to help. Write in your favorite advice in the comments. Tell me about your oldest friends and how you’ve kept in touch over the years. What works? What’s really been a problem?

Together, we will save the world, one friendship at a time.

Kimberly is blessed to have so many wonderful friends in her life, willing to learn lessons about friendship along with her, and keep working until we all get it right.
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